What on Earth is a Clerkship and How Do I Get One?

What on Earth is a Clerkship and How do I Get One?

This week we welcome guest writer Aleena Ijaz to talk about, and demystify, the clerkship process.

I had absolutely no idea what a “clerkship” was before I started law school. So, if you are reading this post and don’t even know what a clerkship really is, don’t stop reading. I will explain.

What is a Clerkship?

A clerkship is a one or sometimes two-year stint with a judge at some level of the judiciary. Depending on the type of court, clerks have a variety of job responsibilities ranging from administrative tasks to conducting legal research to drafting bench memos and even opinions. Because clerkships allow you to both have the ear of the decision maker and a peek into the inner workings of chambers, they are extremely coveted in many legal spaces. It follows, therefore, that securing a clerkship is a competitive process.

The level of competition varies by type of court and by individual judge. Securing a clerkship in a non-Article III court will generally be less of an uphill battle than securing one in an Article III court. Within the universe of federal courts, appellate clerkships will generally be more difficult to snag, with the U.S. Supreme Court standing as the ultimate prize.

How do I make myself Competitive for a Clerkship?

Here’s the thing—a successful clerkship applicant must plan in advance. Most clerkship outcomes are determined by grades, recommendations, law school, and journal involvement alone.

You can’t overhaul your GPA in a few weeks. Nor can you build relationships with professors overnight. You must begin situating yourself for a clerkship as close as possible to day one of 1L year. Unfortunately for some and fortunately for others, the stuff that makes for a successful clerkship applicant is formed months to years in advance of hitting the submit button.

Is it ever too late to Plan for a Clerkship?

Clerkship applicants reading this closer to “game time” are far from helpless. There’s a lot to be said about clerkship application strategy. The most important element of strategy is probably timing. Many federal judges follow the hiring plan, which prevents them from hiring law students until the summer of their 2L year. Other judges are open to applications at any time. You should find out how the judge you’re interested in hires and get your application in at the right time.

You then need to create a list of judges that consists of those who are a great fit for your interests and career goals but are also within range for your applicant profile. If you have a public interest focus, consider a judge with a background in the public interest space of your choice. If you need to be in a certain geographic region because of family or other personal constraints, target that particular jurisdiction. If you’re a member of a particular community, perhaps a judge who identifies with it can serve as a strong mentor. Politics may, but certainly do not have to, play a role in your judge decisions as well.

How do I Actually Apply?

A standard clerkship application package consists of a cover letter, your resume, writing sample, three letters of recommendation, and your law school transcript. Hopefully you’ve cultivated relationships with three law school professors or legal employers that can speak intimately to your legal acumen. If you are lucky enough to be able to choose between potential recommenders, try to pick those who know you on a personal level and whose letters will be complementary rather than duplicative. Securing a “brand name” recommender matters less than you think it does. But human connections do matter in this process. Don’t be afraid to ask your recommenders to call and/or email judges in addition to writing you a letter.

The cover letter and resume are straightforward. Lucky for you, the clerkship cover letter is no frills. Most of the time it simply provides an overview of your application package in a few short sentences. The resume is standard, perhaps with an interests section added to help forge a personal connection with the reviewing judge. As for the writing sample, pick a legal writing piece, generally between ten and twenty pages, that you are most proud of. Practical writing is generally a better fit for trial courts whereas academic writing can work for appellate courts. Most importantly, put your best foot forward. It goes without saying that there should be no careless mistakes in any of these materials.

Finally, the logistics. The clerkship application process isn’t exactly high tech or centralized. Some judges want mailed in paper applications, others take email PDFs, and many federal judges use a centralized platform called OSCAR. Figuring out an individual judges’ application method isn’t always the most straightforward, but a combination of calling chambers and using your law school’s resources should do the trick. In fact, you will find yourself picking up the phone to call chambers more times than you’d think during this process to find out exactly what a judge wants and when they want it.

Am I doomed if I don’t get one right away?

Definitely NOT! Clerkship applications are a competitive and sometimes arbitrary process. If you don’t get one from your first round of applications, send another round. Try to pull up your grades if you are still able to. Network with former clerks and talk to professors who might have a connection to certain chambers. Consider getting some work experience and reapplying. Maybe clerk at a “lower court” first.

If you don’t land the clerkship of your dreams or land a clerkship at all, try —and try again.


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About Aleena Ijaz

Aleena is a rising 3L at Harvard Law School interested in criminal appellate work. She spent her 1L year at George Washington University Law School before transferring to Harvard to complete her legal education. As a law student, she has been active in criminal law societies and the Women's Law Association, serves as an editor on a Harvard law journal, and has assisted on legal research ranging from jailhouse informant testimony to the complexities of federal courts. She hails from northern Virginia and attended the University of Virginia for her undergraduate studies, where she finished with a double major in economics and public policy along with a minor in biology. In her free time, Aleena enjoys mentorship, dancing, and listening to Supreme Court podcasts.

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