Judicial Clerkships

Judicial clerkships are among the best post-graduate employment opportunities for law students. Regardless of the area of law you’d like to practice in, a judicial clerkship is an excellent one to two-year bridge between law school and practice. 

What do Judicial Clerks Do?

A clerkship will vary depending on the court and the judge, but with few exceptions the clerkship will entail a substantial amount of research and writing. This will include researching motions pending before the court, and depending on the court level, assisting judges to prepare for oral arguments or trials.   

What types of courts hire judicial clerks?

Nearly all courts have some type of judicial clerk or staff attorney. For example, law clerks are hired at trial and appellate levels in Wisconsin and many other states. Wisconsin law students graduates have clerked at every level of the federal judiciary, and many of our students regularly clerk with Article I judges such as bankruptcy judges and federal magistrate judges. Specialty courts, such as the United States Courts of International Trade, Federal Claims, and Tax Court, all hire law clerks.   

How and when do I apply?

The application generally consists of a resume, cover letter, transcripts, and two to three letters of recommendation. Grades are a substantial component of your application; although there are often no hard cut-offs, to be considered competitive for federal clerkships or state supreme court clerkships, you should probably be in the top ten percent of your class. However, there may be a clerkship for you regardless of your grades! State trial (and even mid-level state appellate) courts tend to look beyond an applicant’s grades when selecting candidates, and specialty courts such as bankruptcy may care more about a candidate’s substantive interest instead of her transcript.   

The resume, which should be one page in length, should focus on your work and experiences in research, analysis, and writing. Your cover letter is typically much shorter in length than cover letters you’d use for firms, public interest or government organizations. The cover letter should only highlight key aspects of your qualifications, such as law journal or research experiences. Letters of recommendation, which should come from law school faculty or legal employers who can thoughtfully attest to your research, writing, and analytical skills, are a critical component of your application. Please meet with OCPD to talk about your application materials, and discuss who (and how) to ask to write your letters of recommendation.   

Because clerkships, especially in the federal judiciary, are very competitive, it is in your best interest to be as geographically flexible as possible. Do not apply for clerkships you would not accept, but do understand that the more applications you submit, the more likely you are to get a clerkship.
A sizeable majority of federal judges use the Online System of Clerkship Application and Review (“OSCAR”), available at https://oscar.uscourts.gov/. State courts vary in the application process, but we have a great guide – The Vermont State Court Clerkship Guide – that has updated information for the application process in each state. There is no formalized time frame for applications – each judges sets his or her own timeline for applications, and this can range from two years before a start date to two months before a start date, and everything in between. The best thing you can do is to start the application process early but edit and strengthen your application as you continue the application process. Without a concerted hiring time frame, this can be a very long process, but one that is worth it! 

How does the interview process work? 

Once a candidate has been selected for an interview, each judge will have her own process for the interview. It’s not unusual for the interview to be less about a student’s substantive knowledge and more about her “fit” with a particular chambers. The interview may be with the judge or with everyone in the chambers – the law clerk(s) and judicial assistant. The judge will not be able to pay for your travel expenses if you need to travel for the interview. However, OCPD has a modest travel stipend to help with costs. You must apply before you travel to be eligible for reimbursement so please make sure you contact OCPD for the travel stipend application.   

How quickly do you have to accept a clerkship offer?   

Offers for judicial clerkships are not like other job offers. Some judges will expect an answer on the spot (known as an “exploding offer”), and many others will give you, at most, twenty-four hours to accept an offer. Thus, you should only apply to and interview with a judge if you are willing to immediately accept an offer from that judge as it is considered bad form to decline an offer for an interview and even worse to decline an offer.   

What resources does OCPD have for students applying to clerkships?

OCPD provides one-on-one clerkship advising and application review to every student applying to clerkships. We have a support faculty clerkship committee and offer programming each semester and during the summer to assist students in the clerkship application process. Most importantly, please contact OCPD and let your advisor know you’re interested in clerkships and we can start the process at an appropriate time to ensure your competitiveness!   

What can you do after a clerkship?

Anything, really! Invariably, law students are more competitive to potential employers after a judicial clerkship, so this career path will only open potential job opportunities for you. You’ll find former law clerks in state, local, and federal government attorney positions; in public interest positions; in all practice groups at large, medium, and small law firms; and in in-house counsel positions. Think of this as a career expander, not a career narrower!

Submitted by OCPD on August 21, 2017

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