Guide to Judicial Clerkships
Judicial clerkships are among the most prestigious and competitive employment opportunities available to recent graduates. Usually lasting one to two years, a judicial clerkship is an excellent way to bridge the gap between law school and the practice of law. Clerks at all court levels obtain unparalleled access to and knowledge about the judicial process. Additionally, a judicial clerk is exposed to a wide array of legal issues and is able to make a hands-on contribution to the judicial decision-making process. This experience and perspective is attractive to future legal employers who hire former judicial clerks for their significant legal knowledge, insider view of the court system, and ability to view cases from the court’s perspective. A judicial clerkship can provide a significant edge in the legal job market not only because of increased knowledge of the law and court system, but because of the valuable contacts and personal relationships developed during the clerkship experience.
There is, of course, no concise job description for a judicial clerk, and the specific responsibilities of a clerk depend on the type of court at which the clerk serves and on the specific preferences of the judge. The judicial clerk is a full-time assistant to the judge and usually performs a wide range of tasks including, legal research, drafting of memoranda and court opinions, proofreading and cite checking. A judicial clerk is often responsible for various administrative tasks such as maintenance of the docket and library, assembling documents or other administrative tasks necessary to meet the many obligations of the judge.
Trial court clerks generally are responsible for a wider range of functions than appellate court clerks. This is primarily because a trial court is a fact-finding court, which deals directly with litigants and with the everyday details of the litigation process. As such, the trial court clerk is often responsible for assisting with discovery disputes, settlement conferences and trials. Trial court clerks draft trial briefs and opinions both short and long and maintain correspondence and contact with attorneys and witnesses. Students interested in litigation find a clerkship in a trial court particularly helpful in their understanding of the litigation process.
Appellate court clerks are more likely to spend most of their time researching and writing. An appellate court reviews cases for error from the trial court and does not have contact with the litigants apart from the oral argument. The primary tasks of an appellate judicial clerk are to review the record from the trial court, review the parties’ briefs to the court, research the applicable law and draft either a memorandum of law or a draft opinion for the judge.
Some courts serve only specialized areas of the law such as the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Judicial clerks serving these courts generally perform duties similar to judicial clerks at the trial level.
In order to become a federal judicial clerk, an applicant must have completed his or her J.D. degree and be a U.S. citizen. A non-citizen of the United States may be employed by the federal judiciary to work for courts located in Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and Hawaii. For additional information regarding the employment of non-United States citizens consult the United States Office of Personnel Management web site at www.usajobs.opm.gov/b1m.htm or call the Office of General Counsel at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts at (202) 502-1100. Not all state courts require U.S. citizenship. Check with each specific court.
There are no specific academic guidelines regarding the qualifications necessary to becoming a judicial clerk. Clerkship positions are, however, incredibly competitive and generally are awarded to students who have had significant success in law school, college and in the professional world. In general, federal clerkships are more competitive than state court clerkships and generally require a class rank in at least the top 25%. Each applicant is considered on his or her individual merit, and judges set their own hiring criteria, so it is impossible to give a definitive grade or experience cutoff. Some information on hiring criteria is available in the NALP State Judicial Clerkship Directory (available as a non-circulating resource in the Office of Professional Development). Information about the hiring criteria for certain federal judges is also available at https://lawclerks.ao.uscourts.gov. Please schedule an appointment with the Office of Professional Development to discuss specific questions about qualifications.
The salary available to a judicial clerk depends upon the court, legal work experience subsequent to graduation from law school and bar membership. Salaries usually fall somewhere between the low thirties to mid-fifties per year. The median salary for judicial clerks is around $54, 000. Many law firms will give credit toward partnership for time as a clerk, considering former judicial clerks as second or third year associates and adjusting their salaries to reflect that seniority.
When choosing a court, applicants should consider two main factors: the type of court and the location of the court. It’s important to carefully research courts before applying. Applicants should not waste time applying to courts that they would not truly want to serve. This reflects poorly on the applicant (and judges do talk), and it reflects poorly on the applicant’s law school. Since judicial clerks are not generally required to be members of the bar of the state where the court is located, applicants should consider serving in a geographic location for a year or two even if they would not want to settle there permanently. However, judicial clerkship applicants should not apply to geographic locations that are not feasible even in the short term.
