Judicial Clerkships: Applying
Anyone may apply for a judicial clerkship but competition for these positions can be intense. Grades, journal experience, Moot Court experience, a record of public service, judicial externship experience, leadership activities, interest and commitment to clerking, and other factors are all important considerations.
In general, the higher the court, the more selective the judge; however, the application and ultimate selection process by the various judges is often somewhat arbitrary.
Students should begin researching clerkship options and judges during the summer after the first year of law school. However, it is never too late to apply for a clerkship. Federal clerkship applications can be sent after Labor Day in the third year of law school.
Students should narrow their research with a series of questions:
- Given my grades, class rank, and other qualifications, am I most employable in a federal, state, or local clerkship?
- Given my long-term goals, do I want to target a trial court, appellate court, or administrative agency?
- What is my geographic preference?
- What clerkships are available for my graduation year?
Deciding Where to Apply
The reality of modern clerkships is that judges usually receive many applications. Federal judges may receive from 50 up to a few hundred applications for two or three spots. In deciding where to apply, it is wise to direct at least some of your efforts beyond federal judges of the Sixth Circuit if you have the ability to move.
Fortunately, there are many excellent judges around the country. Students and alumni have clerked at all levels of courts in all parts of the United States. Some students have had great success as far away as Alaska, California, and the Virgin Islands.
The general method for applying is to focus on at least one factor in your search, such as a kind of court or an area of the country. One variation is to apply to a group of judges that fit your focus and then add an additional group for some diversification. The diversification can be helpful in part because not as many of your classmates will be applying to the same judges. You should consult with both faculty and the Career Services Office to develop an application strategy.
Where feasible, contact the current or prior clerks; they have a wealth of information about their own judge and other judges in the vicinity. You should research judicial clerks, in addition to the judges. Moritz graduates who have clerked may be particularly helpful in your search.
You may find it more useful to speak to a current clerk when he or she is not in the office. Imagine asking whether the clerk likes his or her judge while that clerk is at the office. If the secretary and co-clerks are listening, your contact may be less than candid. One additional point – current clerks may be especially dependable about other judges in their area. It can be hard for the clerk to admit that he or she has wasted a year with an unpleasant or unskilled judge.
When to Apply
Application dates for federal clerkships have been changing from year to year. Currently, rising 2Ls can register on OSCAR on June 1 after their first year of law school and begin submitting applications on August 1. Annual updates and specific application dates should be researched on OSCAR. State court deadlines vary widely and should be researched thoroughly by applicants.
Deadlines in Ohio:
- The Supreme Court of Ohio: No set deadlines. Third-year students may apply year-round. Most Justices prefer barred attorneys with prior clerkship experience.
- Ohio Court of Appeals: Third-year students apply between October 1 and January 1 for clerkships that begin the following September. The courts list preferences on the Supreme Court of Ohio website.
What to Submit to Apply
- A cover letter stating your interest in this position with this judge
- A copy of your transcript (unofficial is fine)
- Writing sample (optional and no more than 10 pages)
- Three sealed letters of recommendation obtained from Moritz faculty through the procedures outlined by Career Services.
Faculty recommendations are an important part of your application. The general goal is to have two strong recommendations, preferably both from permanent faculty at the law school. In deciding whom to approach, think broadly. Most importantly, look for someone who knows you, not just who gave you the highest grade. For instance, a professor can often make a stronger recommendation, with more convincing details, for someone who received a B but talked well in and out of class, than for an A student who never spoke at all.
Good choices can often include your small section professor, someone who has supervised your writing, or someone for whom you have been a research assistant. Perhaps you have become acquainted with a professor through some activity at school.
Professors who are on leave or have moved to another school can certainly write for you. It can be fine to have an adjunct professor write for you – the judge is interested in learning from someone who knows you well and is much less interested in the name of the professor.
As a general rule, recommendations from non-faculty are less helpful. One reason is that judges do not know whether the non-faculty have a good basis for comparing you with other law students from other schools. This does not mean, however, that you should ignore people who have been in a good position to evaluate your work.
Helpful kinds of letters from non-faculty include anybody who has supervised your work and can explain why you are special. Sometimes you know a person who has a good contact with the individual judge. That person may be able to write a very helpful letter if they can tell the judge how well you fit the judge’s needs. If you have worked for one of the law firms in a city, someone who supervised you or knows you well can write a credible letter to the judge.
The general rule is that the strongest recommendation comes from a person who has personal knowledge of you and your excellence. Thus, it may be helpful to provide a recommender with a transcript and resume and any other information which will be helpful to him or her in writing a knowledgeable letter.
The cover letter is a very important part of your application packet. In addition to the basic items, it should discuss your qualifications for a clerkship, what you will bring to the chambers, and what led you to seek a clerkship. REMEMBER, it is the judge’s first opportunity to evaluate your writing skills, so make sure it has been given your time and effort and that it is error-free. Shorter is usually better.
At the interview, dress as you would for a firm interview. Some clerks dress that way, and others wear jeans, but you should be attired professionally.
It is crucial to pay attention to the clerks and secretaries. They will often speak with the judge about their impressions of you, and you should treat your time with them as part of the interview. Talking with clerks is a good way for you to get information about what the judge is seeking, and you can often develop a sense of what it would be like to work for that judge.
