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July 01, 2022 Feature

Want to Be a Federal Court Law Clerk? Meet OSCAR!

By Judge Frank J. Bailey (Ret.)

The best part of my judicial career has been the opportunity to work with new lawyers and law students as either law clerks or interns. Nothing is more exciting than seeing a newly minted lawyer or law student come to an understanding of how our American system of justice works. Oh, and the creativity and dedication from law clerks and interns make our jobs easier and more fun and rewarding. But how do we find highly motivated and qualified law students? And how do we ensure that we are using a fair process calculated to generate a diverse (in every sense of the word) applicant pool? And finally, without a staff devoted to keeping us organized, how do we keep track of the applicants, the materials they send us, and their progress in the hiring process?

In the federal courts, we are blessed to have access to the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review, better known as OSCAR. OSCAR is a web-based system for federal law clerk and appellate staff attorney recruitment. OSCAR’s extensive features allow users to easily manage every aspect of the hiring process. Using OSCAR, law students and law graduates can easily apply for federal clerkships. But OSCAR does not stop there. The OSCAR system includes not only the usual chambers staff opportunities such as clerking for an individual judge or a group of judges but also other less-well-known clerkship and staff attorney opportunities in the federal system, such as pro se law clerks, death penalty law clerks, and bankruptcy appellate panel law clerks. There are also exciting opportunities for legal staff positions at the various circuit courts, many of which are career positions not limited to one- or two-year terms. All of these jobs are presented and managed on the OSCAR platform. Through OSCAR, law school administrators and recommenders can help students, graduates, and legal professionals advance their careers; and judges, chambers staff, and staff attorney offices can find the candidates most suited to their needs. OSCAR also serves as an information portal for applicants and law schools to research judges’, courts’, and staff attorney offices’ hiring practices, preferences, and timelines.

I should note that OSCAR is not the exclusive method for the recruitment of legal staff and law clerks and for the management of their applications. Judges are free to find and manage law clerk applicants in any way that works for them, including the “old-fashioned” receipt of applications in the mail or even word of mouth. Some judges and courts prefer to use a combination of methods, of which OSCAR is only a part. But I have found OSCAR to be the easiest and most equitable way for me to find qualified applicants.

The OSCAR Working Group

Why am I such an OSCAR fan? The Administrative Office of the United States Courts (AO) manages the OSCAR program through a talented and resourceful dedicated staff known as the OSCAR Program Office. The OSCAR Program Office creates and provides accounts for federal judges, staff attorney offices, court staff, law schools, and recommenders. The office also provides active and timely help to all users. As a resource and sounding board, the AO has also established the OSCAR Working Group of federal judges and law school representatives who provide recommendations to the AO on OSCAR program policies, system enhancements, and law clerk–hiring best practices. I have had the privilege of serving on the OSCAR Working Group for several years. The Working Group includes Article III and Article I federal judges, all of whom hire law clerks. Circuit and district court representatives who hire staff attorneys are also included. The law school representatives include law placement office, career services, and law school administration professionals, including those from the dean’s office staff. The law school representatives are critical to the value of the Working Group because they provide insights to ensure the group is informed about law school and law student users, including faculty members.

Diversity Initiatives and OSCAR

How do the federal judges strive to ensure a diverse population of applicants? The answer is: many ways. OSCAR has been front and center in this effort. In recent years, the federal courts have been dedicated to ensuring all law students and lawyers have an equal opportunity to apply for these highly sought-after positions. Indeed, a federal clerkship can change a law student’s entire career. We recognize that law students from disadvantaged backgrounds might not appreciate the value of a federal (or state) clerkship when they first arrive at law school. Some students need more time in the legal education process to understand what law clerks do and why working closely with a judge can be transformative to their career path.

