Judicial clerks perform a variety of activities in their daily work, with differences from court to court and judge to judge. The primary role of a clerk is to assist his or her judge in working efficiently under a tremendous workload and strict deadlines. Clerks carry out a variety of tasks that require legal training. These include conducting legal research, drafting opinions, preparing bench, research and trial memoranda, performing legal analysis, briefing your judge on various legal issues and assisting the judge while he or she is on the bench.
Trial court and appellate court clerkships on both the federal and state level differ significantly from each other. While clerks in both types of courts have the responsibilities listed above, the trial-level clerk performs a wider-variety of tasks due to the nature of the litigation process.
A typical job description for a trial-level law clerk would read: review and make recommendations on a variety of motions; attend oral arguments, hearings and trials; conduct or attend settlement conferences; prepare trial memoranda for the judge, including a synopsis of the issues in a particular case; conduct legal research and draft research memoranda; write draft opinions and orders; advise and assist judge during trial; call court to session; write and edit jury instructions; perform record keeping and administrative tasks; interact extensively with attorneys.
The appellate-level law clerk's work can be described as more "academic" in nature than the trial-level clerk's. The clerk participates in every step of the appellate process including assisting with screening cases to help decide in which cases the court will hear oral arguments or drafting bench memoranda summarizing the parties' briefs prior to oral argument. In addition, the clerk may write memoranda on issues important to the ruling in a case. The clerk often assists in the administrative task of preparing for a "sitting" (when the panel of judges meets to hear a series of cases). After oral argument, one judge is assigned the task of writing the court's opinion. The clerk may be responsible for drafting the opinion according to the judge's directions. This includes a substantial amount of legal research and analysis. The clerk may also be responsible for drafting dissents, concurrences, and rulings on petitions for rehearing, and for reviewing the opinions of his/her judge.
The relationship between the judge and the law clerk has several facets: employer-employee, teacher-student, and lawyer-lawyer. In all of those relationships, the clerk must be aware of the respect due to the judge. Respect does not mean subservience: a clerk should not fear to express an opinion contrary to the judge's when asked, and most judges expect and invite their clerks to question the judge's views. Judges frequently seek the reactions of their clerks to the issues raised in pending cases, both for the value of being exposed to varying viewpoints and to train their clerks in the process of legal decision-making. A judge may also ask the clerk to express an independent view after reaching a tentative decision in order to test the clerk's conclusion or reasoning abilities. Therefore, a clerk should present his/her views, supported by legal research and analysis, when asked. If the judge should then reach a conclusion that differs from the clerk's, the clerk must, of course, carry out the judge's instructions with the utmost fidelity.
The clerk owes the judge complete confidentiality, accuracy, and loyalty. The judge relies upon the clerk's research in reaching conclusions on pending cases. Also, the judge relies on confidentiality in discussing performance of judicial duties, and the judge must be able to count on complete loyalty. The clerk must not criticize the judge's decisions, work habits or personal matters to anyone, including other members of the same court or their law clerks.
Some students erroneously believe that only federal clerkships are a valuable asset to a legal career. To the contrary, while different clerkships may be assigned a different prestige value, most employers value any type of clerkship experience on a résumé. This is because a clerkship provides new attorneys with an intense research and writing experience, as well as familiarizes them with the inner workings of the judicial system.
The question remains, how does one target judges or courts for their applications? Some factors that students are urged to think about are:
Location: Like with any other legal employer, judges tend to look for clerks who have some tie to their local geographic region. Judges often hope to mentor a new attorney who will practice and get involved in the local legal community. Ties to a geographic locale may include family, friends or significant others in the area, a college or other school experience in the area, previous work experience, or even a visit that introduced you to the place you hoped to be your future home.
Competitiveness of Court: If your dream is to land a federal clerkship or an appellate court clerkship in a particular state, you may want to consider applying to less competitive jurisdictions in addition to the more competitive metropolitan areas that may be your first choice. The most competitive jurisdictions for clerkships are those in the Washington, DC, New York and Chicago areas (Fourth, Second, Seventh, DC and Federal Circuits). California is a close second (Ninth Circuit). Think about applying for federal clerkships in other areas, such as the Mid-West, Northeast and Southern states.
Similar Interests/Ideology: A little research will tell you where judges worked before taking the bench, what kinds of community activities judges have been involved in, and who appointed a particular judge (if not elected). All of this background may lead you to certain commonalities that you share with particular judges, and may give you an edge in the application process. For example, if you want to become a prosecutor, clerking for a judge that worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office may provide you with an ally in your post-clerkship job search. Your political preferences may also play a role as you target judges, but keep in mind that many judges will not make decisions along "party lines" as a member of the independent judiciary.
Personality: According to judges, personality is often a key factor in determining which candidate will become their next clerk. As with any other job, judges' personalities vary widely and you may prefer a certain personality type in your supervisors. The best resources for finding out information about judges are people who have dealt with them regularly: previous clerks, previous interns, or practitioners. See OCPD's Judicial Clerkship handout for a list of names.
