Here’s a bit of background so you can compare your court and your interview processes with mine. I served on the North Carolina appellate bench for 18 years. Each appellate judge or justice was allowed three employees and, like most of my colleagues, I hired a permanent executive assistant and two clerks. The clerks’ two-year terms were staggered so that a clerk served one year as the junior clerk and a second year as the senior clerk with a degree of supervisory authority over the junior clerk (a perquisite some senior clerks enjoyed immensely).
When the time came to begin the search for a new clerk, my first step was to go through the applications and identify those who appeared promising. I’ll digress for a moment to admit that my law school grades were miserable, so when I became a judge, I intended not to rely on law school grades or to require the applicant to have served on a law review. Alas, I found out the hard way that law review experience, with its concomitant training in research and legal writing, was virtually indispensable. While the importance of grades rapidly diminishes as experience accrues, a judge needs clerks who arrive with the fundamental skills that working on a law review provides.
So the applicants who were invited in for an interview were assumed to be qualified for the position. In the interview, I looked for someone who fit in. The interview process had three parts. First, the applicant would arrive to find that I was “tied up” and that they had to spend some time waiting and talking with the executive assistant—a process whose importance was never divined by some candidates. Next, I would have an extended one-on-one conversation with the candidate. Finally, the candidate would meet with the current clerks for a discussion of the chamber’s procedures, the judge’s idiosyncrasies, etc. Afterward, all the members of the chambers would convene to compare notes.
The process seemed to work well enough. However, when I left the bench, I became of counsel at a large law firm where the hiring of associates and laterals is more formalized. While I have not been involved in the firm’s hiring process (at least not since they hired me), I recently attended a training session on interviewing applicants and realized there were a number of ways I could have improved my clerk-hiring procedures. It’s too late for me, but perhaps these tips will resonate with you.
- The “fit in” interview. I suspect this fitness factor is at least in the back of every judge’s mind when interviewing potential clerks, and I see nothing wrong with it. The social life of a judge is, at best, constricted, and having a staff whose company you enjoy and clerks who are comfortable with you is important. However, be mindful that there is a difference between “fitting in personally” and “fitting in professionally.” If the former, and the judge is looking for someone who the judge thinks will be pleasant company at meals and during trips, there’s a risk that the judge is going to pick someone who is remarkably like the judge. We all find ourselves attracted to people who resemble us one way or another. However, if the judge identifies in advance the chamber’s professional personality and looks for candidates who fit that professional profile, there is less risk of falling into the pattern of hiring only those who mirror the judge’s personality and habits.
I’ll add here the importance of first impressions. When you meet the candidate for the first time and are shaking hands, each of you is forming a first impression of the other. Any attorney or judge who has conducted a jury voir dire knows first impressions can be misleading. The longer the interview, the more the first impression fades and is replaced with a more reliable assessment of the candidate.
Also, beware of the “halo effect.” The judge sees something on the candidate’s resume that strikes a chord, such as finding out the judge and the candidate attended the same undergraduate college or played the same sport. Don’t be distracted by a glittery bauble. That factor can take on undue weight in the judge’s mind and overshadow other less rosy factors that should cause concern.
- Be mindful of different interview techniques. For instance, “case” interviews are used to present a candidate with a hypothetical, followed by a request that the candidate analyze the problem during the interview. This process may be time-consuming but can give insights into the candidate’s analytical skills, ability to think on their feet, etc.
- Ask questions that call for concrete answers. If the judge asks the candidate if they are a hard worker, the answer is predictable. Consider asking instead how the candidate defines hard work. Does it mean late nights at the computer? Volunteering to help others? Taking on the most difficult assignments? Ask the candidate to describe a time when they worked particularly hard.
- Similarly, probe for specifics. Ask the candidate for occasions they made decisions that did not work out well and what they learned from the experience. Don’t merely ask the candidate if they can multitask. Ask the candidate to describe a time when they were overloaded and how they triaged the tasks they were dealing with. Ask if they would use that same technique again or if they would try something else. Ask if the candidate has ever had managerial or supervisory authority and, if so, how they exercised it. Have the candidate delve into their past to give you some insight into their future.
- Ask the candidate about their conception of a clerk’s work. I’ll never forget one volunteer law student who joined the chambers to beef up his resume. After a week, he asked the executive assistant if “this is what you people do all day.” Upon receiving an affirmative reply, he fled in disarray and we never saw him again. There are candidates who know that having a clerkship on their resume is a good thing but have no solid notion what judicial clerks do. You want a clerk who knows how to tackle the pile of cases on their desk the first day of work.
- Don’t ask the candidate why they want to be a lawyer unless you’re eager to hear about Atticus Finch and helping others one more time. Ask what experiences led the candidate to law school. Ask what internal resources they relied on to see them through the grind of law school.
- Keep a checklist of questions to ask and topics to cover in every interview. Doing so will keep you from finding yourself distracted by a particularly interesting but time-consuming discussion with the candidate. In addition, a checklist will help guarantee that you treat all those interviewed uniformly.
- It may not be worth spending a lot of time discussing with the candidate their future plans beyond what they would like to do at the conclusion of the clerkship. We all know how hard it is to predict where one’s legal career is going. It’s a valid line of inquiry that can reveal the candidate’s aspirations but is not all that likely to present a realistic road map of that candidate’s future.
