Judicial Clerkship Guide: Types of Clerkships

Judicial Clerkship Guide: Types of Clerkships

This section of the Clerkship Manual discusses types of clerkships. To download a full copy of the Clerkship Manual, click here.

IV. Types of Clerkships

Federal Courts of Appeals: Most federal circuit judges hire three or four clerks for one year terms. Appellate court clerks spend most of their time reading briefs, doing legal research, writing memoranda, drafting opinions for their judges, and attending oral arguments. Federal court of appeals clerkships are best suited to students who wish to enter appellate practice or academia.

Federal District Courts: Most federal district judges hire two clerks for a term of one or two years. District judges often have a few hundred cases on their dockets at any given time, and clerks regularly do some or all of the following tasks: talk with attorneys about case status; attend status and settlement meetings with attorneys; attend hearings and trials; conduct legal research; prepare research memoranda for the judge; write rough drafts of opinions and orders. These clerkships are ideal for prospective litigators.

State Supreme Courts: Most state Supreme Court justices hire two to three clerks for a term of one to two years. State Supreme Courts generally have discretionary dockets, meaning they can select the most interesting or challenging cases for review, examine cases that have caused confusion in the lower courts, interpret new law, or push the boundaries of pre-existing jurisprudence. The work of state Supreme Court clerks is similar to that of appellate clerks, often with the addition of writing bench memoranda that go to every member of the court and writing memoranda on petitions to the court to hear cases. State Supreme Court clerkships are ideal for those who are interested in appellate law or expect to have a state law practice.

State Appellate Courts: Some state appellate judges hire clerks, typically one or two, for terms of one to two years. State appellate court clerks do work that is similar to federal appellate court clerks. The state intermediate courts of appeal hear a wide range of cases that cover a variety of state law issues, including contracts, family law, criminal law, and torts. State appellate court clerkships are ideal for those interested in appellate law who expect to have a state court practice.

Federal Magistrates: Federal magistrate judges typically hire one clerk for a term of one or two years. Magistrate judges are appointed by the federal district judges of a particular court and serve terms of eight years. Magistrate judges conduct a wide range of judicial proceedings to expedite the disposition of cases headed to the U.S. District Courts. Magistrate judges’ specific duties vary greatly. Some conduct criminal hearings, such as guilty pleas or detention hearings, while others handle strictly civil work, often complex litigation. Magistrate clerkships are a great learning opportunity because they are often fast-paced and can involve a significant amount of time in court.

State Trial Courts: State trial clerks often work in a pool to be shared by all of the judges of the court. Clerking for a state trial court can be an excellent way to learn about the state’s law and its legal community and to gain valuable legal research and writing experience. State trial level clerkships are a great experience for students who plan to become prosecutors or public defenders in a particular state, or for anyone interested in litigation more generally.

Specialized State and Federal Courts: There are many clerkship opportunities with federal and state court judges who sit on more specialized courts. These courts, such as the federal bankruptcy courts, the U.S. Tax Courts, state family law courts, or juvenile courts, often hire clerks. If you have a particular interest in one of these areas of law, a clerkship can be a great way to launch your career. You will learn a large amount of substantive law in the area in a short time, and you will also have access to the judges and attorneys who practice in a particular community.

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 in both the federal and state court systems. The duties and term length of staff attorney positions vary by state and court. For example, staff attorneys employed by the Connecticut Superior Court serve a pool of judges and perform tasks similar to those of a typical state trial law clerk.

Administrative Law Clerks: Administrative law judges are independent, impartial triers of fact in formal administrative hearings. Over 30 federal government agencies employ administrative law judges and hundreds of state agencies do so as well. Some administrative law judges hire recent law school graduates as law clerks for either a specific term or on a permanent basis.

Tribal Court Clerks: Of the approximate 500 federally recognized Native American tribes in the country, more than 200 have independently established their own tribal courts to address the legal needs of their members. Tribal courts are as varied as the tribes themselves and range from tradition-based systems with little or no written rules to systems nearly as formal as state and federal courts. Each tribe independently determines how to set up its system and what rules and procedures will apply. Many hear disputes analogous to those raised in the state trial system and offer the opportunity for recent law graduates to clerk for a period of one to two years.

Judicial Fellows Program: Although technically not a clerkship, the Judicial Fellowship Program offers an exceptional opportunity to work in the federal court system and gain experience similar to that of a federal court law clerk. This program involves a one-year appointment for a candidate with at least one postgraduate degree and two or more years of professional experience. Fellows are assigned to the United States Supreme Court, Federal Judicial Center, Administrative Office of the United States Courts, or the United States Sentencing Commission.