How to Get a Federal Judicial Clerkship: Overview

CourthouseOn its face, the federal judicial clerkship application process is relatively straightforward:

  • you identify judges you’re interesting in working for;
  • you send each one an application consisting of your law school transcript, a résumé, a writing sample, and several letters of recommendation; and,
  • each judge reviews the applications, schedules interviews, and selects the clerks for the following year.

Easy, right?

In practice, however, the clerkship process is insanely complicated and full of traps for the unwary. If you decide to apply, you will probably curse the decision more than once, and envy medical students applying to a centralized residency matching system.

How to Preserve Your Sanity During the Clerkship Application Process

The most critical thing you can do to stay sane is to gather information – talk to friends who have been through the process, to the person at your school who coordinates clerkship applications, to your recommenders, and to anyone with a stake in your final decision, including family members and significant others.

You need a plan in advance, because you may end up having to make decisions very quickly once the process gets rolling.

Who Sets the Rules Here, Anyway?

The basic guidelines for federal clerkship applications used to be set by the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan. However, in 2014, this plan was discontinued. Therefore, the hiring process has been determined by the individual hiring practices of each judge for the past few years. Students were eligible to begin applying on July 1st, following their 1L year. However, it was recently announced that the Law Clerk Hiring Plan may be back. Although this plan would set up guidelines and timelines just as previous plans had, it is a two-year pilot program and is voluntary for judges. It does require that judges do not consider students until after their 2L year. At this point, if you are interested in a federal clerkship, you should research your judges from early on and be well aware of their hiring timeline so that you don’t miss an application deadline. Also, you should research whether the judge you are applying to is following the pilot program.

Hey, Why Are All of These Positions Already Filled?

Not all judges follow the guidelines, even for in-school applicants, and applicants who’ve graduated are not bound by the guidelines.

Increasing numbers of clerkship applicants are choosing to work for a period of time, then apply. These post-graduation applicants are free to apply at any point in the year, and many judges will interview and hire one or more clerks before the in-school application process even starts. Among in-school applicants, some apply for and accept two clerkships for successive years (one trial court, one appellate) during the initial application process, which eliminates slots for in-school applicants the following year.

The Bottom Line

While it might be frustrating as an in-school applicant to realize that many plum spots are already gone before you’re allowed to apply, all is not lost! You can potentially use this to your advantage later, when you’re allowed to jump the gun yourself and perhaps secure a clerkship you weren’t able to get during the flood of 2L applications.

Read On:

Learn more about applying for a judicial clerkship:

Return to Judicial Clerkships 101.

Have questions on how to get a clerkship? Leave them in the comments!

Image by zoomzoom via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


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