April 03, 2020 Judicial Division

The Judicial Clerkship Program Celebrates its 20th Anniversary

By Hon. Willie J. Epps, Jr., Jefferson City, MO

The Judicial Clerkship Program (JCP) celebrated its 20th anniversary on February 13-15, 2020, in Austin, Texas, in conjunction with the ABA Midyear Meeting.  JCP is a joint effort of the ABA Council for Diversity in the Educational Pipeline and the ABA Judicial Division (JD).  The purpose of the JCP is to educate law students about the myriad of opportunities for clerkships in courts at every level. 

This year 70 law students, most of whom are minority and first-generation law students, from 15 law schools across the country, participated in this intensive three-day program that gives students the rare opportunity to experience the judicial decision-making process and learn about the working relationship between judges and their law clerks.

About 35 volunteer judges worked closely with the law students during the three-day program.  These judges conducted a panel discussion and answered student questions about clerking, interacted with law students at various informal social events, and assisted the students with a research and writing exercise designed to emulate the clerkship experience. The exercise has officially been named the Hon. Frank Sullivan Research Exercise. Professor Frank Sullivan, Jr., Professor of Practice at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law and a former Justice on the Indiana Supreme Court, is a founder of the JCP and wrote the challenging and interesting exercise for the law students to tackle at the 2020 JCP.

There were activities designed to inform students about how to obtain a judicial clerkship.  More importantly, the JCP afforded the students with an opportunity to interact with judges — trial and appellate, federal and state — from different courts across the United States.

“One thing that we want to always do is demystify this judicial clerk selection process,” said the Honorable J. Michelle Childs, U.S. District Judge, Columbia, SC and JD Chair-Elect. “There are not many people who are generally informed [about the process].”     

Robert Osley Saunooke, President of the National Native American Bar Association, and the Honorable Heather A. Welch, Marion Superior Court, Indianapolis, Indiana, served as the JCP co-chairs.  Judge Welch and Mr. Saunooke lead a Committee made up of members from each of the six JD conferences to prepare and present the JCP during the ABA Midyear Meeting.

Jack L. Rives, ABA Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, told the law students, “among professions in this country, the legal profession is probably the least diverse. Only about fifteen percent of the legal profession [is comprised] of minorities, people of color.”  He told the students that he hoped programs like JCP would increase diversity in the profession.

ABA President-Elect Patricia Lee Refo reported that on her “first day of law school there had never been a woman on the Supreme Court.  There had never been a woman president of the American Bar Association. There had never been a person of color president of the American Bar Association. That was just in my career and contrary to popular opinion I am not 140 years old.”  She challenged the 70 future lawyers to “look at the incredible progress that has been made already and let that inform us as we consider and address all the things that remain to be done in the context of diversity.”

Judge Welch said she is hopeful that the JCP would “incentivize [law students] to become law clerks, but then ultimately to consider a career as a judge.”  

Hon. Willie J. Epps, Jr

U.S. Magistrate Judge, Jefferson City, MO