There are many clerkship opportunities available. In the federal court system, each of the nearly 600 district court judges is authorized to hire two law clerks. Circuit court judges (federal appellate level) are generally allowed three. There are also senior judges, magistrate judges, administrative law judges and courts with special subject-matter jurisdiction (such as bankruptcy and tax courts) that hire clerks. Additionally, each state administers its own court system with the number of clerkships varying from state to state. The trick is to find a clerkship that matches your qualifications and goals. Follow these pointers to effectively focus your judicial clerkship job search.
Choose Where to Apply: Finding a Clerkship That is Right for You
It is important that 1) you are interested in the clerkship and 2) that you meet the court’s hiring criteria. You need to analyze your own long range career goals as well as the strength of your application to determine which clerkship is best for you.
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Appeals Courts
These clerkships are very prestigious and generally difficult to obtain.
Naturally, these clerkships are extremely impressive and will probably open almost any door. They are often considered an informal “prerequisite” for law teaching jobs.
U.S. District Courts
Good grades and journal experience are usually required but the requirements vary from judge to judge.
These trial court clerkships are invaluable for litigation training. Many of the district judges have excellent reputations, and can be a boost to your career if you are interested in litigating. Certain District Court clerkships are very prestigious if your primary motivation is teaching, a federal district court clerkship on your resume may not be enough to distinguish you.
U.S. Bankruptcy Courts
Same as U.S. District Courts, however, an application which shows a strong interest in bankruptcy will give you an edge.
An excellent place to gain the expertise and create the networking contacts needed to pursue a career in bankruptcy. If you are interested in practicing in a completely unrelated area, you may have to work hard to overcome your reputation as a “bankruptcy attorney”.
Federal Courts with
specialized subject matter jurisdiction
(E.g., Tax courts)
Same as U.S. District Courts, however, an application which
shows a strong interest in the subject matter will give you an edge.
As with the Bankruptcy Courts, you will gain experience in a specialized area.
State Supreme Court
These clerkships are very prestigious and very competitive.
They may be helpful in obtaining a future teaching position. Excellent opportunity to develop research and writing skills and to associate with well-respected judges.
Can run the range, depending on the state but probably in the high $30s to low $40s. Some pay as high as the Federal Courts.
State Appellate Court
One positive element of state appellate clerkships is that they
are not usually as competitive as some of the other types of clerkships.
Provide an excellent opportunity to develop research and writing skills and to associate with well-respected judges.
Depends on the state but probably the high $30s to low $40s.
All over the map. Often depends on who you know.
Excellent hands on training, particularly if you are interested in litigation. Trial courts have a different feel than appellate courts: faster pace, less formal, less emphasis on writing style, more contact with the public and with local practitioners.
Depends on the state. Some are as high as $50,000 while others are in the low 30,000.
Research The Judge
After you determine the court and the city you in which you would like to work, you need to determine the judges to whom you want to send applications. Some questions to ask yourself about the judge include:
- Do you and the judge share the same political viewpoint? Not all judges require that you share their viewpoint. In fact, many like to know they have differing opinions in their chambers.
- Is the judge respected by her peers? This may be very important. For example, some well-respected circuit court judges are considered "feeder" judges. They "feed" many clerks into U.S. Supreme Court clerkships after one year. The Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, located behind the library reference desk and in the CSO, contains biographical sketches of federal judges, significant decisions, and lawyers’ comments about the judge. The American Bench Book, in the law library, contains short biographical sketches of state and federal judges.
- What is the judge’s managerial style? You can learn more about working with a judge by calling past law clerks. They may be able to give you an idea of how much autonomy clerks are allowed, how involved the clerk is in the daily workings of the court, and the general atmosphere of the chamber.
- How recently was the judge appointed? You may have a better chance of success by applying to recently appointed judges. Finding courts and judges can take time, but is not too difficult.
Determine the Hiring Process for Your Selected Courts
Vermont Law School provides an online guide for State Judicial Clerkships. First, obtain the username and password from the Office of Career Services, then access the guide here.
For Federal Courts, please refer to the OSCAR website. For details on courts not included on the web site, or for more information, please refer to the individual court’s webpage. Note: It is always a good idea to contact the court’s chambers and/or check the individual court’s web page, just to make sure all the information is accurate.
