Judicial Clerkships and Public Interest Careers

It’s clerkship application season, so it seemed like a good time to do a post about the role judicial clerkships play in public interest careers.

For those who don’t know, judicial law clerks work for a judge for a year or two after graduating from law school. They write memos for the judge, draft opinions and orders, and provide logistical support for the judge’s courtroom. Most judges―state, federal, magistrate, and administrative―have law clerks, though not all of them have clerks they hire for a year at a time. Some hire career law clerks who hold their positions indefinitely. In this post, I am mainly talking about short-term clerkships because this is what people are talking about when they talk about clerkships in law school.

Judicial clerkships are coveted positions that signal prestige, accomplishment, and potential. Lawyers who clerk will earn hefty bonuses if they go on to work at a big law firm. Clerkships are also important for those wanting to become law professors (over half of law professors hired in 2020 had done at least one clerkship). If you want to be an appellate lawyer or have an active Supreme Court practice, having a clerkship on your resume is crucial.

But that is generally not the case for public interest lawyers. There may be a few circumstances where it will be an advantage. There are fellowships (such as the Skadden Fellowship) and national organizations (such as the ACLU) where having done a clerkship is an advantage. The same goes for some government jobs, particularly prestigious jobs like the U.S. Department of Justice Honors Program. But even there, it’s not necessary. Most organizations are going to be much more interested in your previous public interest experience, your lawyering skills, your grades, and your commitment to the work.

So is there any reason not to do a clerkship if the opportunity arises? Probably not. Getting a clerkship is difficult and most people won’t, but there is very little downside to doing one if the option is available to you.

I did two clerkships, one with a federal district judge and one with a federal appellate judge. Clerking did not come naturally to me. It required me to pretend that law can be neutral and objective, which I don’t believe. I had to feign a judicial temperament, which I definitely do not have (as anyone who knows me can attest). At times, I had to write things I didn’t believe, which was excruciating. But I learned so much that I would do it again in a heartbeat. I became a much better writer and legal thinker over the course of two years. Although I had taken courses in criminal and civil procedure in law school, I had absolutely no sense for how it worked in practice until I spent a year inside a courtroom. It taught me to think like a judge, which while painful at the time, has come in handy many times since. I learned how to distinguish good lawyering from bad lawyering (and there was a lot of bad lawyering). The experience was invaluable.

Even if you don’t plan on applying for a job where clerking is important, you never know what twists and turns your career will take. For example, after practicing for a few years, I decided to become a clinical professor, a quasi-academic position in which there is a clerkship advantage.

If you’re thinking about applying, here are some things to keep in mind. First, there are only so many federal appellate clerkships, so you should think broadly about which clerkships to apply to. Magistrate judges, state court judges, and administrative law judges can all provide excellent clerkship experiences.

Moreover, you should consider what your plans are after clerking when deciding where to apply. If you want to be a public defender, a clerkship with a trial court is going to be much more useful than an appellate clerkship. If you want to practice in a particular area of administrative law, clerking for an administrative law judge in that area will be more helpful than another clerkship.

You should also expand the geographic scope of your search if your personal circumstances allow for it. You can live anywhere for a year. Trust me.

Finally, you shouldn’t assume that if you don’t get a clerkship the year after you graduate from law school, you will never get one. I know plenty of people that clerked two, three, or four years out of law school. Judges appreciate law clerks with a little more experience. Especially if you do a two-year public interest fellowship that doesn’t lead to a permanent job, a clerkship can give you time to figure out your next move.

And if it doesn’t work out? Don’t sweat it. There are many important things you’ll want to do if you’re an aspiring public interest lawyer and clerking is pretty far down the list. It is a nice-to-have, not a must-have, on your resume.

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