Quiver’s Guide to Federal Clerkships

by quiver

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This is a guide for those interested in judicial clerkships. It is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve tried to cover the essentials. I should note that, while I will mention state clerkships at various points, the focus of this guide will be on federal clerkships. Okay, let’s get to it.

I. What is a Clerkship?
II. Why Should I Clerk?
III. What is the Clerkship Hiring Timeline?
IV. How Do I Get a (Federal) Clerkship?
V. How Do I Perform Once I Start Clerking?
VI. What are My Job Opportunities After Clerking?
VII. Concluding Thoughts

I. What is a Clerkship?

A clerkship is, essentially, an apprenticeship with a judge. For very basic context, there are six levels of the judiciary: state trial court, state intermediate appellate court, state supreme court, federal trial court (District Court), federal intermediate appellate court (Court of Appeals or “COA”), and the U.S. Supreme Court ("SCOTUS").

The day-to-day work of a clerk will primarily vary by type of judge. The work of clerks at the four appellate levels will generally revolve around reviewing briefs, preparing for oral argument, drafting opinions, and reviewing opinions by other judges. The work of clerks in state trial courts and federal district courts will also involve reviewing briefs and drafting opinions, but there will be a lot more variation. A district court clerk may help the judge prepare, not just for periodic oral arguments, but for all types of proceedings, including settlement conferences, trials, preliminary-injunction hearings, oral arguments on dispositive motions, and sentencings. Trial courts are more fast paced than appellate courts, and they will generally involve more human interaction (in court more often, calls from lawyers and litigants, emergency motions, etc.). Parenthetically, it should also be noted that individual judges will also have their own preferences. For example, many district judges will handle their criminal cases without assistance from their clerks, while other district judges involve their clerks at every stage of criminal proceedings.

Aside from the work itself, another key distinction between trial and appellate judges is their autonomy. As a clerk for a district judge, there is only one person to ultimately deal with: your judge. You will confer with your judge on cases, your judge will edit your opinions, and your judge will issue rulings with your input. At the appellate levels, judges hear cases in panels; panels of three judges at the COA level (exempting en bancs). This means that, most of the time, you not only need to work with your judge, but you need to incorporate the views of other judges on the panel. For example, you may draft an opinion and go through the editing process with your judge, and then another judge may say, “I will only join this opinion if you resolve issue X in A, B, C ways.” These types of interpersonal politics are not present at the trial-court level.

In terms of clerkship length, at the federal level, the vast majority of clerkships are term positions; that is, they are for only a set amount of time. The most common term is a year-long clerkship from September to September, but two-year clerkships are not uncommon and actual start dates will vary widely. There are also “career clerks” who are not term limited and may stay with a judge for an indefinite period of time. By way of example, I have seen the following combinations of clerks:

District Judge 1: three term clerks, all starting in September and ending a year later
District Judge 2: one career clerk, and two one-year clerks that both start in September
District Judge 3: three term clerks, one starting in January, one starting in July, and one starting in October, all for one year
COA Judge 1: two two-year clerks that are hired in alternating years, and two one-year clerks both starting in September
COA Judge 2: one career clerk, and three one-year clerks all starting in September
COA Judge 3: four one-year clerks, two starting in January and two starting in August

In other words, it’s easy to draw generalizations, but each individual judge will have their own hiring preferences—this will become a running theme.

II. Why Should I Clerk?

A popular answer to this question is: “because I can.” But no, clerkships are not just brass rings that law students and lawyers love to chase. There are great reasons to clerk, but there are certainly people for whom clerking does not make sense and/or is not feasible. I’ll try to go through some of the main reasons on both sides.

Reasons to Clerk
- You want substantive work early in your career
- You like research and writing and you want to do a lot of it
- You want to see various areas of law
- You want to tackle (mostly) interesting legal issues
- You want to gain a lifelong mentor/advocate (depending on the judge)
- You want to increase certain job prospects (see below)

Reasons Not to Clerk
- You’re interested in corporate work, not litigation
- You need biglaw money
- You don’t like research and writing
- You have no desire to see other areas of law
- You can’t get a clerkship in your desired geographic area

That’s all very abstract; the real calculus will not only take into account the factors listed above, but will also incorporate the competitiveness, timing, and personal circumstances of each individual person. This will be explored more in depth below.