Senior Judges: Some courts allow their judges to select "senior status" when they reach a certain age. These judges often do much of the same work as a regular judge, but sometimes their caseloads are reduced, or they've limited certain types of issues they deal with by choice. This is a wonderful clerkship experience that is often overlooked by graduating law students, thus oftentimes making them a less competitive option.
THE APPLICATION GENERALLY
Generally an application packet will include the following materials: (1) Cover Letter; (2) Résumé; (3) Writing Sample(s); (4) Law School Transcript; and (5) Letters of Recommendation or List of References.
Cover Letter. Your cover letter must be well-written and thoughtful. Judges are very concerned with your writing skills, so excellent content and perfect grammar are extremely important. You will want to briefly explain why you want a clerkship or are applying to this particular judge/court; and why the judge should consider you a unique candidate for the position. Ideally, your cover letter will answer these questions in two-three concise paragraphs and reference your résumé for elaboration. Proofread your cover letter very carefully - typographical and grammatical errors will likely be disastrous, almost certainly eliminating you from consideration. Remember - your cover letter is a writing sample!
Rèsumè. Your résumé should be professional…it should also be flawless. Emphasize research experience and good analytical skills, writing experience, interest in the courtroom or judicial procedure, and ties to the jurisdiction.
Transcript. For hard copy applications, include a photocopy of your official law school transcript. If you know your grades for the most recent semester, but they have not been sent to the registrar for inclusion on your transcript, type an addendum of your grades and attach it to your transcript. For electronic applications, create a PDF version of your transcript. Catholic's Computer Services may be able to assist you with this process.
Writing Sample. Your writing sample should be either a scholarly article you have written for a law journal or a law school course, or a more practical sample, such as a legal memorandum you wrote for an employer. It should also be your original work; i.e., not edited by a superior or professor. If you include a piece of writing from an internship or other employment, you must request permission to use it from your employer. If you interned for a judge and plan to use a draft opinion, you should revise the opinion to appear as if it is a memo written by you to the judge. If possible, your sample should include analysis of the law of the jurisdiction where the court to which you are applying sits, or federal law if a federal court. Your sample should be short - no more than 15 pages - so redact sections if necessary to stay within the page limit; type "Sections X & Y Have Been Omitted For Your Convenience" on the front page.
Letters of Recommendation. Obtaining letters of recommendation may be one of the most difficult steps of the application process. Generally, you should have three letters: choose from among law professors and legal employers. Check with each faculty recommender to determine how they would like you to submit a list of judges. Each reference letter must be personally addressed to each judge ("To Whom It May Concern" is not acceptable). Try to make the process as easy as possible for your references by providing the list of judges on a diskette in merge-data file format.
Reference letters can be mailed separately to each judge by each of your references. One possible problem with this approach is when references delay in sending your letters of recommendation. It is critical that you follow up with your references to make sure that your letters are sent in a timely fashion. Conversely, you can ask your references to return the letters to you for inclusion with your application packages. Advise your references that you believe this will help ease the administrative burden in chambers upon receipt of your application. Some references will want to return their letters to you in individualized sealed envelopes; this is fine as they can simply be tucked into your application package.
NOTE FOR FEDERAL APPLICATIONS: The Administrative Office of the United States Courts has requested that certain precautions be taken by law student applicants and references to ensure that clerkship-related materials can be easily distinguished from other types of court correspondence. When applying for federal clerkships, you should mark "APPLICATION" in large letters on all transmittal envelopes. Individuals writing recommendation letters are similarly asked to label their envelopes "RECOMMENDATION."
Follow-up Letter. If you have any accomplishments to report after your clerkship applications are mailed, such as your selection to a journal editorial position or a moot court win, you should update your application immediately with a very short letter to each judge announcing the recent accomplishment.
FEDERAL CLERKSHIP APPLICATIONS
The application process for judicial clerks is decentralized, meaning that you must apply to each individual judge. Federal judges accept applications in one of two ways: (1) hard copy applications sent via U.S. mail; or (2) electronically through the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR), http://oscar.uscourts.gov/.
OSCAR Judges: OSCAR is an internet-based application permitting applicants to file their federal applications online. This year, there are 1500 judges signed up to use the OSCAR system. OSCAR enables the user to personalize both cover letters and letters of recommendation. For more information regarding OSCAR, check the OSCAR user guide available at http://oscar.uscourts.gov/. NOTE: OCPD will upload letters of recommendation on behalf of students to the extent the letters are from faculty (including adjunct) recommenders.
Non-OSCAR Judges: Judges not registered through OSCAR prefer to receive their applications in hard copy via U.S. mail. To determine what each judge requires in terms of an application, you may check the Federal Law Clerk Information System (http://lawclerks.ao.uscourts.gov/) or call the individual chambers.
