Have any questions regarding Judicial Clerkships that cannot be answered below? See Lindsay Healless in OCPD or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deciding Whether You Should Clerk
What is a judicial clerkship?
A judicial clerkship is a post-graduate position for 1-2 years where a lawyer essentially functions as an attorney for a judge or justice. 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. 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 judges look for in a clerkship applicant?
Judges are looking for strong academics, strong writing skills, and individuals with sharp critical thinking ability. To make a stronger case for yourself, consider the following:
- Get to know faculty well so they will be positioned to write you a strong recommendation letter.
- Get journal experience, if possible, and/or other substantial writing experience.
- If you have a connection to an area, mention that connection in your cover letter.
What about my class rank?
Although your class rank should never prevent you from applying to a judicial clerkship, the table below illustrates general rank guidelines:
- Top 10% -- Federal Appellate or State Supreme Courts
- Top 15% -- Federal District Courts
- Top 30% -- Federal Magistrate and Intermediate State Appellate courts
- Top 40% -- Federal Specialty
- All – State Trial Courts
What kinds of clerkships are there?
Nearly all courts have some type of judicial clerk or staff attorney. Wisconsin Law School 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.
- United States Supreme Court. The Associate Justices, Chief Justices, and retired Justices hire clerks from candidates who have usually completed a clerkship at the federal appellate level.
- United States Courts of Appeals. There are twelve regional circuit courts of appeal and a Federal Circuit. Additionally, many courts of appeal hire staff attorneys, and these positions provide great experience at the appellate level, but are generally less competitive than clerking for a federal circuit judge.
United States District Courts
There are 94 judicial districts in the United States: 89 in the 50 states and 5 more in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands.
There are two different clerkship options at the federal trial court level:
- First, there are several hundred active U.S. District judges across the country, most of whom have two law clerks.
- Second, U.S. District magistrate judges frequently hire judicial clerks. Magistrates handle pre-trial matters for trials before the District Court and handle trials for petty offenders.
Chief judges may hire three clerks, and senior judges may hire one or two clerks depending on their caseload. While many district judges hire clerks for a one-year term, they increasingly are requiring a two-year commitment from their clerks.
The hallmark of the district court clerkship is variety. District court clerks are in daily contact with attorneys and parties proceeding without counsel. They do many of the things appellate court clerks do (i.e., many trial level cases are decided by dispositive motions that are briefed and argued in much the same manner as are appellate cases). In addition, district court clerks are heavily involved in the discovery process. They often play the leading role in resolving discovery-related motions, and in recommending (and sometimes participating in) pretrial and settlement conferences. In those cases that do reach trial, the clerk will generally attend the trial and all related hearings. If there is a jury, the clerk may be involved in the preparation of jury voir dire and jury instructions. In civil bench trials, the clerk will often draft findings of fact and conclusions of law. The clerk also may be asked to participate in sidebar conferences on disputed evidentiary issues. In criminal cases, clerks are likely to be involved in the evaluation of sentencing recommendations under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
- State Supreme Courts. The highest state court is the court of last resort for disputes concerning the interpretation of state statutes, state constitutional law and state common law. Every year, Wisconsin Law grads enter clerkships with the Wisconsin Supreme Court (and other state courts), and report back that these are wonderful experiences.
- Intermediate appellate courts. Not all state appellate courts hire law clerks, but the Wisconsin Court of Appeals generally hire a few law clerks each year. For Wisconsin, these positions are generally posted on the Wisconsin Courts website.
- Trial courts. State trial courts try a wide array of cases. These positions tend to hire much later than other courts, but they are great opportunities to observe and work on a broad range of trial matters, and network with the local bar.
- United States Bankruptcy Court. The U.S. Bankruptcy Court has exclusive jurisdiction over bankruptcy cases. Bankruptcy Court Clerks review cases, draft memoranda of law and answer attorney questions regarding court procedures and policies. For more information, visit www.uscourts.gov/FederalCourts/Bankruptcy.aspx.