III. What is the Clerkship Hiring Timeline?

Back in the day—during the Hiring Plan—this was an easier question to answer. Now, it’s basically a free for all.

Some feeder judges (the toughest clerkships to get) start hiring as early as 1L spring or summer for clerkships beginning after law school. Those are more the exception than the rule, and the vast majority of people can’t get those clerkships anyway, so don’t worry about it. The point is: clerkships can start anywhere from five months after hiring to five years after hiring, and everything in between. If you’re curious, just peruse OSCAR, the online clerkship application system, and you’ll get a sense of different hiring timelines for different judges.

As a very loose rule, the more competitive the clerkship, the further out the judge hires (exempting SCOTUS). So, for example, feeder judges tend to hire multiple years into the future, other circuit judges will hire one to three years out, and district judges will hire one to two years out. Comparing apples to apples, SDNY judges will tend to hire further into the future than judges in, say, DNJ.

The underlying theory is that the most qualified people will want to clerk for the most desirable judges (really, judges in desirable locations), and therefore judges hire further into the future to lock up the best candidates. In reality, the demand for clerkships far exceeds the supply of clerkships everywhere in the federal judiciary, and even the “less qualified” applicants could still be great clerks, but that’s neither here nor there.

The last point I’ll make here: it has become increasingly common for people to start clerking (and for judges to prefer clerks) anywhere from one to four years out of law school. This has advantages for both judges and applicants. On the judge side, the judge is getting someone that better understands the impact of decisions, has more research and writing experience, and knows how to deal with modern litigation issues (for example, older judges may not understand the mechanics of dealing with ESI discovery). On the applicant side, this gives you a longer window to apply for clerkships, it puts you at an advantage for judges who prefer work experience, and it can serve as a natural way to transition to a new job. So, the previous path skewed heavily toward:

Law school-->Clerk-->Clerk-->Enter practice

Now, it is quite common to find any of the following:

Law school-->Work-->Clerk-->Clerk-->Work
Law school-->Work-->Clerk-->Work-->Clerk-->Work
Law school-->Work-->Work-->Clerk-->Clerk-->Work

You get the idea.

One thing that would be super helpful as an addendum to this would be a rough timeline for this process. I realize each judge is different, but when should 1Ls start thinking about clerkship? When do we reach out to professors/start putting together cover letters? Any 1L summer goals we should be setting to maximize our clerkship opportunities?

There might not be great answers to those questions, but if it's at all possible, a rough timeline would be super useful!

Good questions.

1L year, your main focus should be on getting the highest grades possible. As I point out below, you can also start fostering relationships with professors, but the ranking of priorities is really: (1) grades, (2) grades, and (3) grades.

With clerkship hiring now happening sometimes years before the clerkships actually begin, you can start seriously thinking about clerkships after you receive your 1L grades. Most importantly, you should decide (1) where you want to clerk, and (2) if you want to shoot for a clerkship right after law school, or if you're willing to work a little before clerking. The answers to those questions will basically determine your individual timeline. If you want to shoot for competitive clerkships in major cities, for example, you may have to start applying soon after 1L if you want to clerk right after law school. If you're okay with working before clerking and/or you're okay with clerkships outside major cities, you may not need to start the clerkship process in earnest until 2L, 3L, or even later.

Throughout 2L and 3L years, you should be focused on building relationships with professors and, secondarily, research and writing. At a bare minimum, you need to do enough research and writing to get a good writing sample for clerkship applications (see below).

In terms of summer employment and other internships, it doesn't really matter what you do, but it should generally give you some research-and-writing experience. If you're thinking about DOJ down the line, interning at Main Justice or in a USAO is totally fine. If you want to work at a firm, getting an SA at a firm is also totally fine (and is probably the most common 2L summer employment for eventual clerks). If you have an opportunity to be an RA with a professor you like, that's fine too (more common for 1L summer).

Although not at all required, I would highly recommend a judicial internship at some point during law school; it's a great experience, it pretty much guarantees research and writing, it gives you an up-close view of what clerking is like, and it is a good talking point for clerkship interviews. As an added bonus, I've also seen judicial internships yield anything from a recommendation letter to an actual clerkship with that judge down the line.