In the highly competitive market for the best law students, it has been reported that some judges make hiring decisions as soon as when students finish one year of law school. Of course, some law students are just not ready to apply that early. Through OSCAR, the federal judiciary now encourages judges, law school placement officers, career development professionals, law professors, and all participants in the clerkship-hiring process to consider only students with two full years of law school grades under their belts. Under the so-called protocol, all participants agree to ensure a student has four semesters of grades before permitting students to apply for these coveted positions. Thus, only law school graduates or students with two years of grades can actively access an OSCAR account. They can open an account earlier so they can learn how to navigate the OSCAR platform, but they cannot apply for positions. This should help level the playing field between students with a sophisticated understanding of how to progress in a legal career and those with a lesser understanding.

The Mechanics of OSCAR

How does OSCAR work? Judges maintain an online profile for informing applicants about hiring practices and timelines. Judges (or other offices hiring legal professionals) post open positions with fulsome descriptions of what the judge or office expects of the applicant. By the posting, they then communicate with applicants and law schools to advertise vacancies. Next, they accept online applications with all the materials to aid in the hiring decision. Through OSCAR, law schools are able to stay informed of openings and recruitment practices so they in turn are able to assist applicants and faculty recommenders on law clerk and staff attorney recruitment. Schools are able to upload faculty recommendation letters to expedite the application process and utilize unique reports to track and manage applicants, recommenders, and hiring data. Applicants are able to search for clerkship and staff attorney positions that fit their specific career goals as well as research judges to understand their hiring practices and schedules. Applicants are additionally able to create and submit applications and generate and monitor electronic requests for recommendation letters, transcripts, cover letters, writing samples, and other materials with ease. With OSCAR, all these resources are present in one electronic location.

The Nightmare of Recommendation Letters

As I am certain many readers will agree, providing recommendations for law students can be a nightmare. Recommenders, of course, want to be as helpful as possible. But they are often asked to provide recommendations for many students to many judges with many different deadlines. Recommenders also need to keep track of what they have already reported about a student. Students identify a recommender on OSCAR and then the recommender receives an email from OSCAR notifying them of the request. A very useful attribute of OSCAR allows recommenders to create and maintain a recommendation template, which can be edited to emphasize the needs of the particular judge and the possible developing experience they have had with the applicant. Through OSCAR, they can keep track of the positions for which the student has applied, save the recommendation template, and keep an eye on scheduled due dates for recommendations. Recommenders can easily submit confidential letters of recommendation for applicants that automatically update for each judge or staff attorney office to which the applicant applies.

OSCAR (and Hiring) Best Practices

The OSCAR Program Office is dedicated to making the online hiring process as effective as it is user friendly. To achieve those goals, the office has developed a series of best practices, many of which apply both within and outside the OSCAR environment. These practices may well inform the reader what one thoughtful and experienced group suggests in the law clerk–hiring process regardless of whether they have OSCAR access or not:

  • Develop a transparent recruitment process by maintaining an online judge profile identifying hiring practices and preferences. This approach levels the playing field for all potential applicants while simplifying the process for the judge’s chambers.
  • Consider coordinating hiring activities and efficiencies with all judges in your court. For example, set court-wide deadlines, application content requirements, and interview dates.
  • Disclose interview dates in each judge profile so that applicants can plan for and schedule the interviews and any required travel.
  • Even after the pandemic subsides, use videoconferencing or electronic face-to-face interviews in lieu of in-person interviews when feasible. Judges may wish to consult with their clerks of court regarding the videoconferencing process and cost. Of course, Zoom and other virtual platforms make this easier than ever. This process reduces the cost and burden on applicants. Critical to this approach, however, is ensuring that current law clerks and court staff are also available to participate.
  • Inform applicants of chambers or court policies or practices regarding the procedures for accepting an offer. Do not require immediate acceptance of an offer. Allow the applicant at least 48 hours to weigh an offer against other actual or potential offers. This policy does not prohibit an applicant from accepting an offer on the spot (like I did in 1980!). Also, the judge must consider the policies that some law schools have about accepting offers from judges. (Note: Some schools require that a student accept the first offer of a clerkship to avoid confusion with other applicants from the same law school. Remember, though, the judge need not require the applicant to adhere to this restriction—you can be more flexible.)
  • Consider visiting law schools with a minority student population to share recruitment practices and insights about the law clerk–hiring process. These visits may encourage more minority law students to pursue federal clerkships and further the judiciary’s goal of reflecting the communities it serves.

