What It Is
Most judges employ one or more law clerks who act as their research assistants, proof readers, sometimes opinion-drafters, and sometimes play other roles in assisting the judge. Clerkships are often one or two year positions, although some judges hire “career clerks.” Clerkships are commonly filled by recent law school graduates, and many judges see this as an opportunity to mentor young attorneys at the beginning of their careers (although attorneys who have been in practice for a while have been known to take time off from practice to spend a year or two clerking). As a current law clerk, I can personally affirm what I have heard from so many people before me: clerking is great experience, allowing the clerk to see the legal field from the other side of the bench, observe a lot of practitioners, deal with a wide variety of cases, hone research and writing skills, and learn from an experienced judge. It also looks great on a resume.
Clerkships are desirable, meaning that they are also highly competitive. There are always a lot of applicants for each position. Lately, it has only gotten worse. (See some of the reports from the last couple of years here, here, here, and here.) Given the current state of the legal job market, a lot of law school graduates as well as practicing attorneys are finding that t a year on a state or federal payroll, without worrying about billing hours, looks pretty appealing.
So, what does it take to get a clerkship? There are tons of resources available on this subject, so in this post, I will give the bare-bones outline.
Good research and writing abilities are an absolute must. Good grades are usually a make-0r-break. And good recommendations, especially from people who the judge knows, are extremely helpful.
To apply for the job, the standard application requirements are:
- Cover letter;
- Law school transcripts;
- Legal writing sample showing your writing and research abilities and ability to craft an argument—for example, a law review article or comment, a sample brief from a legal writing class, or actual brief from an internship (but make sure to check with your boss first, to see if you can use the brief and if anything needs redacted);
- Letters of recommendation (most judges require three letters of recommendation).
This webpage from Indiana University School of Law has good advice on what you should have in your cover letter, writing sample, recommendation letters and other application materials. See also this site from George Mason.
Of course, it’s always good to double-check when you are ready to apply to see if the judge has any unique or different requirements.
Select where you are going to apply.
Be aware that you have to apply about one year in advance.
Many federal courts follow a hiring plan (see here), supposed to keep the hiring on a schedule so that the “hiring of law clerks will be done no sooner than the Fall of the third year of law school.” (Or, for those in part time programs like Oak Brook College, that would be the fall of the final year of law school.) Law school graduates may apply and be hired at any time. The key dates this year are:
First date when applications may be received [actually, this is the day that judges start looking at applications, which means you should have your applications on the OSCAR website by that date]:
First date and time when judges
10:00 a.m. (EDT),
First date and time when interviews may be held and offers made:
10:00 a.m. (EDT)
Remember, if you’re hired in September 2011, that means you start your job in August 2012.
Not all federal judges follow the hiring plan, however (it’s only “binding” on those who choose to participate). So try to double-check on the judges you’re applying with. The most well-known judges often hire earlier than the plan, on the theory that then they get the “top” clerk applicants before other judges start making offers (and more and more judges seem to be doing this – see here). This has created a lot of controversy and discussion, and searching online will turn up some information. See here, here, and here.
Further ResourcesUVA Clerkship Blog