The down low on clerkships

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To clerk or not to clerk? Post-graduation clerkships are a popular debate among law students. Although they can be professionally rewarding, a clerkship may not be for everyone.

Before you get too far along in your applications, it’s worth reviewing the types of clerkships available to you. Then, hear from people at different stages in their legal careers who offer opinions and answer some important questions. Their insights may come in handy if you’re thinking about clerking or are already headed down the clerkship path.

Federal clerkships (aka, the Ivy League of clerkships)

Part of what makes these clerkships so prestigious is the limited availability of clerk positions. If you can navigate the competitive application process and land yourself one of these clerkships, your resume will thank you.

As a federal clerk, you are guaranteed to have a hectic caseload filled with interesting and more well-publicized cases. Furthermore, the judge(s) you will work under have stellar reputations. Meaning one good reference letter can go far in helping you secure your dream job.

Note: Non-U.S. citizens, unfortunately, are not eligible to clerk within the federal courts.

State clerkships

While state clerkships aren’t as prestigious as the abovementioned federal ones, they still offer an amazing experience, and often still qualify you for post-competition entry bonuses within most Big Law firms. Another bonus of proceeding down the state clerkship path? There are more positions available. Meaning you have a better shot at getting accepted in the state you most desire.

Note: Some states accept international student clerkship applications.

Specialty and/or international clerkships

Some states and courts hire specialty clerks for specific departments (i.e., tax). These positions are extremely rare. If you’re interested, you should contact your school career planning office early to determine whether any such positions are currently available.

For dual-citizens or international students, you can also apply for clerkships outside of the U.S. While such positions may not carry the same prestige as clerking for the U.S. Supreme Court, they can still benefit your career; especially if you’re uncertain whether you’ll want to stay in the U.S. indefinitely after graduation.

Importantly, not everyone immediately starts out by clerking in the Supreme Court. If you know you want the career benefits of a federal clerkship, you may begin with a state clerkship and work your way up through the rings. Not only will this give you the benefit of added networking and experience, but you will also become more familiar with the court system and what it takes to stand out as a federal clerkship applicant.

The clerking experience

Kirsten Valania, 3L from the University of Pennsylvania Law School As a 1L, Kirsten served as a judicial intern at the Delaware Court of Chancery. Prior to law school, she worked as a paralegal at Gordon, Fournaris & Mammarella, and was a marketing assistant for the Wilmington Blue Rocks. As a 3L, Kirsten has accepted a clerkship with the Delaware Court of Chancery, where she will work under a Vice Chancellor for two years. After clerking, she’ll transition to firm life at Abrams & Bayliss LLP in Delaware.

Q: What made you decide you wanted to clerk after law school?

A: I wanted to clerk after law school for two reasons: (1) I was a judicial intern for a Vice Chancellor and realized just how much there was to do and learn as a clerk that one would not be able to do or learn from the litigants’ side of the bench; and (2) just about every attorney I spoke to in Delaware suggested that I clerk.

Q: There’s no shortage of courts or judges, how did you narrow down the selection field when applying for clerkships?

A: I think I am unusual in that I only wanted to clerk in one court, the Delaware Court of Chancery, and nowhere else. Prior to law school, I was a paralegal in Wilmington doing fiduciary litigation, which means that I got pre-law school exposure to the Court of Chancery, the Delaware Superior Court and the Delaware Supreme Court. My favorite work as a paralegal related to actions before the Court of Chancery. My preference was solidified after being a judicial intern for a Vice Chancellor in the summer after my 1L year. As far as which judges to whom I applied, it is custom to apply to all of the Vice Chancellors and Chancellor when one applies to be a Chancery clerk.

Q: Explain the application process? Is there anything you wish you knew now that would have made it easier?

A: Fortunately, the career office connected me with former clerks who accurately laid out the application process for me. As I mentioned above, a Chancery clerk applies to all seven jurists, typically. With the application, you include two to three references, a writing sample and your transcript. After a few weeks, you are invited to schedule a number of interviews with different Vice Chancellors (or the Chancellor). These interviews are about an hour long with the judge and may also include an interview with the current clerks, a Bluebook exam and a writing assignment. You may not get an interview with every Vice Chancellor, but you can still get an offer from one with whom you did not interview.

The Court is small and there is a lot of collaboration in the hiring process. I wish I had a better idea of the overall timeline, because the waiting can be stressful! I knew that applications were due in early February, so I started communicating with the career office and several professors from the beginning of the fall semester and by January I had my writing sample proofread and my reference letters finalized. What was unexpected to me is that my interviews were not scheduled until March. My offer was extended in early April. I had heard that the process was fast, but I don’t think I necessarily had a grasp of what “fast” is in the clerkship world. In reality, it is much faster than the process for federal clerkships.

Q: Did you get a sense that any particular area of your application was more important than the others — i.e., grades, recommendation letters, courses taken, past experience, law school ranking?

A: I got a sense that after exhibiting a clear aptitude and preference for Delaware corporate law, by courses, grades, experience or otherwise, the next most important part of the application was references with connections to the Court. I also got the impression that the application is largely wholistic in the sense that an applicant can compensate for one part of their application with another.

Q: Since you received your clerkship offer after accepting a 2L summer job at a law firm, can you explain the process you went through with your law firm?

A: After getting my clerkship offer, I asked if I could check with my firm and immediately called to ask if they would be amenable to me clerking what would be during my second and third years as an associate. They were very supportive, so I was able to contact my Vice Chancellor and accept that same day.

Q: What are you hoping to get out of your clerkship experience?

A: I am, first and foremost, hoping to get an intimate understanding of how Delaware corporate law is developed. I know it will be a very intensive two years of clerking and I will have the opportunity to be immersed in various aspects of this very niche area of law. I do truly view it as an opportunity. My firm is a boutique that only does Chancery litigation, so this will be directly applicable to my future practice. Secondly, I am hoping to become a better writer. The job certainly requires a lot of writing, which must be digestible and precise. Finally, I am hoping to develop a lasting relationship with my Vice Chancellor. I really respect and admire her; I hope to be able to have her as a professional mentor going forward.

2L Transactional Associate at a Law Firm
Prior to entering a law firm, the associate clerked for a judge at a state court of appeals.

Q: Thinking back to how you felt before beginning your clerkship, how do you think the experience matched or differed from your expectations? Would you still recommend it?

A: I was less prepared than I expected, and I think that is the case for every first-time clerk. There is no class or practice that prepares you to participate in the legal and (even more so) the operational work of a judge’s chambers. I would absolutely still recommend it, as it is the only way to see that aspect of law besides being a judge.

Q: What’s one thing you wish you’d known about clerking before applying?

A: I’m not sure anything could have better prepared me for the work, and I really enjoyed the full year. My successor was surprised that our court system paid every two weeks rather than twice a month, which reduced the paycheck noticeably — check with HR about insurance and payroll to make sure you know what your finances will look like.

Q: Explain the transition from clerking to Big Law.

A: As a transactional attorney, there was no connection between the work. It has helped me answer a few questions in my first year of practice, and I believe I was a better legal writer and thinker thanks to the clerkship, but otherwise I was starting from ground zero at the firm, just like a first year.

Q: In what ways do you think clerking has helped you in your legal practice?

A: My writing improved significantly, and practice made me much better at breaking apart the facts, law and application in each case, and synthesizing them into a proper analysis.

Q: Regarding mentorship, describe your relationship with the judge whom you clerked for; did the mentor relationship continue after your service ended?

A: I have stayed in touch with my judge, and she helped me with my job search while I was still in chambers. Equally important, I am still communicating with fellow clerks and the interns that came through our chambers — it is a fantastic network.

Q: If you could offer a few pieces of advice for students entering clerkships, what would they be?

A: Read opinions by your judge from the past year, and if you can access the emails between your judge and prior clerks, see what edits the judge offered to their writing to align your drafts with the chambers’ standards. Expect to make big mistakes — every clerk does, and no matter how the judge responds, she knows it is part of the process. Get to know clerks in other chambers to help advise on how to handle issues around the courthouse.

Mark Batten, partner in Proskauer Rose LLP’s Labor and Employment group and co-head of the Class and Collective Actions Group
Mark also writes and lectures on employment-related matters. Prior to joining Proskauer, he was a partner at Bringham McCutchen LLP and a trial attorney in the Civil Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington. After graduating Magna Cum Laude from Harvard Law School, Mark clerked for the Honorable Richard L. Williams in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for one year.

Q: Let’s start with the basics: how do you feel clerking has benefited or impacted your legal career?

A: It was an invaluable experience, particularly at the start of my career, in two respects. First, every litigator’s job, until reaching a jury, is to persuade a judge. And this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how arguments are received. Second, over the course of a year, you get to see a lot of different lawyers, with very different styles, arguing their cases to the judge and trying their cases to a jury. You also get to study a lot of different approaches to written advocacy. Watching those different styles and seeing what is effective is extremely valuable in crafting your own style.

Q: Looking back on your own experience, can you honestly say you would recommend clerking?

A: I absolutely would recommend it, for the reasons described above. I intentionally sought a district court clerkship rather than an appellate clerkship because I wanted to be a litigator, and it seemed as though clerking at the trial court level would be the better experience. I’m sure appellate clerkships have their own value, from the experience you get at a more abstract, legal level, and because of their prestige. But I think the in-the-trenches experience was more relevant to what I now do day-to-day.

Q: Mentorship is important throughout your legal career. Did your judge serve as a mentor for you? If so, explain how the relationship helped you.

A: During the clerkship, he did. He had lunch with his clerks every day at the bank cafeteria across the street, and we talked about what was going on in the cases, what arguments were working or not working, and career possibilities. My judge was also a great storyteller, and we learned a lot from that.

Q: Many law students and junior associates are concerned that accepting a clerkship will mean sacrificing or risking law firm employment. In your opinion as a partner at a law firm, how do you think clerkships impact hiring decisions?

A: My impression is that a clerkship can only add to the perceived value of an applicant, for the reasons described in response to the first question. I gather that some clerkships go on for more than a year, and I’m guessing that there are diminishing returns from those longer clerkships in the eyes of law firms, but a clerkship of a year or even two can only be beneficial, I think.

Q: On a similar note, what value do you think clerkships bring to a law firm or to your practice area specifically?

A: It brings associates with some real-world (or, more precisely, real courtroom) experience which gives them a leg up in the advocacy that is essential to a litigation practice.

Q: Are there any tips you can offer soon-to-be law clerks to help them thrive during their clerkship?

A: Spend as much time as the judge will allow in the courtroom, so you get to see the oral advocacy. When you have time, make similar visits to other courtrooms, both trial court and appellate, to see as much as you can.

Learn more about legal internships, clerkships, and clinics.

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