You can also consult the NALP Federal and State Judicial Clerkship Directory. This directory has useful information. However, coverage is somewhat spotty and the information is not necessarily up-to-date. If, after searching the web site and consulting the NALP Federal and State Judicial Clerkship Directory, you are still unable to discover the details of the hiring process for a certain court, a phone call to the judge’s chambers will get you current information.
LEXIS and WESTLAW can also be handy. The LEXIS Career Library has information on hiring practices and application deadlines for many judges. It also gives the names of current and former clerks. As with the NALP Directory, coverage on this database may be limited or outdated. WESTLAW’s “AFJ” database contains an online copy of the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary. The online Almanac contains biographical information on the judges and some information on the judge’s clerks, but lacks the “lawyer’s comments” sections found in the hard copy. Contact your LEXIS and WESTLAW representatives for training on how to best use these online services.
Your application should generally include a cover letter, resume, transcript, writing sample and at least two letters of recommendation. Everything must be impeccably proofread. With so many high quality applicants, typos and other small mistakes will automatically result in your application going into the trash. Most judges will simply toss away an application if it has any errors, including: typos, mistakes in the judge’s title (i.e. “justice” instead of “judge”), abbreviations or incorrectly naming the court. Judges seek law clerks with strong research and writing skills. Everything in your application packet (including your cover letter and resume) is considered a writing sample. By starting early, you will not need to rush when putting your application together and will have more time for proofreading. Your application must make you stand out. Many judges receive hundreds of applications from bright and capable law students. One way to stand out is to highlight interesting prior work experience, especially if you worked in a supervisory capacity. Detail your academic awards, honors and/or publications. Often, including your interests on your resume can help break the ice in an interview. Unconventional talents, interests or experience can make you stand out, even if they have nothing to do directly with the practice of law. For example, the fact that you worked your way through school as a stand-up comic or coached a little league team may help separate you from the crowd. In addition, judges will be looking for evidence of solid research and writing skills as well as people skills. Emphasize these areas in your applications materials.
Have Mary Pat McInnis in the Office of Career Services review your application materials before sending them out. Her input will be very useful.
Your résumé should be as strong as possible. If your qualifications improve after you send your résumé to the judge (e.g., you are appointed to the Law Review Editorial Board), be sure to send an updated resume highlighting your latest accomplishments.
- Cover Letter
Customize your cover letter to the particular judge to whom you are applying. Judges are very interested in knowing whether you sincerely want to work for them or if they are just one employer on a long list. If you have properly researched the judge before applying, you can specifically reference her work in your cover letter. You may also consider addressing your interest in that specific court and/or the specific issue(s) the court/judge addresses. This sends the judge the message that you are interested in working specifically for her. Remember, your cover letter is a writing sample in itself. It must be polished, concise, customized, and engaging.
- Letters of Recommendation
Because judges may receive dozens or hundreds of applications, they use letters of recommendation to distinguish among the many qualified candidates. Most trial court judges require two letters of recommendation and most appellate judges prefer three. Confirm the required number of recommendations with the judge you are submitting your application. At least one of these letters should be from a law school professor. When deciding who on the faculty you should ask to write your letter of recommendation, remember that the best letters of recommendation come from professors who can speak from personal knowledge of you and your work. Start during your first year to develop relationships with your professors. This will ensure that there are one or two faculty members who know you well enough to write personalized letters of recommendation. If there is a particular professor you would like to have write your letter of recommendation, become actively involved with the professor’s research, try to serve as his or her faculty fellow, enroll in a directed research project with him or her or do a volunteer project with the professor. This will enable the professor to become acquainted with you and your work and will aid him or her in writing a glowing recommendation for you. Faculty members know that students will be asking for recommendations. Do not hesitate to ask. However, give them plenty of time - at least one month - to prepare the letters.
If the professor writing your letter of recommendation offers to let you see the letter, read through it to confirm that it is an accurate portrayal of your character and abilities. If it is not, and you have multiple letters to choose from, use the letters that present you in the best light. Each faculty member is different regarding the number of letters they will send. Ask each professor how many letters it is appropriate to request of them. Most professors have no problem with 20-30 letters since they tend to use the same letter for each judge. However, to maintain good will, the more letters you request, the more you should try to lessen the workload for the professor (provide addressed envelopes so the professor doesn't have to worry about it).
