The prevailing wisdom is that one should apply to as many clerkships as life will allow. The biggest constraint tends to be geography, largely owing to familial commitments. But geography can also be a key advantage—a hometown or familial tie to a particular region will give an applicant a leg up in the process. (Although this is less true in major metropolitan areas.)
Perhaps the biggest mystery of the application process is when to apply. State courts have always marched to the beat of their own drum and have long had their own hiring timetables. As for federal judges, most had once adhered to the Federal Hiring Plan, under which law students would apply for clerkships at the start of their third year. A few years ago, the Plan collapsed, and we’ve since reverted to the pre-Plan free-for-all; many federal judges will hire their law clerks anywhere from one and one-half years to two years in advance, although it’s never entirely clear when a particular judge will review applications. And there are outliers on both ends—some judges will hire even farther out than two years (college seniors, ready your clerkship applications), and some judges will hire closer to the start date of the clerkship. But alumni applicants (i.e., most readers of this publication) are usually welcome to apply at any time.
There is much debate about what should go in the cover letter. Conventional wisdom says that absent circumstances uniquely connecting you to a particular judge, locale, or subject matter, the clerkship letter should be short and simple. But some judges are unconventional; these judges expect detailed cover letters explaining why an applicant would like to clerk for them. Some judges make this clear in their clerkship postings, others do not.
A stellar resume is usually necessary but not sufficient for most clerkships. Most candidates have impressive grades, law review membership, various honors, and publications under their belt—and this is before graduating from law school. Alumni applicants have the benefit of actual legal practice—whether in the public, nonprofit, or private sectors—and the distinct advantage of listing achievements accomplished in that practice. (In fact, some judges either prefer or hire only alumni applicants.) The key to the resume is to stand out. Too many applicants treat the resume as an opportunity for listing every single legal accomplishment since their first year of law school rather than highlighting and showcasing substantive legal work and accomplishments.
Another great mystery of the process is deciding what kind of writing sample to include. An applicant should always err on the side of substance over procedure; even for trial-level clerkships, a law clerk or judge is likely to look at a briefing for a dispositive motion more favorably than something procedural, such as a motion for a continuance. Applications to appellate clerkships tend to contain academic writing samples, although this is certainly not a requirement. Regardless of what an applicant chooses, the sample should show innovative thinking and effective writing. And once an applicant selects a piece, he or she should follow the golden rule of wordsmithing: There is no such thing as good writing, only good rewriting. To that end, a writing sample should be checked many times over for substance, style, grammar, and plain old typos.
Letters of recommendation are part and parcel of any clerkship application. But applicants must beware of being damned with faint praise; a letter from a law professor, supervisor, or colleague with little to say about the substance of an applicant’s work is worse than no letter at all. If a recommender knows a particular judge or is a well-respected figure in the legal community, an applicant should consider asking the recommender to make a phone call to chambers. When an application is in a stack of thousands, a phone call from a familiar voice may go a long way in persuading a judge to take the application out of the pile.
Of all the components of the clerkship application process, this part may be the most chambers-specific. It is a given that the hiring judge will interview a candidate. Less certain is whether the judge’s law clerks will participate. And there is absolutely no certainty as to the kinds of questions a judge will ask. Some judges may ask personality or interest-based questions; others may ask what an applicant thinks about a recent Supreme Court decision. Established clerkship advising programs will document interview format and questions asked, but not every applicant has access to that type of resource. The best across-the-board advice is this: Be prepared for anything, but ultimately, be yourself. At the interview stage, judges are more interested in fit than ability—chambers are tight quarters, and a year can be a long time with the wrong combination of people.
There is no magic formula for a clerkship—at the end of the day, clerkship hiring is entirely at the discretion of a judge. But these tips should help an applicant navigate the path. At the end of the road lies an incredible experience with an invaluable mentor, and that alone makes the process worthwhile.