Judicial clerkships have long been considered an excellent way for law school graduates and new lawyers to expand their legal training and glean valuable insight into the litigation process. It isn’t always easy to get the scoop on why clerking is beneficial, though, or how to apply for and obtain a prized judicial clerkship.
That’s where we come in! While we could opine for pages on the value of judicial clerkships, to quote Shakespeare, “brevity is the soul of wit.” So, we’ve distilled our thoughts to three critical questions someone considering a judicial clerkship should consider.
What exactly does a judicial clerkship entail?
Ask any former clerk, and they will tell you that no two chambers are the same. The duties of a judicial clerk vary depending on the court, the judge, and a range of other factors. Generally speaking, judicial clerks assist judges in managing their chambers and moving the collection of cases before them—also known as their docket—forward. Clerks are responsible for conducting legal research, drafting legal opinions and memoranda, and assisting the judge in preparing for hearings or conferences. Clerks may also work with the lawyers before the court to move a case forward, and in a trial court, may help the judge manage filings and party-correspondence.
What is universal across chambers, however, is that a clerkship provides you with the ability to learn directly from a judge and the opportunity to build a personal and professional network of lifelong mentors and colleagues. The skills and insight you acquire and hone in chambers will help you add value to any professional environment.
Why do law firms value clerkship experience?
Clerkships give you the opportunity to fine-tune your legal research and writing skills. Depending on the nature of the court, you will have the chance to experience various stages of litigation, including everything from initial filings to jury trials; this will come in handy when you transition to practice. Working in a judge’s chambers will expose you to a broad array of cases and advocacy styles, which you will come to absorb and understand as more (or less) effective. Moreover, as a judicial clerk, you will learn how your judge thinks.
In many ways, the practice of law follows an apprenticeship model, and having the opportunity to learn by doing is key. Law firms, in particular, are eager to recruit associates who have had such hands-on experience. Many firms pay a substantial bonus to judicial clerks joining their firm directly from chambers.
How does the judicial clerkship application process work?
A typical application packet likely includes your resume, cover letter, transcript, at least one writing sample, and a few letters of recommendation, usually from your law professors and someone with whom you have worked. With that said, judges will have different application requirements, and you should familiarize yourself with the prerequisites for each judge to whom you are applying. If your law school has a clerkship office or guidance program, consider leveraging that resource from the beginning of the application process. Your law school Career Services Office may also be able to help connect you with alumni of the law school who have clerked, and/or alumni of the particular judge to whom you are applying.
You should give substantial thought to your writing sample(s), whether a moot court brief, a class paper, an appropriate brief from work, or another document you’ve drafted that puts your best foot forward. Think critically about who will serve as your references and preview for them that you are considering applying for a judicial clerkship so that they have substantial time to prepare their recommendation.
When it comes time to interview with the judge (and often his or her clerks), preparation is key. You should review your submission package ahead of the interview and make sure you’re comfortable discussing each aspect of your application, as well as a selection of the judge’s decisions. As with the interview process for any position, you should be prepared to clearly convey why you are interested in clerking and why you might want to clerk for a particular judge.
If you’re interested in a deeper dive, we encourage you to check out our podcast: Judicial Clerkships: Perspectives on Value, Experience and Diversity. The podcast features discussions with current and former Patterson Belknap partners, counsel, and associates from a variety of backgrounds who served as judicial clerks, providing their diverse perspectives on the clerkship experience.