- United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces. The Armed Forces Court of Appeals has worldwide jurisdiction over active-duty members of the armed forces, and anyone else subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. There are five civilian judges, who are appointed to 15-year terms by the President. The Court sits in Washington, D.C.
- United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has jurisdiction over international trade, government contracts, and patents. It also hears appeals from the Federal Claims, International Trade, Veterans’ Claims Appellate Courts. The majority of its cases involve administrative law, intellectual property, and monetary damages against the United States Government. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals sits in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit http://www.cafc.uscourts.gov/.
- United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. The Veterans Claims Court of Appeals reviews decisions by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals. This court seats seven permanent judges, and two temporary expansion judges. It is headquartered in Washington, D.C., but is authorized to sit anywhere in the United States.
- United States Court of Federal Claims. The Court of Federal Claims hears primarily money claims founded upon the Constitution, federal statutes, executive regulations or contracts with the United States. There are currently 17 judges on the Federal Claims bench, which sits in Washington, D.C. For more information, visit www.uscfc.uscourts.gov.
- United States Court of International Trade. The Court of International Trade hears civil actions arising out of United States customs and international trade laws. There are currently 14 judges on the International Trade bench, which is located in downtown Manhattan, New York City. For more information, visit www.cit.uscourts.gov.
- United States Tax Court. The Tax Court addresses suits regarding disputes in tax deficiency, as well as estate and gift taxes, and other tax-related issues. There are 19 judges appointed to the tax court, and each judge usually employs three clerks. These clerks receive the experience of a trial court within the specialized field of tax. The Tax Court usually seeks applicants that are within the top third of their class, and who have taken and excelled in tax-related courses. Many clerks are hired while enrolled in an LL.M. Tax Program. For more information, visit www.ustaxcourt.gov.
- Administrative Law Judges. The federal government employs over 1,000 judges in various administrative agencies who hear cases pertaining to their particular agency. Some of these judges employ law clerks.
- Staff Attorney Positions. Law clerks who serve many judges, or an entire court, are commonly referred to as "staff attorneys," "staff counsel," or "pro se law clerks." These positions can be found both in federal and state appellate and trial courts. The duties and responsibilities of a staff attorney vary by court, but may include reviewing motions, appeals and correspondence (particularly where at least one party is appearing without counsel), preparing memoranda, and assisting in case management and settlement. The length of service for these positions varies by court.
- Tribal Courts. Tribal Courts Some states have tribal courts that hire law clerks, although funding for such positions tends to be quite limited. Postings can often be found in the newspaper Indian Country Today. In addition, the National American Indian Court Judges Association may list postings on its website.
How do I select the courts and judges to which to apply?
You should consider applying to as many judges as possible, but do understand that you should never apply to a judge if you would not accept an invitation to interview or an offer. Some factors to consider:
- Geography: Generally, clerkships in larger cities tend to be more competitive than clerkships in less urban areas. If you are limited to a clerkship in a competitive area, consider applying to many different types of judges, including bankruptcy and magistrate judges.
- Ideology: Some students consider ideology when selecting judges to apply to. You are encouraged to look beyond ideology, except in extreme or rare cases. Ideology is irrelevant to a vast majority of the matters you’d work on. Furthermore, some judges select clerks who appear to have different ideologies than their own.
- Background: If a judge has a career path or worked in an area of the law you’d like to pursue, this is a good starting point as you may be able to write a more memorable cover letter. A good starting point for learning more about a judge’s biography is the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.
When do I send my applications?
For students who entered law school in 2016 (graduating class of 2019)
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. For the most part, state supreme courts hire in the spring of your 2L year. Without a concerted hiring time frame, this can be a very long process, but one that is worth it!
For students who entered law school in 2017 (graduating class of 2020)*
Students will gain access to OSCAR on February 6, 2019 to register for an account, upload documents, search for clerkship positions, and build online applications. The system will store these applications and release them to judges on June 17, 2019.