Hiring deadlines vary. Please consult OSCAR for information concerning a specific judge.
STATE COURT CLERKSHIP APPLICATIONS
Whether the application process is decentralized or not, depends on the individual state court. To determine the specific process: (1) check the state court's website; (2) refer the online version of the Vermont Guide (To obtain login and password, call OCPD.); or (3) call the individual judge's chambers. NOTE: While helpful as a general guide, do not rely exclusively on the Vermont Guide.
DEADLINES: Applications vary from state to state. In order to get a general idea about a particular state's deadlines, OCPD recommends that referring to the Vermont Guide or, better yet, calling each judge's chambers to attempt to gain further information about the judge's application procedures and timing.
NOTE: While federal judges and some state court appellate judges tend to fill their clerkships early, other judges in less competitive federal courts and state and local courts may not hire judicial clerks until the spring of a student's last year of law school. A number of state court judges in the DC metropolitan area do not typically hire until the spring prior to graduation.
There are a few practical considerations that will have an effect on your application process. First, you should apply only for clerkships that you believe you would accept. After an interview, if you no longer wish to be considered, you should immediately notify the judge that you wish to withdraw from consideration. Otherwise, the judge will assume that you will accept the offer if given. The clerkship application process differs dramatically from the law firm process; you are usually not able to collect multiple clerkship offers and select the most attractive one. You are expected to accept the first offer you receive, often within 24 hours of receipt.
Second, most judges will require letters of recommendation from faculty and/or employers. Keep in mind that you probably are not the only student requesting a letter of recommendation from that person; therefore, you should approach your references as early as possible so that they will be given adequate time to prepare a thoughtful letter on your behalf. OCPD recommends that students approach recommenders in the spring before they leave for the summer. It is preferable to have at least two law school professors and work supervisors. The best references are the professors/supervisors who know you the best, not necessarily those who gave you the best grade or have the most prestigious titles. Do not panic if you have not become personally acquainted with any professors; if you have performed well in a certain course, that professor may be willing to sit down with you to get to know you better and agree to provide a recommendation for you. A professor will often ask to meet with you and go over your résumé and career goals in order to learn more about you before writing the letter of recommendation. You should provide a copy of your résumé and your transcript to all of your references when requesting letters of recommendation. Also consider consulting your references for suggestions of judges to whom you should apply.
If you are offered an interview, be prepared to schedule the earliest available interview appointment with the judge. Many judges hire clerks on a "rolling basis," meaning that if a judge likes the first three applicants he or she interviews, the judge would often much rather extend an offer to one of those applicants than interview every other candidate on the list. The applicants who scheduled later interview appointments may be passed over without ever even interviewing with the judge.
Keep in mind that a clerkship with a judge involves a close working relationship. Personal chemistry between employer and employee is usually far more important in this setting than in other employment settings. The judge and clerk need to be comfortable with one another and need to see the other person as someone with whom they would like to spend a year or more of their life. In addition, a judge's clerk is the judge's representative to the public, so the judge wants to be absolutely certain that you are someone who he or she trusts to represent them to the "outside" world.
The interview itself can last anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours. Often the current clerk or secretary is included in the interview process. Remember that they are interviewing you too. The judge will expect questions from you, so have some prepared. In addition, carefully review every document in your application. Expect questions regarding all of these items. Remember to treat everyone you meet at the courthouse as if they have the power to deny you an offer - because they may.
You may wish to schedule a mock interview with an OCPD Career Advisor to practice an interview with a judge/judicial clerk. In addition, professors can be a valuable source of information about interview format and preparation; many CUA law professors clerked for judges themselves, and are willing to counsel students about clerkships.
Know your judge! There is nothing worse than being asked about a judge's recent decisions or particular cases in which she or he has been involved and not being prepared to discuss these items. A judge wants to know that you did not randomly select him or her. You should do your research, hopefully in the application stage, and certainly before an interview. Here are a few suggestions for researching judges:
Begin by looking at books such as The Almanac of the Federal Judiciary and The American Bench for biographical information (located on the LCS Judiciary shelf).
You should also do an online search for judge's most recent cases and decisions. LEXIS is particularly helpful for finding information beyond court opinions. Another option is to use newspaper web sites to search for recent articles about judges; a case or opinion may have made the local news.
Check courts' web sites; many contain biographical information about judges, as well as recent court opinions and articles.
TALK TO PEOPLE who may know the judge and/or court; professors, attorneys at your place of work, OCPD Career Advisors, classmates, CUA alumni, family members, friends may all fit this bill.
Contact previous law clerks who worked for the judge to obtain further insight into what the clerkship would be like. OCPD's Judicial Clerkship handout includes a current list of current and past law clerks in federal and state courts nationwide.
Even if you don't have an interview yet, show your list of target judges to professors and the other people mentioned above; professors and many others know local judges personally and can make great contacts and offer excellent insight.