Judicial Clerkship Guide: Deciding Where to Apply

Judicial Clerkship Guide: Deciding Where to Apply

This section of the Clerkship Manual discusses how to select the clerkships for which you will apply. To download a full copy of the Clerkship Manual, click here.

V. Deciding Where to Apply

Selecting judges is a difficult and time consuming process. Below are several guidelines to keep in mind in identifying judges to whom you wish to apply and a list of research resources is included later in this manual. It is critical, however, that you do not, under any circumstances, apply to a judge for whom you would not want to clerk. Doing so wastes not only your time, but also the judge’s time and can ultimately injure your reputation as well as that of the Law School.

Competitiveness: It is difficult to know exactly how competitive any clerkship will be in any given year. Generally speaking, federal circuit court clerkships are the most competitive, followed by federal district court clerkships and state Supreme Court clerkships, followed by federal non-Article III clerkships and other state court clerkships. Of course, there are exceptions to this general ordering. For example, clerkships with district court judges in certain very popular parts of the country may be more difficult to secure than clerkships with circuit court judges in less sought-after geographic locations. Clerkships with some state Supreme Courts may also be harder to get than clerkships with some federal district judges, again depending on geography and the reputation of the court.

Type of Work: It is not always the best career move to simply look for the most competitive clerkship. If your ultimate goal is to be a prosecutor or defense attorney, a clerkship in a trial court will provide more relevant experience than a clerkship in an appellate court. If you plan to practice with a firm doing business primarily in state court, experience in the state system may be more valuable than in the federal courts. No matter where you apply, be prepared to explain to a judge why you chose his or her court.

Duration of Clerkship: Most judges require a one-year term for their judicial clerks, but some require a two-year commitment. If you do not wish to clerk for two years, you should check on the length of the clerkship term before you apply to the judge. Never assume a clerkship is for one year without checking. Terms for federal clerkships are listed on OSCAR for participating judges. Information about state clerkships can be found on the Vermont Guide to State Judicial Clerkships (see Other Resources) and on individual court websites.

Location: Location is very important to many students in applying for clerkships. The most competitive geographic regions tend to be the District of Columbia, New York, Boston, Chicago, and California. Students are well advised to direct their applications outside of these highly competitive areas, and especially to geographic areas where they have ties. Judges, particularly state judges, are often interested in candidates who have a connection to their state (and especially those potentially interested in practicing there). If you are serious about obtaining a clerkship, think very carefully about where to apply. You may be well served by expanding your geographic horizons in the short term. The rewards of a great clerkship experience will likely outweigh any drawbacks of living and working for a year in a place where you don’t intend to live permanently.

Senior Judges: The federal courts and some state courts give judges the option of taking “senior status.” Typically judges on senior status have a reduced caseload, and they will almost always have a reduced administrative load. Depending on the number of cases they hear, though, senior judges remain eligible to hire at least one law clerk (and some continue to hire the full complement of clerks and to shoulder a full caseload).

Number of Applications: Federal judges receive thousands of applications for three or four positions. Although state judges may receive fewer applications, they are still inundated with potential candidates. It is wise, therefore, to think carefully about where to apply. In addition, OSCAR (the electronic application platform for federal clerkships) allows you to have submitted only 100 applications at any one time. (As positions are filled, you will be able to add new applications.) Be savvy and target courts where you think you have a good shot based on your credentials, your skills, or your connection to the region. If you are aiming for a specialized court or a state appellate or trial level clerkship, targeting is crucial because those judges are more interested in areas of your resume like demonstrated interest in the subject matter and geographic ties.

Multiple Judges on Same Court: It is common and acceptable to apply to multiple judges on the same court. In fact, there may be an advantage to applying to a number of judges on a single court or in a particular region. If one judge offers you an interview, you may be able to call the other judges in the vicinity to whom you applied and request interviews with them while you are in the area. It is important to do some research before applying blindly to all judges in a given court or region. Certain judges are outstanding and most are great to work for, but there are perhaps a few who have developed reputations for being particularly difficult. You may wish to avoid applying to those judges.