Be optimistic about using one interview to get another. A very important way to get additional interviews is to call when you have already scheduled an interview with another judge in that city. For example, suppose you are traveling to Philadelphia for an interview on January 15. You should call the other judges in the vicinity to whom you have applied. You can say to the judge’s secretary or clerk: “I will be interviewing nearby on the 15th. I am very interested in your judge, and wondered if it would be possible to schedule an interview on that same trip.” Your phone call may lead them to review your resume and they may then call you back to schedule the interview.
You pay for your interview expenses. One reason to schedule multiple interviews on the same trip is that you pay your own way. Your job search thus has to be done with your personal budget in mind.
To cut costs, try to schedule as many interviews as possible on the same trip, look for friends to stay with, and think about driving as a way to save money. But don’t be over-deterred by these costs. Spending a modest amount of money on the interview process is part of your investment in what is often a special year – a year of public service and unique opportunity to learn the legal system from the inside.
In addition, the Moritz College of Law is pleased to offer judicial clerkship travel funds to students to help offset the costs of interviewing outside Columbus. Please see a career counselor in Career Services for policies and procedures to apply for such funds.
Accepting an Offer
The clerkship process is more random than anyone would like it to be. Hundreds of judges and thousands of students are involved in interviews stretching over a several month period. It is thus quite possible that you will receive an offer from a judge who is not your top choice and then have to decide what to do.
It can be a difficult judgment call on how to juggle your competing goals of getting a clerkship and getting your most preferred clerkship. In practice, most people who receive an offer decide to accept it. If you have done reasonable research at the time you applied, then you will rarely find the offer unacceptable.
Because the whole process is so uncertain, most people think it is highly risky to let one offer lapse in hopes of receiving a “better” offer. The whole idea of a “better” offer is questionable – you may hit it off well with a lesser-known judge, and it is very difficult to know before an interview whether you would prefer one judge to another.
Here are some guidelines on how to handle offers.
- The Strict Rule. There is one strict rule that you should not violate: Once you accept an offer, your decision is final. It is unacceptable for you to renege on the acceptance. Such actions will reflect badly on future OSU applicants, and it is possible that the second offer that you accepted will be revoked when the second judge learns of your action.
- Judges in Your Top Tier of Choices. There are easy cases when you are interviewing with any judge in your top tier of choices. During the interview, you can say: “Thank you for interviewing me. Based on our talk today, if offered the job, I would accept.” This is a powerful statement to make during the interview. Judges, like other people, don’t like to be rejected, and your strong statement can make them look more favorably on you. If for some reason you do not clearly signal your interest during the interview, it may be a good idea to call back soon after the interview. You could tell the secretary or clerk something like this: “I just wanted to pass on to the judge how much I enjoyed the interview. If offered the job, I would definitely accept.”
However, if you accept an offer with a second judge after stating that you would be interested in an offer from the first judge, then call immediately to the first judge to state that you are off the market. The first judge may be relying on your statement, and simple politeness dictates that you give prompt notice that you are no longer a candidate. There is one risk of saying that you will definitely accept an offer if made. If you say that to three judges, you have morally committed yourself to accepting whichever offer rolls in first. A more careful approach is to say that you are very interested in the position and greatly appreciate the opportunity to meet with the judge.
- Judges Not in Your Top Tier of Choices. What happens if this judge makes you an offer? Occasionally, the judge wants an answer on the spot. For that reason, you should be thinking during the course of the interview what you would say if the offer is made. If you are undecided, you can often ask for and get 24 hours to speak with your family or think it over. If it is a judge that you don’t think you wish to clerk for, then practice diplomacy and tact. Perhaps you can say: “I don’t feel ready to accept your kind offer. If I must decide today, the answer is no.” Then, if you have left the office without giving a definite answer, call the secretary later that day to refuse diplomatically. Remember, you can refuse an offer. You have not accepted the job just by agreeing to interview with a judge.
- Withdrawing your application. If you accept an offer or decide not to clerk, then you should withdraw your pending applications. If there has been no interview, standard procedure is to write a letter withdrawing your application. If you have had an interview, standard procedure is to call the judge’s chambers, tell them how honored you were to be considered, but state that you have decided to accept another offer.
- Updating your application. It can often be helpful for you to update your application as good news rolls in. The chambers receiving the update will pull out your file, and that may give you an extra-careful look. Perhaps you will be lucky enough to have the judge making decisions on the day your good news arrives. Send an update if you are named to some position on a journal or other strong-sounding organization, or if you have a publication. Send new grades as they become available, although there is probably no obligation to send new grades until a semester’s grades are all completed.
Applying After the Peak Season
Numerous clerkships are offered after the peak season ends in the fall of your third year. These postings run the gamut from federal judges, to magistrates, to a wide range of state judges, to ALJs, to motion or pro se clerks on federal courts of appeals.
A great strategy can be to apply to new judges when they are nominated or confirmed. These judges usually receive far fewer applicants. New judges may also be especially exciting for whom to clerk because you help establish the traditions and procedures of the chambers. For judges nominated in the spring of your third year, you might be the perfect candidate to be a clerk when they open chambers.
Even if you have already committed to begin a job after law school, or even begun the job, many employers will be supportive if you take a leave of absence to clerk.