Judicial Clerkships: The What, The Why, And The How

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Business Insider has ranked law schools by the proportion of their class that go on to clerk for federal judges. Here’s what you should think about when looking at such lists.

1. Who should clerk?

A clerkship is a great opportunity for a lot of writing experience, training, and connections. Most clerks go on to work in litigation, whether in private practice or in government. However, it’s not wholly unusual for corporate or transactional attorneys to clerk, especially if that means clerking for a Delaware chancellor.

If you at all think you’d like to clerk, set up an appointment with your law school’s clerkship office and soak up as much info as you can about the application process. Your clerkship office will be your best resource.

2. When to start seriously thinking about a clerkship?

You should start thinking about clerking as early as possible. Some very sought after judges will hire clerks after 1L, and to even be in the running you have to line up an appropriate writing sample and three recommendation letters. So the sooner you start gathering your application materials the better. This doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck if you don’t have a clerkship secured after 1L, in fact most clerks don’t, but don’t wait if you can help it.

3. What to think of the Business Insider ranking?

One way to read the Business Insider “ranking” is to think that only Yale and Stanford are worth going to if you’re set on clerking.

This isn’t quite right. A federal clerkship (or the like) is incredibly difficult to line up—but it’s not as difficult as the Business Insider ranking may suggest. The main reason is that many (most?) judges now prefer, if not require, clerks to have a year or so of work experience. So in any given year there will be more active clerks from a law school than the Business Insider numbers suggest, since the latter only track folks who go to clerk directly after law school.

Moreover, many of your law school classmates will have zero interest in clerking; so dividing the number of direct-out-of-law-school clerks by total class size, doesn’t give you your chances of clerking out of any given law school. It’s just a helpful indicator.

4. What are your chances really?

Your individual chances are really hard to figure and will depend on whether or not you get on your school’s law review, how good your writing sample is, whether you can befriend the right professors, where you’re willing to go geographically, and your GPA. The Business Insider numbers are a helpful rule of thumb, but may vastly overestimate or underestimate your chances. Figuring your individual chances at the law school admissions stage is impossible.
Most of you will have no idea if you want to clerk or not. If that’s you, one of the best things you can do is spend your first summer interning for a judge. Don’t worry about clerkship rates too much at the admissions stage.

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