To make an informed decision about which judges to apply to for clerkships, you must do your research. The following resources will help you find out what you need to know about the judges to whom you are interested in applying.
- What is a judicial clerkship?
- Why should I clerk?
- I want to practice in Colorado. Should I look for a clerkship in this state only?
- Do I have to be in the top 10% and on law review?
- To what kind of court should I apply?
- How do I choose a judge?
- When is the deadline for applying?
- What are the procedures for applying to a judicial law clerk position?
Including: Cover Letter, Writing Sample, Letters of Recommendation, Resume, Transcript, Interview, Follow Up – Letter of Thanks, Former Judicial Law Clerks at DU Law School
1. What is a judicial clerkship?
A judicial clerkship is a one to two year assignment where you are the clerk (essentially research assistant) for a particular judge. Some judges are now hiring law clerks on a permanent basis ('career' clerks) instead of a one or two year term.
A judicial law clerk's work varies depending upon the judge with whom s/he is working. Typically, judicial law clerks review motions and briefs, research the law, and draft opinions.
At the appellate level, a law clerk's duties involve a great deal of research and writing. Appellate law clerks commonly draft memos explaining issues in cases before oral argument and assist judges in drafting opinions afterwards. Clerks also attend oral arguments in cases on which they have assisted their judges. Clerking at the United States Court of Appeals often involves some travel since cases are only heard in select cities.
In general, judicial law clerks working at the trial court level, especially in the federal courts, manage cases, draft opinions, and perform extensive legal research to resolve written pre-trial motions (e.g., motions to dismiss, summary judgment). This position often involves considerable exposure to federal pre-trial and trial practice and to members of the local bar. At the state level, in addition to performing legal research, law clerks for trial judges sometimes act as deputy clerks or bailiffs, assisting in scheduling hearings and trials as well as managing jury panels.
Other types of clerking experiences that are often overlooked by students are Staff Attorneys and Pro Se Law Clerks. Various courts at both the federal and state levels hire attorneys who serve as law clerks for the entire court. Staff attorneys often review appeals and correspondence, assist in case management, and draft opinions. Pro se law clerks are common in the federal courts. Generally, they handle pro se matters such as prisoner habeas corpus petitions, civil rights complaints, employment discrimination complaints, and social security disability appeals.
2. Why should I clerk?
- Prestige: Clerking at a state or federal court is universally viewed as a valuable and prestigious position and excellent credential.
- Perspective: You will have the opportunity to view the system of justice from the other side of the bench. Unless you become a judge, you will never again have this opportunity.
- Intellectually Stimulating: Clerk positions are often more intellectually stimulating than associate positions at firms.
- Experience: This is an intensive period of post-graduate learning. By observing how the judicial decision-making process works, you will learn practical information about how to draft briefs and present cases effectively. Legal employers know that as a judicial clerk, you will have honed your research and writing skills.
- Enhance Job Prospects: Most law clerks meet many prospective employers during their clerkship. Legal employers value a judicial clerkship greatly. Additionally, a judicial clerkship will overcome less than stellar grades. Of course, with poor grades, it will be very difficult to get a judicial clerkship, but it can be done. A judicial clerkship will make mediocre grades seem invisible!
- Reference & Contact: You will have an extremely useful recommendation and contact. When your letter says, 'Judge so-and-so suggested I contact you, you'll grab their attention!
- Mentorship: Judges often become life-long mentors to their law clerks. This kind of relationship can be very valuable – both personally and professionally.
- Self-Assessment: A clerkship allows you to take additional time to decide what practice area(s) you are interested in pursuing. Judicial law clerks are exposed to a wide variety of legal practice areas and often rethink long-term goals during their clerkships.
- Great Job: In a recent survey of law clerks conducted by the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), 97% stated they would gladly clerk again. The bottom line is that clerking is a GREAT job and a wonderful way to spend a year or two (or more) after law school.
3. I want to practice in Colorado. Should I look for a clerkship in this state only?
Geography is an important consideration. Generally, a clerkship in the state where you plan to practice is advantageous because of the contacts you make while clerking. You should not, however, limit your search based on this factor alone. Clerking is prestigious regardless of where you do it. This is especially true of federal clerkships. You should have no problem returning to the Denver area, for example, after clerking for a federal judge anywhere in the country.
4. Do I have to be in the top 10% and on law review?
Of course not. However, if you have these credentials, it is going to be an easier road for you. If you are not in the top 10% and/or did not make the law review, you need to go for another angle. Let your personality shine through on your cover letter. Sometimes a judge will choose you just because you have something in common with him/her or you have something unusual in your background. For example, if you are from a small town, you will want to apply to judges who sit in small towns, and emphasize your small town values in your cover letter.
