Judicial Clerkships: Wondering Where to Apply? Consider These 4 Factors

Question markThe perennial question – where should you apply to clerk?

Naturally, it’s impossible to answer with any authority! You’ll need to balance several competing threads to decide what clerkships to apply for:

  • prestige
  • geography
  • preference
  • availability


As a general rule, federal clerkships are more prestigious than state ones, and trial courts (the Southern District of New York) are less prestigious than appellate courts (the Second Circuit) or the courts of last resort (the Supreme Court).

Immediately you see the problem, even within the single “prestige” category:

Is a clerkship on a state supreme court more or less prestigious than one in a federal trial court?


The situation becomes even more complex when you consider geography. The reality is that certain parts of the country are more popular living options than others.

While individual preferences vary, it’s fair to say that it is harder to secure a federal clerkship in New York City, for example, than in many other places. As a result, a clerkship in the Southern District of New York might be more competitive than one on a federal appellate court in a less popular area of the country.

It just depends.

Personal Preference

The most critical aspect of the application process is to define your own preferences as carefully and completely as possible. This can be difficult to do, because well-meaning third parties will offer their own opinions, some of them quite voraciously, about what you should do. Take this advice seriously, but understand the underlying incentives:

  • Schools like their students to obtain prestigious clerkships, so you might be pressured by the clerkship coordinator to apply for a federal clerkship over a more suitable state clerkship, or for an appellate court over a trial court.
  • Professors tend to give advice based on their own experiences (generally federal appellate clerkship followed by Supreme Court), which may not map onto your ideal life scenario.
  • Other students, in your class or ahead of you, are probably familiar with a narrow range of judges, and may be closed-minded about less familiar options.

In the end, only you can figure out what sort of experience you’re looking for. Do you want to be in a big city, a small town, or somewhere in between? Do you want to live in the South, the Northeast, the West, etc.? Are you looking for practical, hands-on experience in a trial court, or would you prefer to think more deeply about legal theories on a higher court? Are you willing to work intense hours, or would you like a more relaxed environment? Do you want a clerkship in the area where you’ll eventually practice, or would you like to explore a new area for a year? Do you have personal or family ties to a particular location?

You need to consider all of these questions, and many more, before progressing to the next critical issue – what clerkship will you be able to procure?


This question is also unanswerable. The clerkship process is notoriously quirky and unpredictable, and judges can be very idiosyncratic.

In general, the following components are critical to getting an interview (listed in roughly decreasing order of importance):

  • law school
  • grades
  • law review
  • recommendations
  • résumé
  • journal board membership
  • writing sample
  • cover letter

It is possible, if challenging, to get an idea of the range of opportunities you should be looking at, if you gather sufficient information.

Once you’ve come to some sort of resolution about the type of clerkship you’d like to have, and it’s fine to have several options in mind, you should talk to your recommenders about where to apply. Professors are people, and may be reluctant to engage in a brutally honest evaluation of your chances, but most will tell you the truth if you ask directly.

Your school clerkship coordinator might also offer a semi-objective analysis of your chances, if asked directly, and you may find that former employers are willing, and eager, to provide advice.

If you have developed relationships with students in the classes above you, these people can be excellent sources of advice, particularly about recent hiring practices, but recognize that the range of their information is limited in scope.

The Bottom Line

In the end, it’s your decision what clerkships to apply for. You’re going to have to gather whatever data you can, evaluate your options, decide what you want to do, and hope for the best!

Read On:

Learn more about applying for a judicial clerkship:

Return to Judicial Clerkships 101.

Want advice on where to apply? Leave questions in the comments!

Image by svilen001 via stock.xchng.


Concerned about your law school grades? Get the feedback and support you need to succeed.

Check out our law school tutoring options at the Law School Toolbox.

Get started, and ensure you’re spending your time wisely!

Got a question? Drop us a line. We’re here to help!

Speak Your Mind