A judicial clerkship is a post-graduate position working directly for a judge or judges, and is invaluable to your professional development as a lawyer.
Clerkships are highly coveted positions, and typically
last for a period of one to two years. During
this time, you may learn directly from a judge and develop a long-term
mentoring relationship, and observe the inner workings of the judicial
system. Watching other lawyers practice
before the court and getting behind-the-scenes insight on how judges decide
cases, make clerkships unique opportunities.
By engaging in extensive legal research and writing, clerkships are
intellectually stimulating endeavors that expose you to different areas of
law. Having gained these experiences,
you become particularly attractive to future employers.
Types of Clerkships
available in many state and federal courts, as well as specialty courts and
U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals
U.S. District Courts
State Supreme Courts
State Appellate Courts
State Trial Courts
State Specialty Courts (e.g., Tax)
Federal Specialty Courts:
U.S. Bankruptcy Court
U.S. Tax Court
U.S. Court of International Trade
U.S. Court of Federal Claims
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces
U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals
Over 28 U.S. government departments and agencies employ Administrative Law Judges, and some hire clerks (e.g., Dept. of Labor, Drug Enforcement Administration, Environmental Protection Agency)
There are a number of different types of
clerkships within the courts:
- Term Clerkships: One or two-year clerkship appointments
available immediately after law school or within the first few years of
- Temporary Clerkships: Occasionally a law clerk is unable to
serve the entire term of his or her clerkship and the judge may seek a
replacement for the remainder of the term.
These temporary clerkship positions are the same in all other
respects as term clerkships.
- Elbow Clerks: Clerks who are hired by and work as
confidential staff to an individual judge.
- Career Clerkships: Often referred to as “Staff Attorneys,”
career clerkships are typically found in appellate courts. There is usually no term limit and
courts often seek candidates with some experience when filling these
- Staff Attorneys: Judicial clerks who serve many judges or an
entire court. Staff attorneys can
also be called staff counsel or pro
se law clerks. Staff attorney
positions are typically in appellate courts. The length of service varies, and these
positions can lead to elbow clerk positions. Federal circuit staff attorney positions
are usually open to law school applicants for positions that will begin
the fall after graduation.
Actual duties vary from judge to judge and
court to court, although most clerkships are fundamentally research and writing
positions. Due to jurisdictional issues,
the types of cases that are heard in state and federal courts differ.
Court Clerkships: Trial
court clerks gain exposure to trial practice and procedure. Their duties may consist of researching,
writing draft opinions and orders, performing cite checks, preparing bench
memoranda, attending hearings and trials, and reviewing and making
recommendations on a variety of motions.
Trial court clerks may also conduct settlement conferences and interact
extensively with attorneys and witnesses before the court.
Court Clerkships: Appellate
court clerks examine issues previously raised at the trial court level, and
therefore their duties primarily involve an analysis of the application of the
law. Clerks typically review and analyze
briefs, and prepare bench memoranda to prepare the judge for oral
argument. Following oral argument,
clerks may help the judge prepare opinions, dissents, concurrences and
rulings. Appellate court clerks
generally do not work with discovery management or parties, and have less
contact with the practitioners than do trial court clerks. Clerks might also assist with screening cases,
summarizing parties’ briefs, drafting memoranda on issues key to rulings, attending
oral arguments, completing extensive research and analysis, and assisting the
judge as necessary.
- Specialty Courts: The
duties of specialty court clerks are similar
to trial court clerks although they are focused on a particular field.
Deciding Where to Apply
There are thousands of judges to choose
from, so how do you conduct an effective search? Here are several things to consider to help narrow
your search, and increase your chances of success.
court? Think about whether you want to work in
a trial court or appellate court, and also federal court or state court. If there are particular practice areas
you are interested in, research which courts and judges hear those types
of cases, and look into specialty courts. Consider the duties that each type of
clerkship entails, and how they align with your interests and future
geographically flexible can increase your chances of obtaining a
clerkship. Clerkships in desirable
locations will be more competitive
than equally impressive clerkships in other areas of the country. Apply for positions in any geographic
region where you have a connection, e.g.,
where you went to undergraduate school or where you have family. Also consider locations where you might
ultimately want to practice, as clerking in your desired location of
future employment will allow you to gain insight into the local legal
- Expenses. Be mindful that you will need to pay for your own travel to clerkship
interviews, so apply to clerkships in locations to which you can
Judges. Learning about a judge’s career and
docket will help you determine who you are most interested in working for,
and will help you prepare strong cover letters. Consult the materials noted in the Resources section to research judges and courts.