- If you are considering applying for a US Supreme Court clerkship, a lawyer who clerked for Justice Elena Kagan offers some tips to help you increase your odds.
The odds of landing a Supreme Court clerkship—or any top-flight federal clerkship—are exceedingly long. The professor who talked me into applying to clerkships in the first place once likened it to getting struck by lightning. Not impossible, but close. But, she emphasized, there are ways to put yourself in lightning’s path.
Seven years after that conversation, I started my third (and presumably final) clerkship, this time for the Supreme Court of the United States. If you are looking to increase your odds of doing the same, here are some lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Wherever you are in your application thought process, it is never too late to strengthen your application for some future term. That means thinking about what your clerkship applications will look like. If you aim for top federal clerkships—up to and including Supreme Court clerkships—you will probably need:
That’s a lot. To tackle it, start early and seek out individualized guidance from as many sources as you can. Those sources may include your law school classmates, professors, and clerkship office, as well as former clerks for the judges or justices to whom you are considering applying. Even kind strangers on Twitter might help—the #AppellateTwitter community can be a great resource.
If you are aiming for a Supreme Court clerkship, your most important advisor and recommender will be the other federal judge(s) for whom you’ve clerked. Success in a Supreme Court application thus requires success in other federal clerkship applications first. Your odds increase, for example, if you first work for a judge known to be a “feeder” (i.e., to have a reputation for sending clerks on to clerk for the Supreme Court). These days, incoming Supreme Court clerks often have clerked for at least two years already (a trend some have criticized). A lucky few spend an additional year completing the prestigious one-year Bristow Fellowship with the Office of the Solicitor General.
For the most part, Supreme Court clerkship applications are similar to other clerkship applications. Each should be as perfect as possible. No typos. No cover letters addressed to the wrong judge or justice. No missing required materials. There are, however, some key differences to keep in mind.
One difference—at least for those who have used the federal judiciary’s “OSCAR” system for online clerkship applications in the past—is that the Supreme Court still requires applications to be submitted by mail. Preparing such physical applications requires more planning and attention to detail. You will likely need to print, package, and ship your applications yourself. You may need to order official transcripts by mail from your law school in advance so that you can include them in your application packets. And your recommenders will need to mail their letters to each justice promptly after your application is submitted. (Some law school clerkship offices might help coordinate these mailings for you.)
Generally, Supreme Court clerkship hopefuls apply to all active justices and any retired justice who is still hiring a law clerk. But hiring timelines vary both justice to justice and year to year. That means there may not be any “best” time to apply. I applied twice to clerk on the Supreme Court, both times in late January or early February. Each time, my applications seemed simultaneously too late and too early, and I doubted whether I had missed some critical, unpublished application window. The second time, though, I ended up with an interview nearly five months after I applied. Results will undoubtedly vary—just set yourself a deadline and get the applications out the door.
As soon as you submit your application, there are things you can do to start preparing yourself for potential interviews. There’s no reason to obsess before you even know if you’ll get one, but if you are looking for something to do in your precious spare time, you can bring yourself up to date on Supreme Court news, oral arguments, and decisions for the current term. You can read key prior decisions in areas that spark your interest. You can even begin reflecting on your own judicial philosophies, achievements, and experiences in preparation for questions about yourself.
If you are lucky enough to secure an interview with a Supreme Court justice, preparation will be essential—and intense. Precisely what that preparation entails will be different for each justice, but you should be ready to face some combination of substantive and personal grilling regardless. Once you know the justice with whom you’ll be interviewing, you should gather as much information as you can about what the interview will be like. For your preparation itself, you should employ whatever techniques have served you well in preparing for interviews, oral arguments, or exams in the past. You might even consider asking friends or colleagues to “moot” you to practice your substantive interview answers.
You may decide that one shot at applying for a Supreme Court clerkship—and enduring the uncertainty inherent in the drawn-out application process—is enough. For those with additional flexibility, however, repeat applications have become somewhat standard. I applied twice—my applications three years apart. If the second time had not worked out, I might have tried again.
The path to a Supreme Court clerkship, if that’s something that interests you, is a long and often winding one. Your credentials, applications, and interview(s) could be perfect, and, still, you might not be in the right place at the right time. All you can do is to put yourself in the best position you can, as early as you can, and hope lightning strikes. Whatever the outcome, you will accumulate a set of experiences and a support system that will serve you well for the rest of your career.