There are several different options when applying to a federal court. While there are differing levels of competitiveness, it is a generally accepted fact that all federal clerkships are incredibly competitive. Applicants seeking a clerkship should apply in early September and not before in accordance with the Federal Hiring Plan. Ask an OPD staff member for more information. Federal judges will then observe a reading period in mid-September. Then judges can begin interviewing candidates and making offers. It is critical that applicants assemble application packets over the summer before third year and have them ready to mail for the early September due date. That means that applicants should start the research and application preparation process in late June or early July. Applicants who begin the process late and are not ready to send applications pursuant to the Hiring Plan will risk losing out on the opportunity. With just 14 days between the opening of the application period and the date that judges can make offers, the process will move quickly. The following is a breakdown of the courts at the federal level:
United States Supreme Court: These clerkship positions are obviously the most competitive. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court clerks are not hired while the clerk is in law school. In order to be considered for a clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court, applicants must almost always have completed a clerkship at the federal Court of Appeals level. Certain courts, such as the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit are considered most likely to lead to a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship. The credentials of individuals selected for such positions are almost always extraordinary. For more information on the U.S. Supreme Court, visit its website at www.supremecourtus.gov.
United States Court of Appeals: There are twelve regional circuit courts of appeal. Each judge at the Court of Appeals level has two or three clerks. With a limited number of positions available and with the complexity of legal issues presented, these clerkships are incredibly competitive, although certain circuits are more competitive than others. The D.C. Circuit, the Second Circuit and the Ninth Circuit are generally considered the most competitive. For a map of circuits and links to circuit court websites, visit www.uscourts.gov/links.html.
United States District Court: There are ninety-four judicial districts in the United States. There are two different clerkship options at the federal trial court level. First, there are several hundred active U.S. District Judges across the country most of whom have two law clerks. Second, U.S. District Magistrate Judges frequently hire judicial clerks. Magistrates handle pre-trial matters for trials before the District Court and handle trials for petty offenders. For a map of circuits and links to circuit and district court websites, visit www.uscourts.gov/links.html or visit the Professional Development website at indylaw.indiana.edu/career/government.htm.
United States Bankruptcy Court: Judicial clerks at the Bankruptcy Court are responsible for reviewing cases, writing memoranda of law and answering attorney questions regarding court procedures and policies. For a map of circuits and links to bankruptcy courts across the country, visit www.uscourts.gov/links.html.
United States Tax Court: There are nineteen judges appointed to the tax court each with approximately three judicial clerks. Clerks receive the experience of a trial court within the specialized field of tax. The Court's trials involve controversies regarding deficiencies in income, estate and gift taxes among other things. Students interested in positions should be sure to take and excel in tax courses and be ranked in the upper third of their class. For more information on the U.S. Tax Court visit www.ustaxcourt.gov.
United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit: This specialized court sits in Washington D.C. and handles primarily intellectual property matters. For more information on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, visit www.fedcir.gov.
United States Court of Federal Claims: This court has eighteen judges and approximately nineteen law clerks. The judges hear cases dealing with suits against the United States. For more information, visit www.uscfc.uscourts.gov.
United States Court of International Trade: This court has nine judges most of whom have two law clerks. The jurisdiction of this court is over civil actions against the United States arising from federal laws governing import transactions. For more information visit www.cit.uscourts.gov.
Indiana Supreme Court: Many students from Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law have served as judicial clerks for one of the five Justices of the Indiana Supreme Court. Each Justice has two clerks with the exception of the Chief Justice who has three. Clerks are primarily responsible for reviewing the trial record, researching the applicable law and drafting legal memoranda and court opinions. Clerks also attend oral arguments before the court. Students interested in a clerkship opportunity should apply during the fall semester of their second year. For more information on the Indiana Supreme Court and on the Justices, visit the Court's website at www.in.gov/judiciary/supreme/
Indiana Court of Appeals: There are fifteen judges on the Indiana Court of Appeals. The courtroom and all judges' offices are located in Indianapolis. The courtroom and nine offices occupy a portion of the fourth floor of the State House. Six offices and the administrative offices are housed on the twelfth floor of the National City Center in downtown Indianapolis. Clerks are primarily responsible for reviewing the trial record, researching the applicable law and drafting legal memoranda and court opinions. Some judges select their clerks during the fall and some wait until the spring semester. Students should apply during the second year of law school. For more information on the Indiana Court of Appeals and on the Judges, visit the Court's website at www.in.gov/judiciary/appeals/
Courts of Other States: Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law students can clerk at any state court in the country and are not limited to the Indiana state court system. The deadlines and procedures for individual state courts vary widely. To learn more about state courts across the country, visit the website for the National Center for State Courts at www.ncsconline.org/D_KIS.
