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The clerkship conundrum: How to get the job

Leo I Brisbois, Barbara MG Lynn, Judge Margaret B. Seymour, and Josephine Bahn

What are the two most important steps in getting a clerkship? Knowing your audience and proofreading your materials. Seriously, proofread. That’s the advice from members of the Law Student Division and the National Conference of Federal Trial Judges, who recently presented a free webinar to help rising 2Ls and 3Ls succeed at the judicial clerk-ship game.

Magistrate Judge Leo I. Brisbois of the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota; Judge Barbara M. G. Lynn of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and Senior Judge Margaret B. Seymour of the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina offered students the benefit of their formidable experience in a panel discussion moderated by Josephine Bahn, vice chair-SBA of LSD.

The judges’ advice was as varied as their dockets. But there were many issues they all stressed. Your writing sample? They suspect your memo has been highly edited, and they don’t trust it. Your law school organization memberships? Not very interesting, unless you’re a leader and can show you put in the time. Instead, as Brisbois said, “Truly understand the nature of [the] job— the nature of the case load—before you get there.”

One way to do that is by registering for and using OSCAR, the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review. Don’t fire volleys of identical resumes and application materials to 70 different judges. Instead, review the tutorials on the website and use the advanced search functions to target judges you connect with who are working in areas in which you’re interested.

Written dos and don’ts

To rise above hundreds of applications, make sure you:

  • Highlight unusual work experience and your commitment to the community
  • Find someone to recommend you who’s a strong advocate for you and a good writer
  • Remember that your cover letter is also a writing sample; keep it short but informative

Be sure to avoid:

  • Typographical or grammatical errors
  • Putting the wrong judge’s name and address on your documents
  • Providing a recommendation letter from someone who doesn’t know you well

How to interview smartly

The staff, clerks, and the judge work very closely together. It’s essential that you get along with everybody. Be quick on your feet, flexible, and ready with a topic of conversation that’s interesting to you and that you think may be of interest to
the judge.

Clerks have to handle “a lot of moving targets all the time,” noted Lynn. The judges also emphasized that the best clerks show intellectual honesty, self-motivation, a strong work ethic, and intellectual curiosity.

Be prepared to be successful

So you crafted a killer application packet. You impressed everyone at the interview. Once you’ve accepted the judge’s offer of a clerkship, you can deepen your research. It’s likely the job won’t begin for a year or even two.

Use that time to take basic courses that teach to the jurisdiction. Read the judge’s prior opinions. Go to the court and just watch. Invest time in preparing for the clerkship, and your judge will invest in you.