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Judicial Clerkships

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

Clerkships are available in many state and federal courts, as well as specialty courts and administrative agencies.

Federal Courts:

U.S. Supreme Court
U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeals
U.S. District Courts
Federal Magistrates

State 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

Administrative Agencies:

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 practice. 
  • 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 positions.
  • 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.

Clerkship Duties 

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. 

  • Trial 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.
  • Appellate 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.

  1. Which 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 goals.
  2. Geographic Flexibility.  Being 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 community.
  3. 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 reasonably travel.
  4. Research 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.