A judicial clerkship application generally includes a cover letter, resume, writing sample, law school transcript and three to four letters of recommendation. Application materials should not be sent piecemeal, but should be included in one packet addressed to the judge and marked “Judicial Clerkship Application”. Professional Development will cover the cost of postage for up to 50 clerkship applications. Bring completed clerkship application packets to the Office of Professional Development in addressed, but unsealed envelopes. Please see the section below regarding Letters of Recommendation for instructions on including letters in application packets.
An applicant's cover letter is extremely important because this is the first opportunity the judge has to evaluate writing ability. A poorly written cover letter or a cover letter with errors will result in the applicant not receiving an interview. Cover letters should be no more than one page. It is important that a member of the Professional Development staff review judicial clerkship cover letters before they are sent.
A cover letter should indicate the applicant's interest in a judicial clerkship during a specific hiring cycle (including the month and year the applicant is available to begin work) and should include information that the judge will need to evaluate such as academic success (including the ability to research and write), interest in or connection to a particular geographic area, and availability for interviews, including any trips planned to the area.
Many applicants are tempted to explain why they want a judicial clerkship and how the clerkship experience could benefit them. Instead, the cover letter should focus on why the candidate is interested in the specific court, specific judge, specific geographic area or specific area of law (if the court has limited jurisdiction) and the attributes that the candidate possesses which would make him or her a successful judicial clerk. If it is possible to simply change the name of the judge and send a cover letter to multiple judges, the letter is not specific enough and should be rewritten to specifically express interest in the particular clerkship opportunity. Remember, the judge will receive many applications and can only choose a small number of clerks. An applicant's cover letter should stand out as expressing genuine interest.
Applicants are also tempted to describe themselves as possessing "excellent research and writing skills." Statements such as these are conclusory and do not set an application apart from others. Instead of simply stating ability, demonstrate it through examples of experiences that have developed those skills. Describe achievements instead of just stating attributes.
Letter #1: I am uniquely qualified for the position of judicial clerk. I have excellent writing and research skills and hope to further develop them through the clerkship experience. (This letter would not stand out from other letters and does not give the judge any useful information with which to evaluate this candidate)
Letter #2: My experience as a research assistant to Professor Smith helped me to hone my research skills. I reviewed the recent changes to Title VII and the impact those changes had on the ability of employees to sue their employers for hostile environment sexual harassment. My research revealed that the changes in the law significantly affect the time that employees have to file claims, and I expressed this result in a written memorandum of law. My writing ability has been further developed through my participation on the Indiana Law Review where my note entitled "Hard Cases Make Bad Law: An Analysis of the Judicial Role" has been selected for publication. (This letter is much more specific and uses examples to illustrate the point. This type of letter is much more effective.)
Take special care in addressing cover letters. Use the form of address appropriate for the particular judge. Letters of application are formal and should show proper deference to the judge by stating the judge's title correctly. The following are guidelines for correctly addressing cover letters:
- Use "The Honorable" before the judge's name on the inside address and on the envelope.
- The title for judges who sit on courts that have the name "Supreme" is "Justice". All other judges are called "Judge". The salutation of the cover letter should use the appropriate title. Examples: Dear Justice Smith; Dear Judge Jones, etc.
- The correct title for a magistrate is United Stated Magistrate Judge. The salutation of the cover letter should read "Dear Magistrate Judge Johnson".
- If the judge is the Chief Judge, Chief Justice, or Senior Judge address him or her as such in the letter. Example: Dear Chief Justice Shepard.
- When addressing a letter to a judicial clerk, include the title "Law Clerk" after the name.
- The appropriate closing for a cover letter to a judge is "Respectfully" instead of "Sincerely".
