Do you want to clerk, but have been told that if you are not in the top five percent, do not attend Harvard Law School, and do not speak seven languages, you can’t? Then this article is for you.
I attend the University of Alabama School of Law (Roll Tide). I am unranked and have no law review or journal experience. I have a 3.22 GPA, but with the help of some incredible friends and mentors, I received a few clerkship interviews and convinced a judge to hire me.
I understand the time, stress, and preparation involved in pursuit of a clerkship. I submitted roughly 150 applications to federal magistrate, district, and circuit court judges. Oh, and don’t forget about some state supreme court justices.
Fortunately, I did not have to navigate the application process alone. My wife volunteered as a proofreader/envelope stuffer for dozens of applications, and I am blessed to have her support.
Recently, I met with some students at UA Law and offered what little wisdom I gained from the sleepless nights of triple-checking resumes, drafting cover letters, and networking as if my life depended on it. And, after some reflection, I realized an unfortunate reality: students, professors, and law schools think too linearly when it comes to obtaining a clerkship – or any job for that matter.
Students always receive the same advice: “Get exceptional grades, get on law review, reach out to former clerks, and hope for the best.” But that mindset is antiquated. Yes, achieve the best grades you can. But linear thinking for the excellent student is conservative at worst, and for the average student, it is dangerous at best.
For the average student, you have to work every angle you can to obtain a clerkship. Below are a few simple and applicable steps that can help average students — actually, all students — employ their time effectively in a clerkship search:
Apply everywhere and to everyone
It’s a one- to two-year clerkship, so give that random city in that random state a chance. You never know, you may fall in love with it. And if not, it’s a year or two of your life – you’ll survive.
Don’t be snobby
Have you ever heard a student say, “Oh, anything below a U.S. district judge and it’s not worth it”? This mindset is hilarious to me.
First off, a magistrate judge is still a federal judge, so settle down, gunner. Secondly, there are some incredible state judges out there. The experience and mentorship you will gain from a clerkship is second to none and those aspects are what you should be attempting to obtain. Additionally, the experience you will receive from some magistrate judges will be almost identical to work provided by district judges. This reality is especially true for districts in a judicial emergency.
Many senior judges still take clerks. Although their caseload fluctuates, it is still worth applying.
Also, don’t forget about administrative law judges and Article I courts.
In addition to receiving incredible training, a clerkship on an Article I court or with a magistrate judge may lead to another clerkship – perhaps the one you had your eye on. Options open when you are open to learn and train on different levels.
Here, you can gather more information on judges. Find judges you have connections to, as it will be easier for them to appreciate your experience and, more likely than not, will make interviews more natural. Whether your connection is through the same undergraduate institution, military service, or the same birthplace, all can be valuable connections. Highlight this information in your cover letter and in your interviews.
Make the senate.gov home on your browser
Almost every day new judges are nominated or confirmed, each one documented on this website. Track these people down (in a tactful way) and express your interest in clerking for them. Although nominees cannot hire you until they are confirmed, you can make a connection that will be helpful if/when they are confirmed.
Make a LinkedIn profile and use it
This tool can be utilized to reach out to alumni of your school, people from the same military branch, people who have volunteered at the same NGO as you, and more.
Be creative! I can’t tell you how many people I reached out to on LinkedIn who I had never met (more than 150, that’s for sure). Bold move? Absolutely. But people also love helping other people. Inquire about whether they clerked or happen to know anyone who clerked, ask about the judges they clerked for, and see where the conversation takes you. After a while they may offer to put you in touch with the judge they clerked for or let the judge know that you are applying.
All you are looking for is that crack in the door. The rest is up to you.
Pro tip: If you can meet in person, do it! If not, call. Messaging via LinkedIn will only take you so far.
Find people at your law school who can connect you to alumni
Do not only consider former clerks for these connections. Think broadly: lawyers at top firms, people working on the Hill, or people at the Department of Justice. Focus especially on alumni in Washington, D.C.; they know everyone, no matter what professional position they hold. And if your school balks at your request, tell them, “Trust me, Steven Arango wrote this advice in an article.”
If there is a specific district you are interested in (ex. Southern District of Florida), find connections that operate in that district. The Southern District of Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office would not be a bad starting point.
Do not make excuses about the curve in interviews
The grade you received is what you earned – keep studying, and you’ll be fine. Simply find opportunities to discuss other skills you have, be them legal or non-legal. Moreover, do not apologize for the ranking of your school. Embrace where you came from.
Side note: a B+ is not a bad grade, stop being that person who says it’s a bad grade.
Turn discouragement into productivity
If you interview with a judge that cannot or does not offer you a position, turn that discouragement into productivity. Simply say: “Judge, thank you for the opportunity and your time. I would love to clerk and am wondering if you would not mind passing along my materials to any judges looking for clerks.”
I asked roughly five different judges this exact question. Every single one agreed. Judges are people, too, and they want to help. This advice also applies to anyone you speak to when you are networking. They may have a third or fourth connection who will help you achieve your goals.
I wish I could say this plan is foolproof. But until I was hired, I was not even sure it was viable. Now, I believe it is a starting point. Feel free to tweak any of the suggestions; it’s not supposed to be a cookie-cutter plan. But, at the end of the day, even if you are not hired, the connections you make throughout this process will be with you for the rest of your life.
Embrace the suck, keep working hard, and don’t quit.