Participating judges will not seek or accept formal or informal clerkship applications, seek or accept formal or informal recommendations, conduct formal or informal interviews, or make formal or informal offers before June 17, 2019.
For students who enter law school in 2018 (graduating class of 2021)*
Students will gain access to OSCAR on February 5, 2020 to register for an account, upload documents, search for clerkship positions, and build online applications. The system will store these applications and release them to judges on June 15, 2020.
Participating judges will not seek or accept formal or informal clerkship applications, seek or accept formal or informal recommendations, conduct formal or informal interviews, or make formal or informal offers before June 15, 2020.
A judge who makes a clerkship offer will keep it open for at least 48 hours, during which time the applicant will be free to interview with other judges.
*This is a two-year pilot plan. Participating judges will reconsider their participation after June 2020.
For students who entered law school prior to 2016
Not all clerkships are filled through the regular hiring cycle. Some judges prefer to hire later in the process so that applicants have a more developed record. Others develop openings unexpectedly when, for example, a person previously hired becomes ill or otherwise unable to assume his/her duties as a clerk. Additionally, new judges are appointed to the bench periodically and need clerks without much lead time for hiring. At least at the federal level, many potential judges start to consider applicants for clerkships, at least informally, in the period between when they are nominated by the President and when they are confirmed by the Senate (particularly in the more narrow period between their committee hearing and their full vote by the Senate). During this period, they obviously have no official authority to hire clerks, so be aware that they have to be very careful and hypothetical about considering potential clerks. Indeed, some nominees never are confirmed, so any clerkship plans they make may become moot.
Many judges are also quite interested in hiring clerks with a few years' work experience after they graduate. Therefore, if you decide that you want to clerk at a later date, be sure to check all the resources mentioned in these clerkship materials, along with the other Career Services Job Search tools. A clerkship may be a wonderful way for you to transition from one job to another. In addition, for bar-member graduates with a few years' experience, salaries at the federal level can be $20,000 or more higher than for new graduates!
What if I want to apply for a clerkship later, or even after I graduate?
You can track federal judicial vacancies, nominations, and confirmations through the following websites:
- U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary: This site is best for watching the progression of nominees through the various steps. Note that pending nominations are listed after confirmed nominations.
- U.S. Department of Justice: The main page is good for an overview of judicial action nationally. Follow the link for "nominations" to find bios of nominees.
- Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts: This site is good for an overview of vacancies, categorized by circuit. Note that district court vacancies are listed under each circuit.
For state court vacancies, you may want to try each court's web site.
Unless otherwise noted, the majority of Federal Clerkship postings and application requirements are found on OSCAR. OSCAR serves as the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review. To register, go to https://oscar.uscourts.gov/. Also on this site, you will find helpful tips and tricks for utilizing OSCAR. Should you have any issues OCPD is happy to assist. For additional information on OSCAR, click here.
Some judges will still accept paper applications, however, this practice varies. Some students have found that if a judge is willing to accept paper applications, they are most successful when both a paper and an OSCAR application is submitted.
State Supreme Court/State Court of Appeals Clerkships
The State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals generally post their openings on Symplicty. In addition, information on the Courts can be found at wicourts.gov/courts/employment/lawclerk.htm
State Trial Court Clerkships
State Trial Clerkships are also posted on Symplicity. Spring OCI dates are available to 3Ls for Milwaukee and Dane County State Trial Court Clerkships. Watch Symplicity for dates.
Your cover letter should be individually addressed to each of the judges to whom you are applying. Sample address formats can be found here. It should be brief and to the point, stating that you are a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School and that you wish to apply for a clerkship for a specified term. (Note: judges tend to categorize their clerkship opportunities by terms corresponding to academic years. Thus, a one-year clerkship starting in September of 2016 and ending in August of 2017 would be considered as being for the "2016-2017 term." If you are interested in only a one-year clerkship, be sure to state that you are applying for the one-year defined term ["the 2016-2017 term," for example]. However, if you are interested in both one- and two-year clerkships, make sure you do not state that you are applying for the 2016-2017 term because judges with two-year clerkships may eliminate you from consideration. Instead, state that you are applying for a clerkship "beginning in 2016.")
