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New initiative seeks to boost diversity of law clerks in the federal judiciary

Law Clerks

Federal clerkships, for better or worse, are often seen as a gateway to many of the country’s top-tier legal jobs. Sadly, it comes as no surprise that diversity among law clerks in the federal judiciary is disproportionately low. Even though minorities increasingly make up a growing percentage of law school graduates nationwide, and thousands of students attend schools outside of the elite T14, individuals in these categories are historically underrepresented in federal clerkships. 

Why? The answer to this question deserves a much more nuanced discussion by someone with far more expertise on these issues, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Partially to blame is the disparity in access to resources and a strong network. Knowing when, where, and how to tackle clerkship applications is overwhelming, even for the best students at the top law schools, with endless resources at their disposal. For students from diverse backgrounds—especially first-generation law students—the process is even more daunting.
  • Perhaps equally to blame is the problem that many diverse students don’t appreciate the value of a clerkship when they begin law school. In fact, if they’re anything like I was, they may not know what a clerkship is at all. Unless someone sits you down, explains the importance of a clerkship and the doors it opens, and encourages you to apply, by the time you figure things out it may feel too late (although, there is something to be said for applying after a year or two of practice, as I did).
  • Another possible factor may be the notorious “imposter syndrome” creeping in. We all deal with it (I’m not sure it ever goes away). But minorities and students from other diverse or nontraditional backgrounds in particular may be holding themselves to a higher standard, perhaps leading them to undersell themselves or decide not to pursue a clerkship at all. 
  • Next, part of the problem undoubtedly stems from a clerkship hiring process that tends to favor a small subset of elite law schools. The reality is that the student populations of the T14 schools are less representative compared to the populations of other lower-ranked, non-“feeder” schools.
  • Finally, somewhat related to the last point is the fact that non-feeder schools may devote less energy to helping students navigate the clerkship application process. Big-name schools, on the other hand, tend to invest significant resources to ensure that clerks are placed each year in high numbers.

All this to say, minority, first-generation, and academically diverse students face a distinct set of obstacles that can make obtaining the elusive federal clerkship all the more challenging. 

Why does this matter? The law-clerk diversity problem has far-reaching implications. At the micro-level, clerking is intrinsically rewarding, so we should take care to ensure that more smart, qualified, and hard-working students from diverse backgrounds have a fair chance to benefit from a clerkship. More broadly, law clerks not only play a critical role in the federal judiciary during their 1- to 2-year terms; they also go on to themselves serve the profession as public defenders, prosecutors, academics, and even judges.

A wider array of experiences and perspectives from people from all walks of life adds immense value to the judicial decision-making process. Just as importantly, the general public benefits from a judiciary more reflective of the varied backgrounds and experiences of the citizens in our society. Simply put, more diversity at the law-clerk level is a small step towards a more just and equitable legal system. 

What can we do about it?  The reality is that improvements to diversity in the legal profession have moved at a snail’s pace; the federal judiciary is no exception. To move things along is a new initiative, Law Clerks for Diversity.  The program was recently launched by me and another law clerk, Steven Arango, to address two primary shortcomings: (1) diversity in the traditional sense of the word (i.e., race, ethnicity, gender, sex, LGBTQ+, socioeconomic status, disability status, etc.) and (2) law school or academic diversity (i.e., candidates from schools other than the traditional clerkship feeder schools).

First and foremost, Law Clerks for Diversity is a structured mentorship program. The idea is to connect promising candidates with diverse backgrounds (rising 2Ls, 3Ls, and recent graduates) with current and former federal law clerks for mentorship and guidance. For current students, this could mean help crafting law school schedules, selecting the right internship, or finding research or writing opportunities. For both current students and recent graduates, it means help navigating the application process—feedback on cover letters, guidance on choosing and preparing a writing sample, and mock interview opportunities. 

We hope to be able to connect applicants and mentors with some shared characteristics and experiences, to allow for a level of comfort, open communication, and honest feedback. As the program expands, we envision making even more resources available to our participants, including access to a bank of sample cover letters, a broad network of connections with current and former law clerks to various judges all over the country, and panels or other networking-style events.

By no means is structured mentorship anything novel or innovative.  That said, a mentor willing to share connections and give honest ideas and feedback can make a huge difference for a person who otherwise might have lacked the knowledge or confidence to apply for clerkships. Indeed, speaking from my own experience (and I know Steven would agree), I certainly would not have been successful in my clerkship hunt were it not for the mentorship and guidance I sought out and was lucky enough to receive in law school and in practice.

Law Clerks for Diversity is a simple but hopefully powerful idea that rests on two premises: (1) everybody who makes it has help and (2) our profession and our legal system are better when representative of varied backgrounds, cultures, and experiences. With the overwhelming interest and support we have received from the legal community so far, we have high hopes that this program can create a lasting impact.

For more about the mission, or to apply to the Law Clerks for Diversity program for the incoming Fall 2020 semester, please see our Google Doc or visit our Twitter page. The current deadline for the initial pilot program is July 17, 2020.  We also welcome any feedback or suggestions for the program.

Danielle Barondess Danielle is currently a law clerk for a district court judge in Hawaii and next year she will begin a clerkship with a judge on the Ninth Circuit. A 2017 graduate of the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University, Danielle spent almost two years practicing at a Washington, DC law firm before leaving private practice to clerk.