Types of Clerkships
The main types of clerkships available include federal district and circuit court clerkships, state supreme and appellate court clerkships, local court staff attorney positions, and other federal court clerkships, such as with magistrates and bankruptcy judges.
Federal Court of Appeals
As a federal appellate clerk, you review briefs, research them, write a bench memo to the judge, attend oral argument, and write a draft opinion. For better or worse, appellate clerking is more like law school. There is the intellectual rigor of analyzing briefs and oral arguments, but much less time spent listening to attorneys and witnesses. When preparing a case, you read the entire record and gain a valuable sense of how a case develops from start to finish.
Federal District Court
As a clerk in federal district court, or in most other trial courts, you are assigned to many cases. A typical district judge may have a few hundred cases on the docket and only two clerks. Your activities will include talking with attorneys about case status; attending status and settlement meetings with the attorneys; attending hearings and trials; drafting research memoranda for the judge; drafting opinions; and doing legal research. Other options within the district court include clerking for bankruptcy judges, senior judges or magistrate judges.
For prospective litigators, especially, this may be the ideal job. You will see how real cases are managed and an enormous range of motions. When trials heat up, you get the sort of involvement that new associates are hard pressed to find–evidence, motions, jury selection, the works. Additionally, you will get an intimate feel for practice in that community, which is especially valuable if you think you may eventually practice there. You will gain important insights about other local judges and attorneys.
Numerous state trial court and appellate judges hire clerks each year. These clerkships can be a great way to learn about the law and legal community of a state. If you wish to work in a particular state, research the jurisdiction of each type of court and apply to judges who handle the sorts of cases in which you are most interested. In some states, criminal, family law, and other categories of cases are handled only in certain courts.
The quality of state court clerkships is probably more uneven than the federal bench. For this reason, you should make a special effort to talk to knowledgeable persons about which judges enjoy a stellar reputation.
Some states have extensive judicial clerkship opportunities and centralized hiring procedures. The New Jersey courts hire more than 400 clerks each year and are an excellent interim step to the New York/New Jersey market.
The New York Judicial Fellows program is a state-wide program. Applications are accepted in the summer and fall preceding graduation. Candidates with good grades and a record of public service are particularly good candidates. Minority students are encouraged to apply.
Information on The Supreme Court of Ohio and Ohio Appellate Courts can be found on the Supreme Court web site as well as current job opportunities with Ohio courts generally.
Specialized Federal Courts
Another clerkship option is to apply to specialized federal courts. Bankruptcy courts now handle sophisticated commercial cases, especially in larger commercial centers. Many circuits have special clerks to handle motions and pro se claims–these positions can also be a good way to get in the door to see the process from the inside; however, the range of issues you address is quite limited.
Other specialty courts also can provide clerking opportunities. These include: the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Court of International Trade, and the U.S. Tax Court.
Finally, some Administrative Law Judges, in Washington , D.C. and elsewhere, hire clerks. Working for an ALJ may be especially valuable if the judge handles substantive issues you find interesting.
Local courts, such as common pleas and small claims courts can afford students the opportunity to work closely with local judges and magistrates in a city or county of their choosing, and focus on trial practice in areas of law such as domestic, juvenile, criminal and civil litigation. Many of these local courts also offer opportunities for students and alumni to use mediation skills to resolve complaints or encourage settlements.
At the local level judicial clerks may also be called staff attorneys, and may be required to have passed a state’s bar prior to being hired, unlike the clerks hired into the federal courts where bar passage requirements are not uniform. Some staff attorney positions are term, and may be for a year or two, but increasingly these positions can also become permanent. There is generally no hiring time frame for these positions since they become available only if someone leaves or a new judge is elected.
Staff attorney and other court administrative positions can be a great opportunity for someone who likes a regular schedule, appreciates the benefits of government employment, and who intends to eventually practice in front of the benches they serve as a court employee.