IV. How Do I Get a (Federal) Clerkship?

Ah, this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. Let me say this upfront: clerkship hiring is extremely idiosyncratic, and every judge is looking for something different, so everything in this section comes with the caveat that my broad generalizations do not apply to any specific judge. With that out of the way, there are three steps to getting a clerkship: (1) applying, (2) getting an interview, and (3) getting an offer. I’ll go through each in turn.

Applying. To actually apply, you’ll need some simple materials: cover letter, resume, law school transcript, a writing sample, and two or three letters of recommendation. Some judges will ask for other materials, like an undergrad transcript, and still other judges will have downright bizarre requests, like asking for your LSAT score or asking you to take a quiz (yes, that judge exists and he sits on the Sixth Circuit). The application materials are pretty straightforward, so I will only touch on the writing sample and recommendation letters.

With respect to writing samples, the primary goals are to show that you write clearly and you can perform a solid legal analysis. Those should be the overall guiding principles. The general consensus is that you should try to use a brief or memo (from LRW, moot court, summer employment, or post-law school experience) for applications to district judges and something more academic (like an excerpted law review note or bench memo from a judicial internship) for applications to circuit judges. I think that's fine, subject to my first point. So, if you're applying to circuit judges and you're choosing between a law review note and a moot court brief, the answer is: whichever shows that you write clearly and can perform a sound legal analysis.

With respect to recommendation letters, these will be primarily from law professors, but if you’ve been out of law school for a little while, one or more recommendation letters from, say, partners or senior associates are also fine. In securing recommendation letters, the main factor should be how well the person can speak to your abilities; just because a professor is famous, doesn’t mean that recommendation letter means more. (If you’re in SCOTUS contention, you may need some heavy hitters to do some work for you, but this isn’t an issue for most us.) In fact, many judges/clerks—clerks do the first pass at clerkship application in many chambers—may not recognize the “rockstar” professors even if you got a recommendation letter from them. Like I said, just focus on getting a good recommendation letter, whether it’s from the most famous professor at your school, or from an unknown clinical professor. (See below for more information on connecting with professors.)

In term of application methods, there are two ways to apply: through paper mailings or via the online OSCAR system. OSCAR is great in that it saves your documents and allows you to apply to a bazillion judges with just a few clicks. (It’s also much easier from the reviewing side, but I digress.) Paper applications are very very . . . not great. They take a long time and require a lot of effort, depending on the number of judges to which you’re applying. If you’re out of law school or your law school’s clerkship office is bad/nonexistent, then paper applications can also get very expensive in a hurry, again depending on the number of judges to which you’re applying.

Paper vs. OSCAR applications is an eternal debate. Some judges expressly disallow paper or OSCAR, so that makes the choice easier for them. The majority view is that a paper application is more likely to get noticed than a generic OSCAR application. In part, this has to do with the fact that OSCAR allows a reviewer to sort using various metrics, such as school, class ranks, journal, etc. For this reason, I think a paper application is preferable if you have some characteristic that wouldn’t otherwise get noticed quickly on OSCAR. For example, a military veteran that is top 5% at a T20 applying to judges that usually hire from the T14. Paper applications can also be useful for highlighting something. For example, a top 10% student applying to judges in their secondary or tertiary home market that doesn’t see a lot of applicants at that level. Don’t sweat this too much, though, because it is exceedingly unlikely that your method of application will have a significant impact on your success rate. More on this later.

Getting an Interview. This is generally the hardest part of the clerkship process. There are way more qualified applicants than clerkship slots, so getting your application off the pile is a huge part of the battle. Getting an interview boils down to essentially three things: (1) your stats, (2) your flexibility, and (3) your connections.

By “stats”, I basically mean your law school and grades, but this also includes things like work experience and journal as well. Let me again reiterate: clerkship hiring is extremely idiosyncratic, and every judge is looking for something different, so I’m simply drawing broad generalizations here. With that in mind, these are the stats you’ll need to have a realistic shot at various federal clerkships:

YHS – Top 5%
T14 – Top 1-5 people
T25 - #1 person

YHS – Top 10-20%
CCN – Top 10-15%
T14 – Top 10%
T25 – Top 5%
All other schools – Top %1

District Court
YHS – Top 30-40%
CCN – Top 25-30%
T14 – Top 15-25%
T25 – Top 10%
All other schools – Top 5%

There are lots of caveats here. First, the above stats should be viewed as necessary but not sufficient conditions; no clerkship is guaranteed, regardless of your stats.