In a transmittal cover letter, particularly those where you are not applying via OSCAR, you should state in your cover letter what you are including as enclosures (e.g., résumé, transcript(s), writing sample and letter(s) of recommendation). If you are enclosing a writing sample without an explanatory cover sheet, you should briefly state the context of the writing sample (e.g., a brief written as part of a moot court competition, a memo written for a partner at ABC firm, a seminar paper written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of XYZ course).
Generally, judges are turned off by overly persuasive/"hard sell" cover letters. However, certain information about your qualifications and experiences is helpful. You may want to briefly explain the following in cover letters:
- you are applying only to courts in a specific geographic area because you have a strong commitment to practicing in that area
- there is something specific about a judge's background that makes you particularly (and genuinely) interested in clerking for that judge (without appearing to be too obsequious!)
- you want to clerk at a particular court/court level due to your long-term career plans (e.g., you want to clerk in border states because of your interest in immigration or at a state court because you subsequently want to practice family law or criminal defense)
- you have post-graduate legal experience (for graduate applicants)
The résumé, which should be one page in length, should focus on your work and experiences in research, analysis, and writing.
How to obtain your transcript
Nearly all judges will want to see your most current law school transcripts, and many will want to see your undergraduate transcript, too. Unless specifically stated, assume that unofficial transcripts are sufficient. If you’re using OSCAR to apply for clerkships, understand that you’ll need to complete the OSCAR grade sheet for both your undergraduate and law school grades before you submit your applications. You will also need to manually update this with new grades as you receive them.
Choosing the appropriate writing sample
Your writing sample should be the best legal writing you have done. Unless a judge specifically asks otherwise, a sample 8-15 pages long is generally sufficient. A writing sample should showcase your ability to evaluate complex facts and law and reach a conclusion. Appropriate writings samples can include memorandum or briefs from legal research and writing courses, a moot court brief, memorandum or briefs from a summer position (provided it was your work alone, and with the permission of your client and supervisor!), a paper from a law school course, or a law review article.
All writing samples should include a cover page with the applicant's name, address, and the purpose for which the writing sample was created. When submitting a paper from a class, always send a clean copy, removing the professor's name, the date of the assignment, and any other such information from the top of the paper, and when submitting an assignment from work, remove the name of the assigning attorney, etc. Be sure to read it carefully for grammatical and spelling mistakes and for citation errors. It is a good idea to have OCPD read over it to be sure to catch all mistakes.
Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation should come from law school faculty or legal employers who can thoughtfully attest to your research, writing, and analytical skills. They 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.
To secure a letter, you must ask whether the professor or attorney is willing to write a ter of recommendation on your behalf. Even if you expect that the person will agree to do so, the professionalism you display in requesting a letter of recommendation will itself communicate your ability to exercise professional judgment. You should never denote on OSCAR or elsewhere that someone is writing on your behalf unless they have agreed to write a letter for you. Current students should provide each faculty recommender with the following information:
- Current résumé (including class rank)
- Copy of current transcript
- Writing sample (not necessarily the one you will use for your applications)
- Complete list of judges to whom applications will be sent (in Excel), with judges ranked in order of preference
In addition, some professors also find it useful if you supply them with a brief written explanation of why you want to clerk and at what type of court, a summary of your qualifications, and your future plans. If you fear the professor does not know you well enough, offer to provide him/her with additional information about your background and any special circumstances that could be referenced in the letter. If a professor appears willing to write a letter of recommendation, but is less than enthusiastic, you may wish to reconsider. Strong letters of recommendation emphasize qualities relevant to clerking, such as your ability to:
- Think, analyze, and reason
- Deal well with complex facts and legal doctrines
- Express yourself well, both orally and in writing
- Articulate and defend your positions
- Take both initiative and direction, asking questions when appropriate
- Work well under pressure and complete assignments on time
- Juggle a variety of projects simultaneously
- Be a team player and get along well with others
- Keep confidences
If possible, the recommender should try to give specific examples of these qualities.
