The Scoop on Judicial Clerkships
The application process for federal judicial clerkships has become more streamlined in recent years. Career centers may advise qualified students to apply to many, many judges at once (75 is not an unreasonable number!). Anyone can apply for a federal clerkship, but your chances aren't great if you aren't at least in the top 25 percent of your class. Your other activities and journal experience can also make a difference. The time to apply for clerkships is right before your third year. By Labor Day, you should have your cover letter, your resume, your writing sample and your references mailed. Don't worry -- you won't have to stamp 75 envelopes! Some schools have a system that electronically generates multiple applications from your materials and then sends them out.
Your law school's career center will have a listing of judges all over the country who have clerkship openings. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts also has a Federal Law Clerk Information System web site (https://lawclerks.ao.uscourts.gov/) that includes a searchable database of federal clerkship vacancies nationwide. But you will probably only get the most basic information -- name, location, deadline, address -- from your school's career center. For the real information, you'll have to talk to the counselors or, preferably, alumni who have worked for the judge.
When deciding where to apply, do not rule out a judge simply because his courtroom isn't next door to your law school! Clerkships in certain areas -- such as the Northeast corridor or other urban areas -- may be more prestigious, but this makes them exponentially harder to get since everyone wants them. Federal law is national in scope, and a federal clerkship in Alabama is still a federal clerkship, which means your Chicago law firm will be duly impressed. And you won't even have to pass the Alabama bar to clerk for a judge there. You should consider any region where you think you can live for one or two years.
You should begin the application process as early as possible so that your materials are ready by September. Your writing sample should be thoroughly proofread and free of any errors. The same goes for your cover letter. You should also try to include at least three stellar references. You can get letters from attorneys you worked with over the summer, but at least one reference should be an academic one.
If you are called for an interview, you will meet with the clerk for your first interview. Unfortunately, the courts don't have the budgets that law firms do, so if the judge is in another state, you'll be paying for the trip yourself. Obviously, if you've applied to clerk with 75 judges and get 75 callbacks (incredibly unlikely), then you must be extremely choosy about whom meet (unless you have an unlimited bank account and a lot of time on your hands). If you're called back after your initial interview, you will meet the judge.
One crucial way that the clerkship application process differs from the firm hiring process is in timing. Once you receive a clerkship offer, you usually have only one day, or maybe two days, to accept. That's it. You can't shop around for the best offer like you do with firms.
Clerkships primarily involve research and drafting. You will research legal issues for the judge and help draft the opinions. Some judges draft every sentence of their opinions; others will let you do most of the work. You will work relatively long, intense hours. The upside is that you'll get the opportunity to work closely with a judge, who will be your direct supervisor. You will learn more about the law that you can imagine, become expert at research and perfect your drafting skills. The judge will also be a great reference in the future. Most people feel that clerkships are very rewarding. "Many people complain about firm life," says one career counselor at an urban law school, "but I've never heard anyone say that they regret doing a clerkship."
The application information above applies to federal clerkships, at either the trial level (district court judges) or the appellate level (circuit court judges). If you're looking for a state clerkship, you need to contact the court and probably the individual judge for openings and application procedures. Each state has its own procedures. In addition to appeals court clerkships, some trial court judges might hire law clerks. A state clerkship is less prestigious than a federal clerkship, but it can still work to your advantage, especially if you clerk in the same jurisdiction in which you decide to practice law. For instance, if you're planning to practice at a Florida law firm, they might be suitably impressed with a Florida state clerkship. Such a clerkship will carry much less weight for a New York firm.
Money and more
The salary for federal clerkships is usually around $50,000. There might be some adjustment for quality of life -- for example, if you're moving to New York City, you might get a small percentage increase. State clerkship salaries vary, from $30,000 to $50,000, depending on state and location.
If you're already working, don't despair -- you can still apply for a clerkship. In fact, you have many factors in your favor. Many judges prefer to work with a clerk who needs less training because she already has legal experience. Furthermore, you'll make more money -- thousands more -- than if you accepted a clerkship right out of law school.