Second, competitiveness varies widely even at the same level. The stats needed to get a clerkship in competitive districts—SDNY, EDNY, DDC, CDCA, etc.—are more in line the COA stats than the district-court stats I listed. The same concept applies for circuits: stats-wise, it’s generally harder to get a clerkship in the Second Circuit, Ninth Circuit, and DC Circuit than in other circuits. (Also see my note about flexibility, below.)

Third, as noted above, lots of judges now prefer post-law school work experience. So, for many of those judges, a few years at a top litigation firm may matter more than years-old law school grades. This isn’t to say that stats are thrown out the window with some work experience, but there may be some extra flexibility with stats.

Fourth, it again bears repeating that the above stats do not take into account judges’ individual preferences. In drawing clerkship generalizations, there’s just no way to account for the random Eighth Circuit judge that reserves one of her slots for a person from her T3 alma mater (as a fictitious example).

Lastly, once you get outside the T14, your clerkship chances will likely be strongest in the same region as your law school. There are two main reasons for this: judges in the same region are more likely to have attended those same schools (or otherwise feel connected to the region), and they’re more likely to have connections with professors at local schools.

A quick note about flexibility here. If you’re only willing/able to clerking in major cities, your stats will only do so much. For example, if you’re top 10% at CCN and you blanket every federal judge the northeast, it’s quite possible you’ll get a handful interviews. If that same person blanketed only judges in NYC, SF, DC, and LA, the odds of getting an interview on stats alone is much slimmer. To a certain extent, getting a clerkship is a numbers game, so more applications will likely increase your odds. Not to mention that there are tons of great judges outside of major cities.

Time to talk about connections. As I mentioned above, there are many more qualified applicants than clerkship slots, so getting your application off the pile is critical. The main way to do this is for people you know to contact the judge on your behalf. Obviously, someone with a personal connection to the judge is more effective, but any connection is helpful. In my experience and speaking very broadly, the best people to contact the judge on your behalf, in descending order of effectiveness, are:

1. A judge on the same court
2. A current clerk
3. An acquaintance of the judge, including former colleagues, former clerks, other judges, and professors that know the judge personally
4. A professor the judge doesn’t know

I’ll touch briefly on each. First, a judge on the same court is very effective. Generally speaking, a judge will respect his or her colleagues and will value their opinions. They’re also more likely to look for the same things in applicants. Judges on the same court have the added bonus of seeing each other frequently, so at the very least, a judge will take a hard look at the recommended applicant to maintain a good relationship with their colleagues. This method of contact is uncommon, but you may know a judge on the same court in a couple of different ways. For example, that judge may be a family friend, or you may have interned for that judge during law school.

The most effective and realistic option is a current clerk for the judge. This will vary from judge to judge, but in many chambers the clerks play a significant role in the hiring process and they have the ability to put your application directly in front of the judge’s eyes. With the clerkship process being elongated now (see above), it’s quite possible that you’ll know current clerks at some point. For example, if you go into practice after law school, you’ll probably know (a) law-school classmates that clerk for a judge while you’re in practice, and/or (b) other associates at your firm who go on to clerk or know someone currently clerking.

The next category encompasses all the people a judge knows personally, including former colleagues, former clerks, and professors. Because they have an ongoing relationship, the judge will value their opinions and trust their judgement. Speaking personally as a former clerk, for example, I would never send either of my judges an applicant that wasn’t both qualified and a good personality fit.

Lastly, there are calls from professors that do not know the judge personally. A professor can speak intelligently about an applicant, usually without any possibility of appearing before them. Judges know they can trust professors to a certain extent because they’ve presumably worked with the student, and recommending a bad applicant only diminishes the credibility of the professor and the law school. But judges also know that professors are incentivized to place as many students in clerkships as possible. While this isn’t an ideal method of contact, it is the most commonly available contact method for law students, and it is infinitely better than no call at all.