Interviews and Offers
How do I handle an offer from my summer employer if I also want to apply for clerkships?
It is important to be transparent with your employer about your interest in applying for clerkships. Please visit OCPD for additional information.
How does the clerkship interview process work?
The interview is of the utmost importance in the clerkship selection process. It is your opportunity to convey to the judge that you have the intelligence, competence, and maturity a clerkship demands. In addition, the interview gives the judge the opportunity to gauge your personality - to see if you "fit" within the atmosphere of chambers - and your commitment to clerking. Keep in mind that the position for which you are interviewing requires strong analytical, research, writing, and communication skills. Other qualities under consideration are your personality, sense of humor, interests, ability to work independently and as part of a team, time management and organizational skills, and ability to make well-reasoned decisions.
A clerkship interview generally takes place in the judge's chambers, for twenty minutes to an hour or more. You will speak with the judge and, usually separately, with the judge's current clerks. The discussions with the clerks and other office staff may appear to be informal, but they are often a critical component of the evaluation process.
Scheduling Your Clerkship Interview
Interviewing for a clerkship requires you to be as flexible and accommodating as possible. First, if you are not at home when a judge calls you to schedule an interview, call the judge back that day or, at the very latest, the next day. The time you take to return the call indicates your interest (or lack thereof) in the clerkship and could seriously affect your candidacy.
If you are asked when you can come in for an interview, the wise response would be, "Tomorrow morning, unless the judge would be free this afternoon!" (From: Trenton H. Norris, "The Judicial Clerkship Selection Process: An Applicant's Perspective on Bad Apples, Sour Grapes, and Fruitful Reform," 81 Cal. L. Rev. 765, 779 (1993).) Seriously, you should be ready to interview at the convenience of the judge, with potentially as little as 24 hours' notice. If a suggested date is not possible for you, you should inform the judge of your conflict and request the earliest possible alternative date. If the judge gives you a range of dates, try to schedule your interview on the earliest of those dates. Many judges hire clerks on a rolling basis. Therefore, you may be at a competitive disadvantage if you interview later in the judge's schedule. Believe it or not, each year several students report that after they have scheduled an interview with a judge, but before they have had the interview, the judge has called to say that clerkship slots have been filled by candidates who interviewed earlier.
Because in many circumstances applicants are expected to accept a clerkship offer as soon as one is made, some applicants try to arrange interviews - to the extent possible - so that they interview first with those judges for whom they think they would most prefer to clerk. This strategy is becoming more and more risky and difficult to manage, however, given that there are no uniform guidelines governing the timing of interviews and offers and interviews may be compacted into a very short timeframe.
Travel to Clerkship Interviews
If you travel for a clerkship interview, it is at own expense. Therefore, consider geographic distance before applying, not after you are called for an interview. It is not acceptable to turn down an interview because you cannot afford to travel to the judge's chambers.
If you are invited for an interview in a distant location, call the other judges to whom you have applied in the same area and try to arrange an interview while you are there. Many judges are quite amenable to accommodating your travel schedule. Taking this leveraging step not only will save you time and money, but also might create interview opportunities that you would not get otherwise.
Finally, OCPD offers modest travel stipends to help alleviate financial burdens to students traveling outside of Wisconsin for interviews. Please apply for these stipends before you travel.
Preparing for Your Clerkship Interview
Judges vary widely in how they approach interviews. Some conduct simple, lightweight "getting-to-know-you" sessions. At the other extreme, some reportedly ask applicants pointed, substantive questions such as "What did you learn in your Torts class?" or "What do you think of this Court's opinion in Doe v. Smith ?" Before going to an interview, find out as much as you can about the particular judge's approach so you can prepare accordingly. If possible, speak with one of the judge's former clerks or with students who interviewed with the judge (whether or not they received an offer). Ask them what they think the judge is looking for in a clerk and what types of questions to expect. Also consider speaking with a professor, graduate, or employer who may know the judge personally or professionally.