Transparency in Describing the Job of Law Clerk in Your Chambers

The duties and functions of a federal (or state) judicial law clerk can vary widely. In the end, it is the employing judge who determines a judicial clerk’s duties. The broad range of duties assigned to a law clerk may include conducting legal research, preparing bench memos, drafting orders and opinions, proofreading the judge’s orders and opinions, verifying citations, communicating with counsel regarding case management and procedural requirements, and assisting the judge during courtroom proceedings. Some judges also may ask clerks to maintain the chamber’s library and undertake other administrative duties. Because there are myriad tasks to assign a law clerk, OSCAR permits a judge to identify in the position announcement any particular duties that are required, which, again, is a good practice in any law clerk– or staff attorney–hiring process.

All judges should be sure to highlight the unique aspects of their use of law clerks. I always bring a law clerk to court with me. That is mutually beneficial, of course. But I also ask my clerks to assist in the preparation of materials for court-sponsored programs and to coordinate my activities at our local rules committee and other court-sponsored committees, such as the pro bono and diversity committees. I also always offer my clerks the opportunity to attend bar functions with me. This is important for them to gain an appreciation for the benefits of bar membership and participation. Finally, I encourage my clerks to participate in regular lunches and gatherings with the other law clerks in our court. Again, there are mutual benefits from these activities. I am sure to mention all these tasks and opportunities in both the OSCAR listing and the interview process.

Judicial law clerks are also expected to work cooperatively with chambers staff and court personnel. The employing judge must be confident in the law clerk’s professionalism when interacting with staff, counsel, litigants, and the public. A federal law clerk is bound by the ethical standards established by the judge and the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees. The Federal Judicial Center publishes Maintaining the Public Trust: Ethics for Federal Judicial Law Clerks, which discusses ethical issues and appropriate ethical standards. I am sure to highlight these issues in my OSCAR listing and in the interview process.

Training and NextGen OSCAR

With the COVID-19 pandemic, online hiring tools have proven especially valuable. With OSCAR, many judges used the system to advertise their law clerk–hiring preferences and interview methods, post positions, accept online applications, and send emails to their applicant pool. For specific jobs, OSCAR’s search features give judges the capability to search the applicant pool for applicants with specialized experience in, for example, bankruptcy. During the recruitment process, the judge can send bulk emails to inform all applicants when a position has been filled; can send notices to particular applicants if, for example, the judge requires updates to their applications; or can arrange online interviews with applicants.

In 2020 and 2021, the OSCAR Program Office released the NextGen OSCAR program. The system has a brand-new look, a mobile-friendly user interface (for access on phones and tablets), and more intuitive functionality to help match the right law clerk with the right judge. New and improved features include simpler account management, more advanced search filters, improved system alerts and notifications, and new tagging features.

Other enhancements for judicial users include:

  • A simplified dashboard that displays notifications and account information.
  • Two preset options for hiring practices.
  • New chambers staff account user roles for better account management.
  • A simplified four-step process for posting positions.
  • Enhanced viewing options for the applicant.
  • More flexibility in selecting term lengths for law clerks.
  • A feature that allows the judge to save a draft when creating a law clerk position posting.
  • Streamlined search filters.
  • A centralized view of applicant details.
  • New tagging features to organize applicants.

Finally, the OSCAR Program Office also supports extensive training for judges and chambers staff. The office holds training sessions in the form of webinars and produces videos. But the best form of training is one-on-one training sessions. In these sessions, the judge and chambers staff can learn at their own pace and receive assistance on the functions that the judge deems most important. After all, we are lawyers, not techies!


The OSCAR system provides a valuable resource to federal judges and courts. It makes the law clerk– and staff attorney–hiring process easier and more fair. Perhaps some of the larger state court systems would benefit from an online law clerk– and staff attorney–hiring platform.

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By Judge Frank J. Bailey (Ret.)

Judge Frank J. Bailey (Ret.) served as a bankruptcy judge for the District of Massachusetts for over 13 years and is now president of PioneerLegal, LLC. He has taught a variety of law courses and is a past president of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges.