The humble title of the position belies its enormous prestige. Because clerkships are so competitive, law students who win a spot are perceived as the best and brightest of their class, students who have won most of the coveted titles -- law review, moot court, Order of the Coif -- available to them during their three years of law school.
What do judges look for in prospective clerks? The same as firms: stellar grades and strong writing experience. Those who aren't on the editorial board of their school's most prestigious publications have little chance of clerking.
"It doesn't have to be law review, but it depends on the school. Some schools have really prestigious journals besides law review," said a student who won a clerkship position for next year.
While state judges also take on clerks, "it's not as good, because they normally specialize in one kind of case, while federal judges get everything." Federal appellate clerkships are also considered more prestigious; appellate judges are permitted three clerks, district judges, two, and trial magistrates, one.
Appellate courts appeal to the most intellectual of students, those likely destined for academia. But young lawyers interested in down and dirty litigation work may find their greatest rewards at the district courts.
"You get to see things from both sides of the bench if you've clerked before," said a 3L in New York City who'll be clerking for a federal judge in Florida next year.
And because clerks' primary job is to research law and draft decisions, those skills get finely tuned.
"It'll be great having the feedback from the judge who's been writing decisions for so long and seen so many opinions," said the New York 3L.
"In terms of writing and research skills, when the judge would mark up something I did, it was a great writing experience," said one former clerk. "You hone your writing skills, and you learn great bits of law."
In March 2002, an ad-hoc committee of judges announced a voluntary ban on extending clerkship offers to 2Ls, figuring that hiring 2Ls placed too much emphasis on their first-year grades. A growing number of the country's top law schools have adopted the ban for their students by urging faculty members to turn down requests for recommendations made by 2Ls seeking clerkships.
But since individual judges remain free to set up their own hiring criteria, many second-year law students are still vying for clerkships - while also interviewing for corporate summer associate positions at the same time.
Clerkship openings are typically maintained by law school career services offices, but are also listed online at https://lawclerks.ao.uscourts.gov/. Typically, applying is as simple as sending in a resume, writing sample and a handful of faculty references. Most hiring is done in the fall. Students lucky enough to get an offer shouldn't expect much time to mull on it.
"When a judge makes an offer, you have to be prepared to accept it," said one former clerk. "Like the next day."
Eager to capitalize on the superstar clerks that settle in their midst, firms heap special treatment on former clerks. A law school grad who joins a firm after a year of clerking will typically be treated as a second-year associate, in terms of pay and partnership track.
"It's more true in litigation departments because the litigation-type writing skills are better developed at a clerkship, but even on the corporate side, it's a prestige thing: 'X number of our associates were clerks,'" said a New York attorney who clerked for a magistrate judge in the Southern District of New York.
Former clerks may even get a bonus once they settle down at a firm. The bonus amount typically depends on what level of court the clerk served in. Supreme Court clerks get the biggest bonus, followed by circuit court clerks, then district court clerks. Clerks who serve for two years earn more than clerks who've only served one year.
"[The bonus] doesn't quite make up for the money you're losing," by not working at a firm the first year out of law school, said a 3L who begins clerking next year, "but it's a nice gesture."
If much of law school is about collecting intellectual credentials, then one of the most coveted title comes at its conclusion: law clerk.