Review any biographical information you can find about the judge. Good sources are the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, the news databases in Lexis and Westlaw, and an Internet search engine such as "Google." In addition, read a few of the judge's opinions, including dissents and concurrences. Opinions reveal a great deal about the judge's philosophy and writing style. A good place to start is the "Noteworthy Rulings" section of the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary or a caselaw search on Lexis or Westlaw. Do not get carried away in reading a judge's opinions, however, to the detriment of other methods of preparation, class work, and/or sleep!
Review your résumé and be prepared to talk about anything on it and to highlight your qualifications – particularly research, writing, and analytical experience. Also review your writing sample in detail and be prepared to discuss it in depth.
Finally, you should review the sample interview questions and think about your responses. While these questions do not represent the universe of potential questions, they are some of those most commonly asked. In addition, judges undoubtedly will give you an opportunity to ask questions yourself, so you must have some prepared in advance.
Schedule a mock interview with the clerkship committee!
The Conduct of the Interview
In the interview itself, the judge is primarily interested in determining whether you are the sort of person with whom he/she could work. Because chambers can be a close-knit place, the judge often is choosing a companion, not simply an employee. You should assume that anyone you meet in the judge's chambers -- not just the law clerks (who often have considerable influence over the selection), but also the judge's secretary -- will form an impression of you, and those impressions often are an important part of the interview. Do not treat secretaries and other support personnel as subordinates; give them the respect they deserve as the structural backbone of the chamber
Some judges may test your substantive knowledge of the law; some may ask their law clerks to do so. But even if the interview is not centered on testing your legal knowledge, the judge (and clerks) will almost always seek to engage you on some legal or other intellectual topic of mutual interest. Do not present yourself passively. Be prepared to talk intelligently and enthusiastically about your courses and why you selected them, about the topics of your seminar papers or journal note, about the substance of your past work or academic experience, about legal topics "in the news," and about your plans for the future.
Ultimately, the overall impression you should seek to convey is that you are grateful to have the opportunity to interview, that you are enthusiastic about the possibility of clerking for the judge and that you would work hard.
What do I do if, after my interview, I decide I could not work for the judge?
Contact OCPD immediately to determine the appropriate course for withdrawing your application. This should be done immediately. Do not wait until you receive an offer.
What should I do if I get an offer?
You should accept immediately. Judges are looking for an individual who is committed to working for them. You taking the time to consider the offer is an inconvenience to the Judge and is seen as a lack of interest.
What should I do if I accept a clerkship?
Please let OCPD know as soon as you obtain a clerkship. Prompt reporting of clerkship results is very beneficial to us, for general information-gathering, and is also very beneficial to your classmates, who may be wondering whether a particular judge has made his/her selections yet.
You should write a letter to your judge to accept a clerkship formally – even after accepting orally – and thank him/her for the offer. The letter can be short and to the point, telling the judge how much you look forward to working with him/her in the upcoming year. You should send thanks also to the judge's clerks (if you met with them), either separately or within your note to the judge.
Once you accept an offer from a judge, make sure to write to all the judges with whom you have an application outstanding and immediately withdraw yourself from consideration. If you have interviewed with a judge, but have not heard the judge's decision before you accept another offer, call that judge immediately to let him/her know you have accepted another clerkship.
Current and Former UW Law School Clerks
Many Wisconsin Law School faculty members are former judicial clerks, and they can be an invaluable resource for helping you decide whether to apply for clerkships and to advise you through the application process.
- A list of those faculty members is available here.
- A list of recent UWLS graduates who have served (or are currently serving) as judicial clerks is available here.
- Finally, a list of judges who are UWLS graduates, and to whom you may wish to apply, is available here.
Clerkship Committee Information
- Almanac of the Federal Judiciary
- BNA's Directory of State and Federal Courts, Judges, and Clerks
- Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships by Debra M. Strauss, Esq. (in the
- Office of Career and Professional Development)
- Judicial Yellow Book (in the Office of Career and Professional Development)