How to land a coveted federal judicial clerkship, according to 6 current and former clerks

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Summary List Placement

Federal judicial clerkships are often seen as extra gold stars on a lawyer’s track record.

Acting as apprentices to the decision-makers at courts, clerks assist judges with legal research and drafting, reviewing, and editing court decisions and memoranda, receiving substantive feedback from the judges in return. Because they’re embedded into the day-to-day, inner workings of a courthouse, clerks become intimately familiar not only with how a judge thinks and makes decisions, but also with the gamut of civil and criminal cases that lawyers handle.Greg Washington   Paul Hastings

“Knowing how a judge makes decisions pays dividends, no matter what type of law you do,” said Greg Washington, a litigator at Keker, Van Nest & Peters who clerked at both the District Court of Connecticut in 2018 and the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in 2019.  

Clerkships, which are filled by recent law school grads, can open many doors of opportunities, from jobs at Big Law and boutique firms to in-house counsel roles or further clerkships at higher courts, Peter Bae, a clerk at the District of Nevada, told Insider. Bae himself plans to practice commercial litigation once he wraps up his clerkship.  

The Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR), an online portal through which law students and lawyers can apply to participate in judges’ clerkships, opened up applications for this year Wednesday. Only students and grads who have completed their second year at law school are eligible to apply this cycle. The deadline is June 14, when the applications will be sent to judges for consideration. 

Jonathan Masur   UChicago Law.JPGThe next four months, then, is a key “shopping period,” which aspiring clerks should take advantage of to prepare their strongest application possible, said Jonathan Masur, a former clerk and now professor and co-chair of the clerkship committee at the University of Chicago Law School.

From picking a judge to crafting an airtight cover letter, six current and former clerks share their advice on landing a prestigious federal judicial clerkship.

Consider career goals and geography when picking a judge to apply to

Specialization and geography are two crucial factors when it comes to picking a judge to clerk for.

Certain courts have reputations for certain types of law by virtue of the concentration of cases they handle in that area. For example, someone who wants exposure to high-stakes commercial litigation may consider clerking at the Southern District of New York, while an applicant with an interest in patent law might look at the Eastern District of Texas, said Bae.

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“Focus on the area of law you’re interested in, or what class or clinic you really enjoyed at school. As a clerk, you’ll be getting practical exposure and meeting the attorneys that practice in that area. Where are you going to learn? What you want to practice?” said Andrea Saavedra, assistant dean and dean of judicial clerkships at the Columbia Law School. Like Masur, she is also a former clerk.

UChicago’s Masur pointed to resources, like the almanac of the federal judiciary, as helpful tools when sifting through the hundreds of judges to determine which might be the best fit for your career goals. 

Talking to law school professors, young alumni, and bar associations is another invaluable way of researching different judges.

Get a little personal, but not wordy, with cover letters

The cover letter is often the applicant’s first introduction to a judge, so making a good impression is crucial.

“It’s much easier to lose the job with a cover letter than it is to gain one,” said Masur, who recommends keeping the letter plain and to-the-point.

While some suggest writing a straightforward, brief cover letter — for example, “Please find my application materials enclosed herein” — others suggest providing more information to make it more personal.

“Don’t waste space on why you want to clerk more generally, which is pretty obvious and generic. But if you have a specific connection to a judge or an area that’s not evident elsewhere in your application, then flag that,” said Deeva Shah, an attorney at Keker, Van Nest & Peters who previously clerked at the Central District of California in 2017 and at the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in 2018.  

Washington, the litigator at Keker, added that applying research to your cover letter can be helpful. “Customize your message by mentioning a judge’s prior professional experience and how that overlaps with your career aspirations, or an interesting thing you found in their decision,” he said.

Danielle Barondess

 

That said, it’s best to stick to a page — and don’t regurgitate your resume, advised Danielle Barondess, who’s currently clerking at the District of Hawaii.

Memos and briefs are generally better as writing samples

While the requirements of the clerkship application — cover letter, resume, writing sample, cover letter, letters of recommendation — are generally standard, what judges look for in each of these components may vary. Some judges will indicate what they’re looking for in their application posting.

When it comes to the writing sample, for instance, some may prefer a brief or memorandum, while others may prefer a law review article or academic piece.

If a judge doesn’t specify this, Keker attorney Shah recommends the former than the latter, since that more closely resembles the type of writing a clerk does.

Shah added that whatever writing sample you submit, you should make sure you care about the subject matter and can talk about it at length during the interview. That includes being familiar with any case law cited.

Peter Bae

The sample should also be mostly original work — not three to four pages of block citations of cases or other source material, said Bae, the clerk at the District of Nevada. 

 

Professors and partners who write your recommendation letters can be crucial advocates

Letters of recommendation can play a pivotal part in a clerkship application.

Before asking his recommenders, Washington said he set up at least two meetings to chat about the clerkship process and their own experiences, as well as his personal clerkship strategy and career goals. Only after he did the legwork did he ask for the recommendation. That way, they can be better advocates on your behalf, Washington explained.

Shah added that if there’s something that isn’t evident in your resume or something you can’t highlight in your cover letter — for instance, that you’re a first-generation student, or your experience working at your parents’ convenience store — recommendation letters or a separate diversity statement can be great vehicles for that.Deeva Shah

Phone calls from professors or recommenders can also help to get your application picked out of the pile or lend a further boost post-interview, said Shah. However, some judges dislike that, while others actively seek out that extra perspective, so vetting professors, former clerks, and your law schools’ clerkship committee can give insight into whether or not to take this approach.

Most interviews are virtual now, but preparation is still key

The clerkship interview process is the one area that was the most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that most judges are conducting interviews virtually, rather than requiring applicants to book a flight to make an in-person interview, has sped up the timing — sometimes shortening the wait from a month to a day, according to Washington.

The shift to virtual interviews also democratizes the clerkship application process, reducing the financial burden on applicants who may not have the means to pay for last-minute flights, he added.

The substance of the interview itself can also vary from judge to judge. Some might be more about getting to know a candidate, while others are more substantive and geared toward quizzing them over tough legal questions.

Some common questions judges may ask include: Can you tell me more about this experience on your resume? Why would you be an effective clerk? Is there something I’ve written about that you disagree or agree with, or something you would change?

Studying the judge’s opinions, background, as well as your own application materials, then, are crucial to acing interviews.

Bae added that he had colleagues, acquaintances that were current or former clerks, and mentors to conduct mock interviews with him, asking them to grill him with difficult questions.

In the end, though, the interview is also about finding a good personal fit to determine if the judge can work with a candidate for one or two years, so being an amiable person goes a long way. 

“Judges are interested in hiring the whole person, not just a legal automaton,” said Masur of UChicago’s clerkship committee.

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