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Clerkships: Application Tips from a Law School Career Counselor

Mishkah Ismail

Clerkships: Application Tips from a Law School Career Counselor

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A clerkship can be among the most formative experiences in a lawyer’s career. But how does one go about applying for and securing such a position, and what should a new clerk expect, both in terms of daily responsibilities and lasting lessons? To help answer these questions, we've gathered insights and advice from a law school career counselor and three former clerks, one who clerked for the US Court of Appeals, one who clerked for the US Court of Appeals and the US District Court, and one who clerked for the California Court of Appeal. 

This is one part of a four-part series.

Obtaining a federal judicial clerkship is a dream for many law school students and alumni. The chance to enhance one’s research and writing skills, learn from and receive mentorship from a judge, and gain unique behind-the-scenes insights into how chambers function and how judges make decisions is very appealing for many as they embark on their legal careers. An appellate level clerkship is often considered the most prestigious and is a distinction that follows clerks throughout their careers.

The judicial clerkship application process is highly competitive, especially in light of the end of the Federal Hiring Plan (a formal, organized process that was in place for more than ten years), and even more so for those eager to work in a circuit court setting. Successfully navigating the process requires not only a keen understanding of the steps of the process and the many changes occurring regularly but also a clear understanding of your goals and flexibility. As such, it is important to seek help from your law school career services office. Clerkship advisors provide candidates with advice on strategy, help them put together a compelling application that will stand out when it arrives in chambers, conduct mock interviews, and assist them with the later stages of the process.

Candidates should keep in mind the following tips to successfully navigate the clerkship application process.

Deciding on the Right Clerkship to Pursue

In an initial meeting with a career counselor, applicants should be prepared to discuss their reasons for pursuing a clerkship and what they would like to get out of the experience. Applicants who pursue circuit court clerkships generally thrive in academia and will enjoy having the time to think carefully about each case, the associated issues, and potential outcomes. They may be interested in gaining a behind-the-scenes look at the courtroom but should be happy to spend the majority of their time conducting research and writing independently. They must be extremely detail-oriented and appreciate taking the time to perfect their documents. Because the overall pace of a circuit court is slower than a district court, they will generally have more time to think and spend on each assignment.

Ultimately, however, not all applicants will pursue clerkships at the circuit court level. For example, an applicant who is interested in a career as a litigator and has a desire to see as much motion practice, oral argument, and courtroom action as possible may find that a district court or magistrate-level clerkship is the best fit. Knowing the detailed goals of applicants allows a counselor to guide them in a direction that most closely aligns with their goals.

Application Strategies

In this competitive climate, where judges often receive thousands of applications from qualified candidates for a particular term, it helps to have a broad strategy. Circuit court judges tend to hire earlier than other federal judges, often two years before the start of the clerkship term; however, depending on geography, some may hire later, such as a year prior to the start of the clerkship term. To maximize their chances of success, applicants are encouraged to have the broadest geographic scope possible, especially if they are interested in particularly popular circuits such as the Ninth, Second, and DC Circuits. In some cases, candidates may be successful by first obtaining a district court clerkship and then applying for clerkships at the circuit court level.

Alumni candidates are gaining great success with their clerkship applications. Many federal judges look favorably on applicants with practice experience and a keen ability to hit the ground running. In fact, some federal judges even expressly prefer alumni candidates. Alumni candidates often achieve the best results if they apply within five years of graduating from law school, at a time when it makes sense for them to take a break from their practice.

Components of a Successful Application

Judges weigh many factors when deciding to interview a potential candidate, such as academic performance, skills, and experience. Application materials include a polished resume, a well-written cover letter, a law school transcript, an exemplary writing sample, and three glowing letters of recommendation. Because law clerks often complete the initial screening of applications, calling an alumni clerk in chambers and establishing a connection can be helpful. Successful resumes are well-tailored and display not only a high GPA, law review membership (ideally a board-level position), and publications but also relevant experience that showcases exemplary practical skills such as analysis, research, and writing.

Soft skills are extremely important, and candidates can often highlight this information in their cover letter. They should show examples of a superior work ethic, strong attention to detail, and excellent interpersonal skills. In addition, they should clearly and thoughtfully explain their motivation for pursuing this type of clerkship, highlight their geographic ties, if applicable, and establish their interest in clerking for this particular judge, if relevant.

In deciding which writing sample to submit, an academic piece is often best for a circuit court clerkship. However, when choosing among multiple options, applicants should also think about which document showcases their reasoning, research, and writing abilities in the best light.

The Importance of Strong and Engaged Recommenders

Letters of recommendation can make or break an applicant’s chance at success during the application process. Candidates should think carefully about identifying three recommenders who know them best in terms of both their hard and soft skills. Although law school faculty members make great choices, alumni candidates, especially, should approach a supervisor who can speak to their practice experience. The strength and quality of the letter are ultimately what is most important. Applicants should also ask their recommenders to make calls to chambers to further support and endorse them during the process. This level of assistance can often help tip the odds in favor of candidates, increasing their chance of landing an interview or offer.

How to Stand Out During an Interview 

Candidates should conduct as many mock interviews as possible—clerkship interviews are often more intense than interviews with other legal employers. Career counselors not only can conduct mock interviews with candidates, but they may provide direct insight into specific judges’ interviewing styles. By gaining as much practice as possible with this stage in the process, an applicant will feel comfortable, prepared, and ready to shine when meeting with a judge and the law clerks in chambers.

Successfully navigating the judicial clerkship application process is not easy and should not be attempted without the support of the applicant’s career counseling office and law school faculty, all of whom are eager to help student and alumni candidates reach their professional goals. By keeping the above tips in mind, the chances of success increase greatly. Those applicants who are fortunate enough to obtain a federal judicial clerkship will embark on an exciting and rewarding experience that, for many, will be one of the most enriching of their careers.

This is an edited and abridged version of an article that originally appeared in the September/October 2015 issue of GPSolo magazine, volume 32, number 5, published by the American Bar Association Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. Membership in the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division is now complimentary. Join now