Make sure you have all the 'good stuff' on your resume. Include things like overseas travel, Outward-Bound experiences, volunteer commitments, raft guide experience, etc. Also, in order to get over the law review problem (i.e., you're not on it), you need to submit a great writing sample.
Other ways to stand out in the crowd: work as an unpaid intern for the judge during the school year; take a seminar course where you will do a lot of writing and really edit the sample until it is perfect; work for a law professor as a research assistant; compete in writing competitions and moot court competitions; take advantage of every opportunity to meet judges (e.g., join an Inn of Court (www.innsofcourt.org), attend 'Judges Week' events in the spring, join the Colorado Bar Association and the Judiciary Committee and attend their meetings and events).
Consult with the Professors on the Judicial Clerkship Committee (Brown, Cheever, Duong, Kamin, Katz, Moffat, Ruan and C. Smith) or the Career Development Center for help in brainstorming a great cover letter for your judicial clerkship applications. It is recommended that you develop a theme for your cover letter that will "sell" you to the judge.
Keep in mind that grades and law review are less important at the state court level, especially among the trial courts.
5. To what kind of court should I apply?
Any kind of clerkship is generally a great experience but you may want to give some thought to whether you would prefer working for a trial court or an appellate court. There are significant differences between the two. If you want to be a litigator, it would be ideal to obtain a clerkship with a trial court.
Next, consider the level of the court. If you are interested in an area of law that is practiced exclusively in the federal courts, you should actively pursue clerkships in the federal court system. Similarly, if you are planning to practice family law, for example, a federal clerkship might not be as useful as a clerkship with a state court judge.
You should also take into consideration the level of competition involved. Judicial clerkships with the federal appellate courts are the most difficult to obtain and those courts located in popular cities, such as San Francisco and New York, are even more competitive.
If you are interested in clerking at the federal court level, there are many courts besides the Supreme Court, Circuit and District Courts.
Most state judges at the appellate and highest trial court level offer clerkships. For the most comprehensive information on state court clerkships, visit the University of Vermont Law School's website.
There are other opportunities to keep in mind when applying for a clerkship:
- Judges in foreign courts often hire law clerks. International courts that may offer clerkships include the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the International War Crimes Tribunal, the Court of Justice of the European Communities, and The European Court of Human Rights.
- Don't forget the U.S. Court of International Trade, the military courts, and the Tribal Courts.
- There are clerkship positions available in entities outside of the judicial branch. Over thirty U.S. governmental departments and agencies utilize Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) and some of the judges hire law clerks.
- The Judicial Fellows Program is a one-year fellowship following a federal clerkship. Fellows work at the U.S. Supreme Court, the Federal Judicial Center, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, or the U.S. Sentencing Commission on projects pertaining to the administration of law
6. How do I choose a judge?
Ideally, you should select the judges to whom you apply carefully. It is generally best if you try to apply to judges that you research in advance. You have to decide you would definitely work for a particular judge before you send him/her an application, because judges do not look favorably on those who turn down a job offer.
There are a variety of resources for discovering additional information about judges.
- Read some of the judges' opinions – recent cases, noteworthy opinions, or opinions in areas of law that you have a particular interest.
- Read the judges' biographies. Almanac of the Federal Judiciary and The American Bench: Judges of the Nation are both great resources for information about judges that may not be widely known (on Westlaw).
- Talk to the judges' former law clerks. (Lists of DU alumni who have clerked for judges the past few years are available here »).
- Find recent news stories about the judges by searching on Lexis, Westlaw, or performing a Google search.
Articles written by a judge may give you far more insight into the judge's thought process than his/her opinions. Search Lexis and Westlaw for articles.
Learning more about a judge before you apply will also give you an advantage over other applicants because you can be more specific in your cover letter, you can tailor your resume, and you might be able to select a writing sample that may have more appeal to a particular judge for some reason. Having detailed knowledge about a judge is also critical if you are selected for an interview.
The reputation of the judge or the court should not be given undue weight. All clerkships are prestigious. The reputation of the judge or the court is only significant if you are interested in pursuing an academic career, a Supreme Court clerkship, or joining a large law firm.
7. When is the deadline for applying?
There is no 'one' deadline for every judge. You need to check with each judge by searching the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR) for federal judges (https://oscar.uscourts.gov/ ), checking the judge's website on the court website, or, as a last resort, calling the judge's chambers to find out the deadline for application and the required application materials. This information has been collected for many of the judges (see Mail Merge Databases website).
If you are applying to any of the federal courts, you should be aware that the majority of federal judges begin the hiring process on the day after Labor Day during students' third year in law school. If you apply to a judge adhering to this policy, you should not submit any materials to the judge before Labor Day of your third year. Additionally, your law professors who may be writing letters of reference on your behalf may not send them to these judges until after Labor Day. For more information about the federal law clerk hiring policy, go to www.cadc.uscourts.gov/Lawclerk/lawclerk.asp.