So how do get a connection with a professor such that they’ll make calls and write recommendation letters? Obviously, the professor needs to know who you are. The easiest way to do this, especially as a 1L, is to go to office hours. Don’t be a werido and go every day or anything. And don’t manufacture reasons to go just because this person may be a good recommender down the line. But if you have intelligent questions and you’re genuinely interested in the professor’s work, just stop by between classes and chat about the material. Professors like talking about the law, that’s why they became professors. If you get a good grade in the class, that professor is a potential recommender. But you should go further: ask to be a TA or RA the next semester, ask that professor to formally supervise an article you’re writing, etc. You can kill a lot of birds with one stone here, and one of those birds is clerkship help.

Speaking from personal experience, I know asking someone to contact a judge on your behalf can be awkward. You may not want to inconvenience them, and you certainly don’t want them to waste their time if your application ends up going nowhere. But here’s the thing: most people like helping other people. And in the case of professors, they’re literally being paid (by your exorbitant tuition) to help students get the jobs they want. My advice? If it’s something you really want, suck it up and have the conversation.

I’ll just say one more thing about contact with the judge. As the organization of this section suggests, the contact is most helpful after you’ve applied and before you’ve been selected for an interview. There are literally hundreds, sometimes thousands, of applicants for a single clerkship spot, so the biggest hurdle is getting from the generic applicant pile to the interview. Once you get an interview, it’s more about your personality fit with the judge than anything else, so the calls don’t help nearly as much at that point. If someone offers to call the judge only after you’ve interviewed, and the judge is very high on your list, try to enlist someone else to call after you’ve applied. More than one call to the same judge is probably not needed, but it’s okay if the calls are spread out (so you don’t annoy the judge).

Getting an Offer. Okay, you’ve submitted your application, you’ve had everyone and their grandma call the judge for you, and you’ve gotten an interview. You’ve made it to the final round.

Preparing for the interview is pretty intuitive. You should obviously know your resume cold and be able to discuss everything on it in depth. You should also be prepared for the obvious questions (“why do you want to clerk?” is at the top of the list) and any questions your resume might suggest. Also, be prepared for some less common and more substantive questions like “what’s your favorite SCOTUS decision?” “who is your favorite SCOTUS justice?” “are there any pending cases you’re following closely?” etc. This should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: be prepared to ask questions of your own too. As with all interviews, questions show interest in the position.

You should also run a search for the judge’s decisions in Westlaw and read a handful of them. I usually tried to read some combination of high-profile cases (sort by “most cited” in Westlaw) and recently-decided cases because (a) they’re more likely for the judge to bring up, and (b) the judge is more likely to remember them if I bring them up.

Lastly, you should find former clerks (either through your school’s database or through Googling) and reach out to chat. This will yield valuable information about the interview, such as the format of the interview and the types of questions you’ll receive. But it will also yield valuable information about the judge and how s/he runs chambers.

The format of the interview will vary depending on the judge. Some judges have the applicant interview with clerks first, then the judge; some do the opposite. Some have the applicant meet with all clerks at once; some divide the clerks into separate interviews. Some don’t involve the clerks at all. Sometimes the interview will be short; sometimes it will be long. There’s really no way to generalize.

As noted above, the interview itself is more about personality fit than anything else. Don’t stress too much. And don’t stress if you don’t hear anything for a while afterward. I’ve had decisions ranging from a few days after the interview to . . . never.

Offer. If you interview and you’re lucky enough to get an offer, the etiquette is that you must accept. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the etiquette, and breaking that etiquette will look bad. But I point this out so that you do your diligence beforehand and either (a) not apply to the particular judge, (b) turn down the interview, or (c) withdraw from consideration after the interview. Don’t put yourself in a position to turn down a clerkship offer.

Luck. There is a ton of stuff you can’t control and don’t even see. Maybe your professor called on a day the judge was out and didn’t feel comfortable calling back. Maybe you happened to get an interview with a judge that’s not a good personality fit. Maybe the judge was in a bad mood the day you met. Maybe the judge really liked you, but s/he already hired three guys and wanted some gender diversity. There’s literally nothing you can do about this stuff.

But I will say this: don’t be discouraged. If it’s something you really want, keep applying, keep asking for people to contact judges, keep preparing for interviews, and keep interviewing the best you can. Just keep going.