Resumes should be conservative in style and should list education and experience in reverse chronological order. They should not be longer than two pages and should be error free. A resume should include experiences that illustrate research and writing skills such as a law review note being selected for publication; any other publications; and jobs, pro bono experience or internships at which the applicant conducted research, wrote legal memoranda or prepared legal documents.
Resumes should include community service or interests and activities that would help the judge get a sense of the applicant as a person. Remember, the judge is not just hiring an employee. Judicial clerks work closely with the judge and personality fit is as important as credentials. A resume should give a sense of who the applicant is and what interests him or her.
Applicants should have their resumes reviewed by Professional Development before sending them. It's important to have a fresh pair of eyes check errors and to make sure that educational and professional experience is described in a way that best illustrates its value.
While the cover letter is really the first writing sample, judges also want to see an official writing sample, which illustrates legal analysis ability. When choosing a writing sample, keep in mind the functions of a judicial clerk. Clerks are called upon to evaluate a factual and legal situation, research applicable law, analyze the factual and legal situation in light of the law and reach a conclusion. A writing sample should reflect these abilities. Appropriate writing samples include a law review article, a moot court brief, a paper written for a law school course or a memorandum from a summer clerkship. Applicants who submit material created for an employer must get the employer's permission first.
A writing sample should be 5-10 pages long. The judge's time is valuable, and it is not appropriate to ask him or herto read a lengthy writing sample. An excerpt of a longer work is fine, but be sure to identify it as such. It's also a good idea to attach a cover page to an excerpt listing a few key facts and giving some context to the piece.
All writing samples should include a cover page with the applicant's name, address, and the purpose for which the writing sample was created. When submitting a paper from a class, always send a clean copy, removing the professor's name, the date of the assignment and any other such information from the top of the paper, and when submitting an assignment from work, remove the name of the assigning attorney, etc. Be sure to read it carefully for grammatical and spelling mistakes and for citation errors. It is a good idea to have a friend read over it to be sure to catch all mistakes.
Law School Transcript:
Most judges will accept an unofficial transcript, but some may request an official transcript. Unofficial transcripts include photocopies of official transcripts and printouts from Insite (insite.indiana.edu). When using an Insite printout, be sure to type contact information at the top because no name appears on Insite transcripts. Students can obtain an official transcript from the IUPUI registrar (located in Cavanaugh Hall) for$7.00 per copy.
Letters of Recommendation:
Judges generally require three to four letters of recommendation. Letters should be from law school faculty and legal employers who can thoughtfully comment on the applicant's research and writing ability, intellectual abilities and potential as a lawyer. Applicants should select individuals who can speak specifically to their abilities. A letter from a well-known figure may carry a great deal of weight, but not if that person does not know the applicant and cannot truly comment on his or her ability. Avoid letters of recommendation written "To Whom it May Concern". When sending out a number of applications, consider preparing a mail merge document with names, addresses and salutations to provide to references.
When requesting letters of recommendation, be sure to allow sufficient time for references to prepare a letter. It'sa good idea to provide each reference with a current resume and a brief note explaining clerkship preferences and plans. Be clear about expectations of when the letter should be ready. It is the applicant's responsibility to pay for postage and to ensure that letters are sent. There are two ways to handle this. Either provide addressed, stamped envelopes to references and simply check back to be sure the letters were mailed, or include all letters of recommendation in the application packet. If including all letters in the application packet, provide an envelope to each reference and ask that he or she seal the letter of recommendation inside the envelope and sign the seal.
Once an applicant has made the resume cut and is selected for an interview, the focus shifts from the applicant's credentials to issues of "fit". All candidates selected for interviews have the credentials and experience necessary to be a successful judicial clerk, but the judge is interested in hiring someone with whom he or she can work effectively. Interviews are typically conducted in the judge's chambers, allowing the judge and all support staff to form impressions about the candidate. It is critical that candidates treat all members of the judge's staff with respect. Clerks come and go, but permanent staff members that have a long-standing relationship with the judge are often viewed as indispensable and can have a great deal of influence on the judge's decision.
