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Breaking down barriers to judicial clerkships – 5 questions asked & answered

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Clerkships

The choices you make as you leave your life as a student and transition to the practice of law can be some of the most important decisions of your professional career. Clerking for a judge, either right after law school or following a period of practice, can be a valuable experience that creates enormous opportunities for professional development and to advance your career in the profession.

But for many, deciding whether or not to apply for a judicial clerkship comes with many questions: what does a clerk do? How do you become one? Why do people take time away from their practice (and, usually, a pay cut) to clerk for a judge?

In this article, as well as in our podcast, “Judicial Clerkships: Perspectives on Value, Experience and Diversity,” we aim to provide a range of perspectives on five critical questions to assist those who may be asking whether a clerkship is the right path for them.

1. What does a judicial clerk do?

The duties of a judicial clerk will vary depending on the court, the judge, and a range of other factors. Generally, as a clerk, you will assist your judge in managing their chambers and moving their docket—the collection of cases before them—forward.

At both the state and federal level, this might include assisting your judge in understanding the various legal issues before them by conducting legal research, drafting legal opinions and memoranda, assisting your judge in preparing for hearings or conferences, and in some cases, working with the lawyers before the court to move the case forward. And as a clerk in a trial court, you might also help your judge manage the filings and party-correspondence, and day-to-day events in chambers.

At base, you will work closely with the judge and aid them in discharging their duties to ensure that they reach the best possible result for the litigants before them. For more on this, check out Episode 1 of our podcast.

2. Why should I apply to a clerkship?

Clerking provides a unique experience and perspective that you will not get anywhere else. When you work in a judge’s chambers—whether at the state or federal, trial or appellate levels—you will see a broad array of cases, hear and read arguments made by counsel, come to understand which advocacy styles are more or less effective, and most importantly, learn how your judge thinks. You will also have the opportunity to hone your legal research and writing skills.

At the trial court level, you will have the opportunity to experience cases at various stages of litigation, from initial filing to jury trials, assisting your judge in navigating a range of cases. In an appellate court, you will focus on a broad range of legal issues, researching them and preparing your judge for arguments, as well as drafting opinions and shepherding them through a process of approval by, in many cases, a panel of several judges in addition to your own.

Finally, you might find a lifetime mentor in your judge. 

3. When do I apply?

This will depend in part on what makes sense for you personally, and the path you want for your career. Some people apply for clerkships while in law school and clerk right after graduation, while others clerk years later. It is increasingly common for judges to hire people who have practiced for at least some period of time and many judges are now requiring some form of work experience.

Additionally, if you are planning to apply for a federal clerkship, you will likely need to familiarize yourself with the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review, more commonly known as OSCAR, and the deadlines associated with that platform. OSCAR is used by federal judges in connection with the Law Clerk Hiring Plan (“the Plan”).

The Plan was established by a working group of federal judges and law school representatives with the intent to streamline and bring transparency to the application process. Participation in the Plan is voluntary and ever-evolving, and we recommend speaking with your career services or clerkship advisor on how OSCAR and the Plan feature in your application process.

Of course, judges in each state’s courts may have their own schedule for hiring clerks, so it is important to familiarize yourself with the schedule for each judge to which you will apply. All of these factors may influence when you decide to apply.

But whenever you do, keep in mind that it may take a few tries (and perhaps many more than that) before you secure an interview, and a clerkship. This is a process that is time-consuming and competitive. But don’t get discouraged. If you think you want to clerk, do your research, focus your efforts, and be persistent.

For more on this, check out Episodes 3 and 4.

4. How can I position myself for success during the application process?

A typical application packet will include your resume, cover letter, transcript, at least one writing sample, and a few letters of reference, usually from your law professors and someone with whom you have worked.

As you apply, give considerable thought to all of the pieces that will make up your complete submission. For example, you’ll need to think carefully about who will serve as your references; you’ll also want to give considerable thought to your writing sample(s), whether a moot court brief, a class paper, an appropriate brief from work, or another document you’ve drafted that puts your best foot forward. Judges, moreover, will have different requirements, so you’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the prerequisites for each judge to whom you are applying.

If your law school has a clerkship office or guidance program, that may be a good source of general information on hiring and the mechanics of the application process.

If possible, you’ll also want to reach out and talk to individuals who have clerked, especially if they have clerked for the judges to whom you applied. These people may be alumni from your law school, individuals at your current or past workplace, or other individuals with whom you have formed a relationship over time.

When you’re ready to submit your application, review each part of your submission and review it again (and then review it once more!) to ensure it is flawless. And when you interview with the judge (and often their clerks), prepare ahead of time to make sure you’re comfortable discussing each piece of your application, as well as a selection of that judge’s decisions.

Finally, going into an interview, make sure you understand why you want to clerk, and why you might want to clerk for that particular judge.

For perspectives on setting yourself up to succeed, check out Episodes 2 and 3.

5. Where can a clerkship take me?

Anywhere you like; clerking is an investment in your career that will only help you in creating the opportunities you want on your road to success. Former clerks go into (or return to) private practice, public interest work, the government, policy positions, and myriad other positions both within and outside the legal profession.

Because many employers like to hire former clerks, a clerkship can be a powerful addition to your resume and an effective marketing tool as you apply for jobs. A clerkship provides you with skill development, the ability to learn directly from a judge, and the opportunity to gain a seasoned mentor at a very early stage of your legal career, and those things will help you add value to any professional environment.

Whether you are just starting law school or on your way to graduation, considering a judicial clerkship as a potential step on your professional path ensures you keep an important option on the table. For a range of diverse perspectives on clerking and what it can mean for your career, check out our podcast, “Judicial Clerkships: Perspectives on Value, Experience and Diversity.”

Alejandro H. Cruz and Christina Seda-Acosta Alejandro H. Cruz is a partner in Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler’s Litigation department. Before joining the Firm, he served as a law clerk to the Hon. Eric N. Vitaliano of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Christina Seda-Acosta is an associate in Patterson Belknap’s Litigation department. Before joining the Firm, she served as a law clerk to the Hon. Nelson S. Roman of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. As members of the Firm’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, Alejandro and Christina helped spearhead the efforts for the Firm’s podcast, “Judicial Clerkships: Perspectives on Value, Experience and Diversity.”