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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

My Student Guide to Judicial Clerkships

Around this time of the semester I meet with a lot of students who are interested in post-graduation judicial clerkships. UK Law does quite well at placing our students in federal clerkships, so I am happy that there is a buzz among our students about this career path. 

Because my individual meetings with students tend to be quite similar, in that they often have very similar questions, I prepared a guide for them to read before they come to meet with me. It answers some of the most frequent questions I receive. Because I bet that others could also benefit from this guide, I am reproducing it below.

A few caveats: first, some of the advice is specific to Kentucky. Second, these are just my views, so as the kids say, YMMV. Third, I frequently update this guide, so what is below is simply the current version.

With that said, feel free to share with those who may be interested.

Professor Douglas’s Handy-Dandy Guide to Federal Judicial Clerkships

            I am so glad you are considering applying for a federal judicial clerkship! Post-graduation clerkships are amazing jobs. They offer an inside look at judicial decision making, which will help your career no matter what you decide to do. You’ll work side-by-side with a judge who will serve as your guide and mentor. Your writing will improve dramatically. Some people say that a clerkship was the best job they ever had. All in all, if you have the opportunity for a judicial clerkship, then you should go for it!

            Many students ask to meet with me to discuss clerking. I am more than happy to meet, but I ask you read this guide first, as it will likely answer many of your questions. This guide should not serve as a substitute for a meeting; I definitely want to meet with you! But it will hopefully answer some of your initial questions so that we can focus on your specific situation when we meet.

What follows is simply my advice, based on my own clerkship experience and several years of advising students. Others may have different views, and I encourage you to talk to other professors and the Career Development Office for their perspective.

  1. Why should I clerk?

            See above. Clerking is an incredible experience. I use what I learned during my clerkship (for a 5th Circuit judge in Texas) almost every day. And I talk to my judge at least once a month. By clerking you become part of a “clerk family” (notice how I wrote “my judge”). Your co-clerks will become lifelong friends. Clerking can help no matter your ultimate career goals. It will open doors. It will improve your writing. It gives you an instant credibility boost in the eyes of employers. And it will stick with you for your entire career. Notice how every time someone is nominated to the Supreme Court, the media mentions where the person clerked. From a long-range perspective, clerking is an excellent way to begin your career. I have never talked to someone who regretted clerking before starting at a law firm, public interest organization, or other legal employer.

  1. What should I do if I already have an offer at a law firm or other organization?

            Speak with them about your desire to clerk. Most law firms highly value the experience and will hold your spot, at least for a year or two. If you explain your long-term dedication to the firm, they will not think poorly of you for at least exploring the opportunity to clerk. And some firms (though typically not the ones in Kentucky) will even pay a clerkship bonus.

            In addition, more opportunities are likely to arise because you have a clerkship on your resume. A clerkship, then, can improve your future employment prospects.

            That said, the salary of a judicial clerk is nowhere near as high as that of an associate at a law firm, and financial issues are important to consider. Just remember that there’s a long-term payoff, in terms of your overall career, to foregoing the law firm salary for a year if you are able to do so.

  1. Where should I clerk?

            My advice is to apply as broad geographically as you are willing to go for a year or two. If you don’t apply, then there’s a zero percent chance of landing the position (that’s just math!). When I went through the process I applied to about 200 judges all across the country. I really wanted a federal appellate clerkship, so I took a list of all federal appellate judges and deleted those in places where I could not see myself ever moving, even for a year or two. I then added some district court judges in certain geographic locations.

            I would start by thinking about where you have a geographic connection. Did you go to school in another state? Does your best friend live in Wyoming? Do you have a long-lost cousin in South Carolina? Any of these geographic connections can give you a leg up when you are applying. Of course, if you want to stay in Kentucky, then by all means focus on the Kentucky judges. But don’t discount going out of state for a year or two, especially if you can create a geographic connection to the area.

            Another question you may have is what level of judge to target. Generally speaking, federal circuit court clerkships are harder to obtain than federal district court clerkships, which are slightly harder than magistrate and bankruptcy court clerkships. All offer great experiences. Circuit court clerkships tend to be a little more isolated, where you will spend most of your time in chambers, but you can sometimes travel to cool cities for oral argument. These clerkships allow you to dive deeply into tough legal issues. District court and magistrate clerkships tend to have more interaction with lawyers and more time in court, and you’ll learn all about managing a docket. Any of these clerkships will provide tons of interaction with your judge. Come chat with me if you want to discuss this more.

  1. When should I apply?

            Many (but not all) Kentucky federal judges want to see at least three semesters’ worth of grades, which means they will start taking applications after the first semester of your second year. But many out-of-state judges hire even earlier! The best time to begin thinking about clerkships is during the first semester of your second year. You may want to send out some applications in October or November if judges you are targeting are open, while you can send the bulk of the applications after your 2L first semester grades are in.

            Look on Oscar to see which judges are accepting applications now. It’s also ok to call the chambers of a particular judge to see when that judge will start reviewing applications. You’ll most likely speak with the judicial assistant, who is used to receiving these calls.

            It is fine to apply early and then update your application with new information, such as grades, a new writing sample, etc. It is best to have your materials into the chambers as soon as the judge plans to consider applications.

            By the way, state court clerkships are also really great positions. State judges tend to hire later in the process, however, so it is generally ok to apply to federal judges first, and if it does not work out, you can then use your same materials (after updating them) to apply to state court judges.

  1. What should go in my application?
  • A cover letter (letter of transmittal)
  • Resume (one page, unless there are extraordinary circumstances for why you should go onto a second page)
  • Grade sheet (unofficial transcript)
  • Writing sample (your best possible writing)
  • 3 letters of recommendation
  1. What do you mean by “letter of transmittal”?