You may also consider requesting a letter of recommendation from an attorney who is familiar with your work. Do not include recommendations from attorneys for whom you worked before you entered law school. Again, provide adequate notice to the attorney so that he may have sufficient time to complete the recommendation letter. Letters of recommendation can either be sent separately from your application packet or sealed and included with the other application materials. We recommend that you include sealed letters of recommendation in your application packet. This will decrease the possibility that your letters of recommendation become misfiled.
- Writing Sample
Your writing sample must reflect your very best efforts. The best writing sample is one that a judge is likely to start and finish. It is worth a call to the judge's chambers for guidance regarding what length writing sample is appropriate. Believe it or not, shorter is usually better. If you have several writing samples from which to choose, select one that will appeal to the judge. For example, a federal judge would be more interested in a federal law topic than a state law topic. Caution: If you choose a topic that the judge has rendered a decision about, make sure you cite and apply the law correctly. Be sure the sample illustrates your analytical abilities: stay away from mere recitation of facts. If possible, the best sample is one that shows your ability to view a case from all perspectives. A research memo rather than a persuasive memo is best. Moot court briefs or persuasive motions are not as effective: they are too technical and are usually presenting only one side of an issue.
Strategies for Obtaining Clerkships
This section discusses some strategies you can use to increase your chance of obtaining a clerkship.
- Start Early!
The earlier you decide to pursue a clerkship, the more time you have to become acquainted with the faculty, obtain valuable work experience, and prepare your application materials. Additionally, if you wait too long to apply, you may find that the most desirable judicial clerk ships have been filled.
- Grades and Co-curricular Activity
Academic honors and achievements are some of the factors judges look at when making hiring decisions. However, judges look at other factors as well. These factors include writing ability, research skills, recommendations from people they know and respect, prior work experience and personality. Remember, the judge is going to work closely with you for at least a year.
- Extern for the Judge or Court Where You Want to Work
An externship is like a very long interview. If you do quality work during your externship and the judge likes you, she may hire you. Judges dislike reviewing resumes of people they don’t know just as much as any other employer. Why hire a clerk who is an untested stranger? There are many judges who hire clerks almost exclusively from their externs. Choosing the right place to extern involves early planning.
- Network with Visiting Judges
The law school often has special events which judges attend (e.g. Jurist in Residence, moot court competitions, etc.). If you would like to clerk for a judge who is coming to the law school, consult with the hosting dean or faculty member to see if an interview can be arranged.
- Leverage Yourself to a Second Clerkship
Performing two judicial clerkships gives you the opportunity to view litigation at different court levels. Also, at least one federal circuit court judge, Judge Manion (7th Cir.), will not hire clerks who have not had at least one year of post-graduate experience. The U.S. Supreme Court also tends to only hire clerks who already have a year of post-graduate experience (usually in a federal circuit clerkship). More than one student has followed this route, some graduates were granted one year’s leave from their firms; others worked as judicial law clerks or received a one-year fellowship.
If you don’t receive an offer at the court where you want to work, accept an offer from a judge at another court level and reapply for the following year to the judges who were your original top choices. A letter of recommendation from another judge is very persuasive, especially if the judges are acquainted with each other. Also, some judges, especially federal circuit court judges, are considered to be “feeder judges”, “feeding” clerks into clerkships with the U.S. Supreme Court after one year.
- Apply to a Senior Judge
When a judge takes senior status, she usually reduces her workload. However, she may still be an active judge. Even though a senior judge has a reduced case load, she probably has enough work to keep one or two law clerks very busy. The judge's senior status may reduce competition for these clerkships. Call the senior judge's chambers to determine how many openings there may be and don't hesitate to apply.
When to Apply
Knowing when to apply for a clerkship has become extremely difficult in the past few years. Traditionally, the most prestigious clerkships were filled first. Most federal appellate, state supreme and federal district court judges selected their law clerks in the candidate’s second year of law school. State trial courts waited until a candidate’s third year of law school to begin screening applications. Recently, however, the federal appellate courts agreed to a “Law Clerk Hiring Plan” and more commonly referred to as OSCAR. In theory, they have essentially decided to wait until a candidate’s third year of law school before interviewing them. For those judges participating in the Law Clerk Hiring Plan, applications cannot be received until the Tuesday after Labor Day each year.
