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Want to clerk? Cultivate these three attributes

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Landing a Clerkship

In 2017, I received a rejection letter from a district court judge I deeply respected and admired. In 2021, I received an offer letter to clerk in her chambers. The secret? Be patient, persistent, and prayerful.

At the outset, I was not in the top five percent of my class, I did not attend a top 14 law school, and I did not speak seven different languages.

I attended the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University (Go Sun Devils). I was unranked, had no law review or journal experience, and graduated with an average GPA. But with the help of some incredible friends and mentors, I received a couple of clerkship interviews and convinced my dream judge to hire me. Here’s how I did it:

First, be patient.

I understand the time, stress, and laborious preparation involved in submitting clerkship applications. Not to mention the intimidating and often antiquated Oscar forum. I submitted a mountain of applications to state appellate judges, state supreme court justices, federal magistrates, and district court judges.

In the end, it took me four years to receive an offer. I wanted to clerk for a court of general jurisdiction upon graduation, but instead I accepted a clerkship position with the Department of Justice Honors Program. There, I served as a Judicial Law Clerk in the Executive Office for Immigration Review and clerked for a United States Immigration Court in Texas.

Rejection hurts. Repeated rejection stings. Befriend it anyway.

Was this my first choice? Nope. Am I glad and grateful I did it? Absolutely. In addition to receiving excellent training and mentorship, a clerkship in an Article I court or with an administrative law judge may lead to another clerkship—perhaps the one you originally had your eye on. Doors open when you, pardon the cliché, take the road less traveled. Indeed, I am exhibit A for this non-traditional route.

Landing a clerkship requires patience. You will experience repeated rejections and frequent failures. Do not make a campsite at these setbacks but use them as fuel to continue the pursuit.

My cousin is a pilot. He has a checklist before he takes off. First, clean the window. This is a small task when a pilot has an entire plane to fly. But he still needs to perform the grunt work because in the sky the little bugs that plastered the window will now look like 747s that are far off in the distance. Pilots do not want to confuse the bugs for something far away. What’s the lesson? Clean the window. Start over again.

The antidote to failure is not success—it’s patience. Your setbacks are setups. Draft a new application, take a deep breath, and march forward.

Second, be persistent.

Last month I spoke on a panel to prospective law students at ASU Law. I was on the panel to offer advice to these students, but bonus, I also gleaned wisdom from the panel. My co-panelist said, “Be relentless with following-up. And be where the people are.” She’s right.

Make follow-up emails your best friend. People are busy. They’ll generally read an email, tell themselves they’ll respond later, and often forget—for no other reason than because they’re distracted by a million other deadlines, events, and activities competing for their time and attention. If you can meet someone in person, do it. If not, call them. Emails will only take you so far. Reach out to former clerks, friends of friends, alumni at big firms or small firms. Generally, most people will want to help, and the kind ones always will.

I mentioned earlier that my judge rejected me in 2017 but offered me a position four years later. A cynic might say she reviewed my application more seriously because of the references who reached out to her. Therefore, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. We’ve heard it before—connections trump talent.

While there may be a modicum of truth to that perspective, I think more truth rests in this fact: When the judge read my cover letter for the second time, it echoed in her consciousness. But that echo was only in her mind because I had planted it there, several years earlier, by sending her my application in the first place. And because I stayed in the game—even after the initial rejection. Persistence is power.

Finally, be prayerful.

Whether spiritual or agnostic, all of us experience appointments with the divine. The people who stand at the doors of our dreams are not gatekeepers. They are people—just like you and me. No blueprint exists to capture their attention. You simply have to reach them at the right moment. This means you must play the odds. Edit the next application, learn from the last rejection, and repeat the process.

When your application falls into the right hands, you will make your connection and the chaos you have been living in will converge. Then, when that perennial prayer is finally answered, you will see each rejection as a building block upon which you gained insight and confidence to move forward.

Let me end with an undeniable fact: Rejection hurts. Repeated rejection stings. Befriend it anyway. The more rejection we endure, the more we learn from it and are able to dream bigger and reach higher because of it. In July, I unexpectedly lost my father. It’s been a long eight months, and only recently did I conjure the courage to continue my clerkship pursuits.

Yet, through patience, persistence, and prayer, I learned to embrace the failures, kept moving forward, and did not quit. Today, I cannot separate the tears of missing him and not having him here to share the excitement of this moment with me from the tears of joy and gratitude I have for this accomplishment.

But I would not have achieved the impossible without family and friends reminding me of the importance of the three P’s. You should remember them, too.

And as you climb, don’t forget to pull someone else up with you because chances are, someone did that for you.

Alexander Mallory Alexander Mallory is from the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. He currently works as an Attorney Advisor through the United States Department of Justice Honors Program. This fall, he will clerk at the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.