            Your cover letter should generally do nothing beyond introducing yourself and saying that your application materials are attached. This is not the place to make a case for yourself, explain that you are a strong writer, etc. Almost everyone applying has those same attributes. Ask me sometime to tell you about the ridiculous “Campbell’s Soup” cover letter I once saw. You don’t want to have that letter!

            The one exception here is that your cover letter should explain any geographic connection (or other connection) you may have with that judge. Essentially, you can use 1-3 sentences to explain why specifically you are applying to that judge. If you don’t have a particular reason for targeting that judge, then you do not need to add anything else.

  1. What should I use as a writing sample?

            Your writing sample should be your absolute best writing. What it is is far less important that how good it is. Many judges prefer a student Note, so if that’s ready, you can use it. But you may want to send some applications before it is done. That’s fine. You can use your appellate brief from 1L year, something you wrote over the summer (if your employer gives you permission), etc. The key here is that the writing sample should be flawless – especially on the first few pages and the last page (often judges won’t read beyond that). In terms of length, 10-15 pages is about right, so if your writing sample is longer it is ok to provide an excerpt with a cover letter explaining what it is and saying that the full version is available upon request.

  1. Who should write my letters of recommendation?

            You need at least three letters of recommendation. At least two should be from law professors who had you in class. The third also can be from a law professor (and in most cases that is best), but it is ok to ask someone else if that person is going to write you a glowing letter.

            Generally, you want someone who will write at least two pages about how great of a student you are and how you will be an amazing law clerk. Think about who knows you well, both inside and outside of the classroom. A letter that discusses various aspects of your performance, while also diving into strong personal attributes, is much better than a letter that simply says “this person was in my class and did really well.”

            I ask students who want me to write them a letter to prepare a 1-2 page memo telling me about them: Why did you go to law school? Why do you want to clerk? What are your ultimate career goals? What are your interests? What are some meaningful interactions we have had?

            Professor Chris Walker at Ohio State tweeted some advice for students seeking letters of recommendation. I wholeheartedly agree with his thoughts, which I reproduce in full here:

(1) When reaching out, please include resume, transcript, and talking points.

(2) Talking points should tell me what you want me to cover substantively and bonus points if in a format I could cut and paste into letter.

(3) Talking points are even better if they situate my letter within the context of any other letters, personal statement, etc.

(4) Talking points should include as much detail of our substantive interactions as possible, as that detail really makes the letter.

(5) Don’t assume I'll remember the highlights of our interactions. Remind me. Even when I do remember, your framing is often much better.

(6) Make very clear the deadline, and don’t hesitate to remind me as the date approaches.

(7) Also, if possible, give me the email and phone number of the Judge/partner/etc., so that it makes it easier for me to put in a good word.

(8) Once app submitted, keep your whole team posted on any developments.

(9) If you get an interview or make it to next round, email me again and include email/phone of employer to make it easy to reach out.

(10) Send thank you note once application is submitted. It means a lot for us old fashioned folks, esp hard copy under door makes my day.

(11) Finally, add your references to your holiday card list and let them know of any big life events or achievements over the years. I still let my college and grad school mentors know of life events, and they keep helping me advance in my career. /end

  1. Should I use Oscar or send paper applications?

            Oscar makes it really easy to submit applications to many judges at once. But is also allows judges, on their end, to filter out applications so they see only applicants from certain schools, of a certain GPA, etc. My advice, then, is to send paper applications if the judge accepts both Oscar and paper applications. That way you know that someone in the chambers will actually look at your application.

            That said, paper applications take time and money. You have to compile all of your materials, stuff envelopes, and mail them out. You can assume that you’ll need to spend $2-3 per application, and that can add up! You’ll therefore need to use your judgment on which ones to submit via mail and when to use Oscar.

            As for your recommendations, your professors will receive an email notice for Oscar applications, and we can take care of it from there. You should send us a spreadsheet with judges and addresses for any paper applications. If the letters are ready in time, we can seal them in envelopes and give them to you to put into the packet to mail out. But don’t wait for recommendations if the rest of your application is ready to go; we can send them separately.

  1. What’s next?

            You first task should be to identify who you want to ask for letters of recommendation and contact those people. That’s the only part of the application that you cannot control yourself. It’s ok to give your professors a deadline for the recommendation letter, so long as it is reasonable (a few weeks is about right).

            Your second task should be to decide what you will use as a writing sample and to clean it up to make it as perfect as possible.

            Your third task is to start creating a judge list.

            By this point you’ll be well on your way to applying for clerkships!

            Please come see me if this guide did not answer your question, if you have additional questions, or if you just want to chat about the process.

            Then, please let me know once you’ve applied to judges. And once you receive interview requests, come see me and we can chat about the interview process.

            Good luck!

Posted by Josh Douglas on October 18, 2017 at 10:49 AM in Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink

Comments

When it comes to clerkship hiring, I really have only one piece of advice: find recommenders who are comfortable calling judges on your behalf, pick a small list of judges who you like and who you think you have a real chance with, and ask your recommenders to call those judges. And obviously, try to get recommenders who actually know the judges to call (though this is *not* necessary), and if your priority is just getting a clerkship, prioritize judges your recommenders know.

Posted by: Asher Steinberg | Oct 18, 2017 11:20:20 AM

Why have students write a letter of transmittal instead of a traditional cover letter?

Posted by: Matthew Bruckner | Oct 19, 2017 10:56:35 AM

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