It should be noted that not all the federal appellate, district and magistrate courts agreed to honor the Law Clerk Hiring Plan – though the vast majority now have and the trend is for most federal judges to follow it. There is no way, however, to enforce the Hiring Plan. Each judge manages his or her own chambers, and determines his or her own hiring practices. The early hiring issue has been a problem for the past decade or two and at least 6-7 other proposals have been made to try and solve the problem. It should be noted that most State courts will likely continue to hire during your third year so if you are interested in a state court, there is probably no change in the time line. With respect to federal judges, it is best to check for hiring dates and deadlines by signing into the OSCAR system. Note: In all cases, it is best to simply call chambers and ask the judge (either federal or state) when they are taking applications.
So, having said all of this, When Should You Apply for Federal Clerkships?
As noted, the Hiring Plan agreed to by most federal courts and followed by the School of Law calls for student clerkship applications to be sent in the fall of a student’s third year. Under the terms of the current hiring plan, applications should be received no earlier than the Tuesday following Labor Day (for clerkships typically beginning in the fall term of the following year). Likewise, recommendation letters from faculty should not be received any earlier than the Tuesday following Labor Day, except for vacancies in the current calendar year that must be filled promptly. Note: the Hiring Plan does not apply to alums; graduates may apply at any time a judge is accepting applications.
On OSCAR, applicants can create their accounts and upload materials during the summer. However, Judges will not have access to student applications until after Labor Day. However, since alums may apply at any time, OSCAR judges will have access to alumni applications on the OSCAR system as soon as alums release their application for viewing.
Although the federal hiring plan has been in effect now for several years, each year there are a few changes made to the plan. The Office of Career Services will keep you apprised of any changes as they occur. It is our understanding, however, that the focus of clerkship hiring will remain on 3Ls and alumni for clerkships.
Note: The Hiring Plan does not apply to alumni. Graduates may apply at any time a judge is accepting applications.
Are You Too Late?
If you think you’ve missed every deadline for a judicial clerkship, you’re probably wrong. There are still many options for students looking for judicial clerkships.
- New Appointments
New judges are appointed routinely and every newly appointed judge needs clerks immediately, not just two years in the future. Newly appointed federal judges can be found in U.S. Law Week and in The Federal Court Appointment Report. New appointments and vacancies within the federal courts can also be found here. You can also search newspapers on LEXIS and WESTLAW for court appointments. However, you will have to customize your online search to this particular use [e.g., federal and (district w/3 court)].
- Keep Applying
You can still apply to federal circuit, federal district, and state supreme courts. There may be a few judges who have not hired all their law clerks. Also, consider working for a year before clerking, as discussed previously.
- Identify Late-hiring Courts
Many state and federal courts hire less than one year in advance. But don't delay. There are also staff attorney and pro se attorney positions available. Refer to the federal law clerk information web site, check the website of the court in which you are interested, watch the job postings on the CSO Job Postings Page and bulletin boards and write or call courts where you’d like to work to become aware of opportunities.
- Staff Attorneys
Staff attorney positions are available in each U.S. Court of Appeals. Staff attorneys analyze and evaluate cases before they are assigned to a specific judge. These attorneys work for the court as a whole and become well acquainted with all court personnel. Some courts hire staff attorneys for one-year terms and others hire staff attorneys for an indefinite period of time.
- Pro Se Staff Attorneys
Some federal circuit courts and all of the federal district courts hire attorneys to review actions brought by litigants who do not have representation. These pro se staff attorneys review the merits of pro se claims, recommend a disposition, and assist the litigants with civil and criminal procedures.
- Staff Attorneys
Judicial Clerkships Online Resources
OSCAR online application system
SLU LAW Judicial Clerkship Site
SLU LAW students may access our internal judicial clerkship Google Site for more specific information on SLU LAW alumni judges, interview tips from current judges and other info.
Saint Louis University School of Law: Judicial Clerkship Faculty Committee Members
Please feel free to contact any of the members of this committee with any questions or to review cover letters and writing samples.