Interviews will last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or longer. Most judges do not simply quiz candidates on substantive law, but candidates should be prepared to answer questions about the legal issues raised in their law review note, writing sample, or favorite class/area of the law. Some judges will ask candidates to speak about two or three legal issues about which they feel strongly. Become familiar with recent or noteworthy cases that have either gained national attention or have come from the judge's court. Get familiar with the judge's opinions, dissents and personal history to try to anticipate areas that the judge may be interested in discussing. If possible, talk to people who have interviewed with the judge before to get a sense of what the judge might ask.
Candidates should expect questions on how a clerkship fits into their long-range career goals. Before interviewing, candidates should give some thought to why they are interested in a clerkship, why they are interested in the particular court and why they are interested in the particular judge and be prepared to answer questions about these choices. Answers should express a genuine interest in the specific clerkship for which the candidate is interviewing and should show that the candidate has done some research on the court and on the judge.
Approach the judicial clerkship interview with a game plan. Prepare ahead of time and identify the key personal characteristics to highlight in the interview. Focus on things such as writing ability, ability to meet deadlines, research ability, time management skills, ability to work independently and as part of a team, judgment and ability to take constructive criticism.
Candidates should be prepared to ask questions of the judge. Remember that this, like all interviews, is a conversation. Candidates might ask questions about the scope of a judicial clerk's responsibilities, working conditions, the nature of the docket, and how responsibilities are delegated. Questions should be thoughtful and should illustrate a genuine interest in the position.
Travel and lodging expenses incurred during the interview process are the candidate's responsibility. Carefully select courts to apply to and be sure not to take on too much in terms of travel time and expense. Once a candidate has scheduled an interview, if he or she has multiple applications in the same geographic area, it is appropriate to contact several judges to let them know that he or she will be in the area. This might help to reduce expense and time spent on the road.
Offers for judicial clerkships are not like other job offers. Many judges expect an answer on the spot. At most, expect to have twenty-four hours in which to accept. Be aware that requests for an extension might not be looked upon favorably by the judge. Applicants should only apply to and interview with a judge if they are willing to immediately accept an offer from that judge. If a candidate interviews with a judge and does not think that he or she would accept an offer from that judge, the candidate should call or write to have his or her name removed from consideration as opposed to waiting until an offer is accepted and then declining that offer.
Once a candidate has accepted an offer, he or she has made a commitment that must be honored. It is personally unprofessional and bad for the reputation of the candidate's law school to back out of an accepted offer to pursue another opportunity. Once a candidate has accepted an offer with one judge, that candidate should contact the other judges to whom he or she has submitted applications to have his or her name removed from consideration.
- Almanac of the Federal Judiciary Volumes I & II (non-circulating reference)
- American Bench, The Judges of the Nation 2003-2004 (non-circulating reference)
- Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships
- Chambers Handbook for Judges' Law Clerks and Secretaries
- Courting the Clerkship: Perspectives on the Opportunities and Obstacles for Judicial Clerkships (also available online at http://www.nalp.org/content/index.php?pid=135)
- Federal Judicial Center Law Clerk Handbook
- Judicial Yellow Book: Who’s Who in Federal and State Courts
- Federal-State Court Directory 2004 (non-circulating reference)
- Guide to State Judicial Clerkship Procedures 2003 (non-circulating reference)
- "America's Greatest Places to Work With a Law Degree" by KimmWalton (contains information on clerkships)
- "What Law School Doesn't Teach You, But You Really Need to Know" by Kimm Walton (contains chapter on judicial clerkships)
- www.cadc.uscourts.gov/lawclerk/ (information about federal hiring guidelines)
- www.judicialclerkships.com (general judicial clerkship information)
- https://lawclerks.ao.uscourts.gov/ (federal clerk job listings)
- www.courts.net (links to state court websites from all 50 states)
- www.uscourts.gov/links.html (links to federal court websites for all circuits and districts)
- http://air.fjc.gov (biographies for judges in federal courts)
- http://jurist.law.pitt.edu (general judicial clerkship information)
- http://www.infirmation.com/bboard/clubs.tcl?topic=Greedy Clerks (message board)
- www.jdpost.com (search for judicial clerkship positions)
- www.nalp.org (information on federal hiring timeline)
- lawschool.lexis.com (information on available judicial clerkships)
- www.fedlawclerks.com (find former federal law clerks)
- http://www.ai.org/judiciary/supreme/clerkship.html (Indiana Supreme Court application guidelines)