- It’s often a waste of time to ask the candidate to assess their own weaknesses. How many times have you heard “I work too hard” or “I care too much”? Instead, ask the candidate to describe a time when they made a mistake. Ask what they learned from the mistake and, if appropriate, how they addressed the mistake.
- One of my colleagues always asked candidates what they liked to read. Because we are all in the business of reading, the answers can take you to unexpected places. This colleague still talks about the candidate who didn’t read books when not at the office.
- Probe the candidate’s willingness to disagree with you. A clerk can be particularly useful if they are comfortable presenting opposing arguments and pointing out weaknesses in your draft opinions. In addition, discuss with the candidate how much clerical pushback is appropriate when there is a disagreement. A time always comes when a judge will make a decision with which the clerk disagrees. Can the clerk swallow their disappointment and faithfully follow the judge’s instructions? At the same time, you need to be aware of your own ability to take criticism or consider different points of view. If you’re a grouchy old judge who doesn’t like to be contradicted, it would be humane to let the candidate know.1
- Social media has done nothing but grow since I left the court. You might ask the candidate if there is anything online that you should know about. At any rate, either you or, if your social media skills are modest, one of your current clerks should consider scouting out whether the candidate has an online presence that could be problematic or embarrassing.
- So far, I’ve been pretty much assuming in-person interviews. One factor that may arise if an interview is virtual is eye contact. If the candidate consistently looks away from the camera, it is valid for you to ask if the candidate is reviewing notes or other off-screen aids. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a candidate doing so, but you’re entitled to know.
The theme of these tips is transparent—generalizations do not tell you much, but questions about particulars can both catch the candidate off guard, leading to candid and revealing answers, and also give you unexpected areas for further inquiry. Give the candidate ample opportunities to present themself as a rounded person. Don’t let yourself be distracted by one alluring aspect of the candidate’s resume. Treat all candidates uniformly. The difficult fact of life is that, in hiring a clerk, a judge doesn’t really know what they have got until the clerk has been on the job for a while. These techniques may help you avoid unpleasant surprises.
“Captain America!” A Clerk’s Perspective
Justice Edmunds is spot-on about the unique nature of the judge–law clerk relationship. Hiring for these highly coveted positions has become far more competitive than when I made my way through interviews in 2014, in no small part due to the fact that law firms hand out higher and higher signing bonuses each year for the elite few who get selected to work with a judge. This makes the job of selecting a law clerk even more difficult for judges who must weed through applications to find those who are in it for more than just the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
As background, I served as a law clerk to Justice Edmunds for my first two years out of law school, then became a big law associate and am now enjoying in-house life. I’ve been no stranger to interviews both as an interviewee and an interviewer in my time as a clerk and law firm associate and, in that vein, have a few suggestions to add to those mentioned by my esteemed mentor.
- Hiring is a two-way street. There are thousands of state and federal judges across the country, and almost every clerk candidate has applied for positions with a number of them. The top candidates have numerous interviews. A successful interview is, thus, one where both parties are interested in working with each other. Though most law school career services offices often tell candidates that they have to accept the first clerkship offer they get, deciding to move forward with an interview in the first place or pulling an application after an interview are both still options candidates have. A judge offering thoughts as to why a position in your chambers is very helpful for candidates weighing their options. Taking time to make the interview process a good experience for your law clerks is also crucial because word-of-mouth tales about bad experiences spread fast and could dissuade candidates from applying for a position altogether.
- This leads me to a second thought. Law students talk. They talk to each other about how interviews went and talk to career services offices about questions asked. The career services offices often use that feedback to help future candidates prepare for “stock” questions. Justice Edmunds poses an example above of a colleague who asked candidates what they liked to read. At my law school, this question from this judge was common knowledge, and most of us had a well-crafted stock answer to give. This type of rehearsed response is not particularly revealing of anything other than good preparation. Having a few creative “get to know you” questions that you can rotate through is a helpful way to avoid this pitfall.
- A final thought is to be prepared for questions you might be asked in return. I’ve found the best interviews are when both parties come with questions. An important one would be “How do you handle a clerk disagreeing with you?” Justice Edmunds and I often had spirited debates on topics ranging from substance to punctuation. And I believe the substantive debates made our opinions stronger by proactively addressing the areas I may have thought were weaknesses in the draft. But equally important is to gauge how the candidate would handle having to work on opinions with which they disagreed. At the end of the day, the judge is the final decision maker, and a clerk’s responsibility is to run with whatever that decision might be. I worked on cases where I disagreed with the outcome, and knowing when to step back from my own views was a crucial part of my experience. A candidate may be at the top of their class and editor of the law review, but if they are too stubborn to get past their own ideas, they would be unlikely to make a strong clerk.
The relationship between judge and clerk can be so rewarding for both parties that it is well worth the time and effort to make sure it is going to work from the start. We hope these suggestions are useful to you as you begin your next round of interviews. Good luck!
1. This paragraph was supplemented after I sent a draft to Ms. Das so she could add her thoughts. The fact that she also wrote on the importance of discussing how to deal with disagreements suggests that this topic should not go unaddressed during the interview.