Monday, June 17, 2019
While we often post on this blog about appellate practice, I thought that I would take a small detour of sorts and post about how to secure an appellate clerkship. A state or federal appellate clerkship is an excellent stepping stone to an appellate career. But how do you secure an appellate clerkship? Although the easiest route to a federal appellate clerkship is to attend a top 5 law school and receive top grades (or lots of high-passes), there are plenty of opportunities for students at non-top 5 law schools to secure clerkships.
(1) Get good grades: Regardless of where you attend law school, getting good grades and being ranked in the top 5% or 10% of your class is pretty important. If you are seeking a federal appellate clerkship from a lower-ranked school, you probably need to be in the top 5% of your graduating class. Students who aren't ranked in the top 5% but who want to do a federal appellate clerkship should consider starting with a federal district or magistrate clerkship or clerking first at the state supreme court or intermediate appellate court level.
(2) Be on a journal: For many judges it is important for applicants to have journal experience. Much of the work that appellate law clerks do mirrors journal work. For some judges, high level moot court experience could replace journal experience.
(3) Get to know your professors: I have heard from people in the know (judges or their career clerks) that strong letters of recommendation are helpful for securing clerkships. So, you need to get to know your professors well enough for them to write good letters. One way to do this is to visit office hours or to serve as a research assistant for a professor. And, in asking professors to write letters, pick the professor who knows you the best, not the professor who is most well-known in academia. If you are particularly well-connected to a professor, that professor might have personal connections with judges and be willing to send a direct email or make a phone call on your behalf. I have done this for students, and I have also connected prospective applicants with friends who have clerked for judges.
(4) Get to know judges: Interning or externing for a judge can be a great segue into a clerkship. You get to know that particular and often the others in the courthouse. You can see what the judges do, and hopefully end the experience with a great recommendation. Another way to meet the local judges is to participate in local lawyer activities, like the local bar association, the Federal Bar Association, or legal-organizations like the Federalist Society or the American Constitution Society. Most of these organizations offer very cheap student memberships, and many local state and federal judges actively participate in these organizations.
(5) Find a connection: Apply to judges with whom you share some sort of connections. Perhaps you went to the same undergraduate institution or law school. Maybe you were both in the girl scouts or some other organization. Maybe you both grew up in the same town. Find those judges, apply to them, and mention the connection in your cover letter.
(6) Work your way up: When I graduated from law school almost 15 years ago (yikes, I feel old), it was the norm to go straight to a federal appellate clerkship. That is no longer the case. Even students from top 5 law schools often stack clerkships--starting with a federal district or magistrate clerkship and moving their way up to a federal appellate or state supreme court clerkship. If you are interested in clerking at the state level, you could certainly stack a state intermediate appellate clerkship and a state supreme court clerkship. I also know of a student who went from the state supreme court to the federal district court. The point is to be creative! If you view each clerkship as a learning opportunity, stacking clerkships just gives you more time to learn.
(7) Don't forget the state courts: If you want to have a predominantly state practice, you should consider a state court clerkship. I believe that the value of a clerkships lies in the experience and mentoring that you receive. I have met many a state court judge who is better equipped to do this than some federal judges. So, even though some people might not consider state clerkships to be as prestigious, I would encourage you to consider applying for one, especially if you think that the judge would be an excellent mentor.
(8) Start thinking about a clerkship early: Finally, I would recommend that you start thinking about a clerkship early in your legal education. This allows you to form relationships with professors, request letters of recommendation, apply for internships, and get on a journal. If you aren't sure if you want to clerk, stop by a professor's office to ask about her clerkship experience. Or, try working for a judge your first summer out of law school. That experience should help you know a little bit what a clerkship would be like.
Good luck to all of the students applying for clerkships right now!