V. How Do I Perform Once I Start Clerking?

This will be very brief because, if you’ve actually gotten a clerkship, you really don’t need any tips from me. Moreover, practices will vary so much from chambers to chambers that specific advice would be useless for 99.453% of readers. I’ll just make a couple quick points. First, a clerkship is like every other job in that it will take some time to acclimate, especially if you’re coming directly from law school. The learning curve will vary depending on the clerk and depending on the demands of the judge, but, again, it’s completely normal. Second, enjoy your time as a clerk. For many of us, it will be one of the most fulfilling, interesting jobs we’ll ever have. It goes fast.

VI. What are my Job Opportunities After Clerking?

Post-clerkship job opportunities are tough to generalize because they will depend on an individual’s stats, the type of clerkship, and the particular job. I obviously can’t say anything about someone’s prior stats, so I’ll walk through the type of clerkship and the jobs for which clerkships are most helpful. I should note upfront, however, that the “best” clerkships are usually those in the geographic area where you want to practice.

(As a general tip, if you’re interested in outcomes from a particular clerkship, try Googling “law clerk to the honorable [judge name].” That should turn up some former clerks and give you a broad idea of career opportunities.)

Type of Clerkship. Obviously, the type of clerkship will impact your job opportunities. If you’re a SCOTUS clerk, you can pretty much write your own ticket. After that, it gets a lot murkier.

In any case, law students and lawyers like rankings, so I’ll list the general consensus for “prestige” rankings. Theoretically, greater “prestige” translates to a bigger boost in job opportunities. But six caveats apply: (1) “prestige” rankings are stupid, (2) these “rankings” are debatable, (3) job opportunities will depend on an individual’s stats and the particular job as well as the clerkship(s), (4) clerking in your desired geographic area is ideal, (5) there are great judges in literally every court across the country, and (6) any clerkship at all is a phenomenal opportunity. So, with those caveats in mind:

Feeder judges
DC Circuit
Second and Ninth Circuits
All other circuits

District Courts
All other districts

Is it true that SDNY, DDC, and NDCA are less selective/competitive/prestigious than all circuit clerkships?

Less selective/competitive? No, it's not uncommon for them to be as competitive or more competitive than certain circuit clerkships. Less prestigious? Interpreting "prestige" as a proxy for employment boost, the answer is: it depends. If you're applying to appellate jobs, for example, then any circuit clerkship is better than SDNY, DDC, and NDCA. If you're applying to be an AUSA in NDCA, then the NDCA clerkship is probably better than, say, a Sixth Circuit clerkship. It's not really possible to generalize that broadly.

Type of Jobs. More important than random prestige rankings, clerkships can help improve your odds of landing particular jobs. Obviously, clerkships are helpful, although not remotely required, for any litigation job, including in biglaw, government, and PI. Again, it’s difficult to generalize the amount of boost for these positions.

For the sake of completeness, I’ll try to touch on a few top-level areas that are essentially closed without a clerkship. First, there are a fair number of elite litigation boutiques for which one or more federal clerkships are a de facto prerequisite, including Susman, Bartlit Beck, Keker, Kellogg Hansen, and Robbins Russell. Second, clerkships are helpful for certain competitive government and PI jobs. Most notably, AUSA positions in major districts—like SDNY, EDNY, DDC, NDCA, CDCA, NDIL, etc.— and certain sections of DOJ nearly require at least a district court clerkship. Overlapping with the previous two categories is dedicated appellate litigation (as 0Ls tend to think about it). These positions are basically closed without at least a COA clerkship, generally residing in insanely credentialed lit boutiques (e.g., Kellogg Hansen), insanely credentialed departments of biglaw firms (e.g., GDC/Wilmer DC), or insanely credentialed departments of the federal government (e.g., OSG). This lattermost category is so glitteringly elite that it’s really not in play for the vast majority of people.

VII. Concluding Thoughts

A clerkship at any level is an amazing opportunity. That said, a clerkship is a one- or two-year job out of a 40-year career; it is nowhere near the end of the world if you don’t get one, or you don’t get the one you want. To quote the highly-underrated film, Cool Runnings: “if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

Finally, I want to encourage other clerks and former clerks to contribute their views, in this thread and in other threads. Clerkships are generally a black box, so the more data points and viewpoints, the better.

I hope this guide has been helpful. Feel free to post in this thread or PM me with any questions.


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