OSCAR is also an internet-based application that allows applicants for federal clerkships to file application materials online and designate the OSCAR-participating judges to whom they wish to apply. It allows judges and chambers staff to sort, screen, and review applications on-screen, downloading and printing only the materials they wish to see in paper form. Over 600 federal judges participated in OSCAR in 2006. For more information on OSCAR, go to https://oscar.uscourts.gov/.
Do not forget to apply to newly appointed judges, who hire their law clerks even before they are sworn in. This can happen at any time of year. Check OSCAR on a regular basis to find out about recent openings. Also, be aware that emergencies happen, and sometimes law clerks have to leave a clerkship before their term ends, leaving an unadvertised vacancy. You could still obtain a clerkship this way, although it is unusual. Finally, it is possible to get a clerkship after you have been practicing. Some judges actually prefer experienced attorneys, particularly for the career law clerk and staff counsel positions.
8. What are the procedures for applying for a judicial law clerk position?
In general, your application should include a cover letter, resume, writing sample, a copy of your unofficial transcript, and two to three letters of reference. Please note, however, that some judges have different requirements. For federal judges participating in OSCAR, this information is included in that database. You can also consult the Colorado Supreme Court & Appellate Judges Mail Merge. Otherwise, check on the judge's website or with the Career Development Center. Only as a last resort, call the judge's chambers to get this information.
Plan to spend some time drafting and refining your cover letter and resume. The Career Development Center can assist you with this process. You can make an appointment to meet with any of the Career Consultants by calling the Career Development Center at 303.871.6124. The Professors on the Judicial Clerkship Committee (Brown, Cheever, Duong, Kamin, , Katz, Moffat, Ramunda, Ruan, and C. Smith) will also be available to assist with cover letters as well as strategies for applying for clerkships.
Your best starting point for writing a good cover letter is to review the chapter on cover letters in the Career Development Handbook. This chapter provides a good overview and some sample cover letters. Other cover letter samples geared specifically to judicial clerkship applications are included in the Resources section of this chapter of the Handbook. DO NOT COPY THESE LETTERS! They are provided as examples only. All DU grads will recognize them and know that they were copied. Other tips to keep in mind:
- Make certain the letter is well written and no longer than one page.
- Do not write a terse, formal letter. Tell something about yourself. Judges often like to hire people who have something interesting in their backgrounds.
- Highlight your strengths in the cover letter. First and foremost, emphasize your writing skills. This is particularly crucial if you are not on the Law Review or another journal. If you are applying to a court that does specialized work, emphasize your skills in that area. For example, when applying for a clerkship with the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, you want to emphasize technical or engineering experience or a background in patent work.
- To the extent you have a particular reason for applying to the judge, state it.
- Letters sent to other geographic areas should state a reason, if you have one, for wanting to live in that region.
- Also, indicate that you will be in the area on a certain date for an interview, should an interview be necessary. You should communicate that you will be Spring 2007 willing to absorb the expenses associated with travel. Judges do not have funds to cover travel expenses. Please note that we have the technology available at DU for video teleconferences. If the judge has access to such technology, that would save you the travel expense. See the Career Development Center for more information.
- Indicate in the cover letter what persons will be writing letters of reference on your behalf. Also indicate that these letters of reference will arrive under separate cover if you haven't included them with your packet of materials. Federal judges prefer that all application materials arrive in one envelope, so you will need to collect all of your letters of reference and include them in the envelope with your resume, cover letter, writing sample and transcript.
- Do not use platitudes, hyperbole or cliché in your cover letter. Judges see hundreds of cover letters and are turned off immediately by anything remotely resembling exaggeration, boastfulness, insincere flattery, etc. Highlight your strengths but do not be tempted to oversell yourself!
- The cover letter must be perfect. It is, essentially, your first writing sample and if it is not well written or contains typos, your application will be rejected immediately. Be sure to address the letter properly.
Cover Letter Tips »
Some Tips on Selecting and Preparing Writings Samples for Judicial Clerkship Applications. Prepared by the University of Denver College of Law Faculty Judicial Clerkship Advisory Committee.
Writing is a critical element of a judicial clerkship. Thus, judges generally place great emphasis on the writing sample. Your writing sample should be chosen carefully. It should be well written and well organized. Judges will evaluate the writing sample to determine not only how well you write, but also how well you can analyze and organize the issues.
1. How Should I select a writing sample?
Writing & Editing
Choose your very best written legal work. By the end of your second year of law school, you will have a few different works from which to select a strong writing sample. Often, this may mean a legal memorandum that you have prepared for a class or for an employer or part of a brief from a moot court competition. Your writing sample should be approximately 5-10 pages long. It is better if your memo addresses one issue in depth, rather than several issues superficially.
Edit and proofread it: You may edit your sample for the purpose of submitting it to judges and you may also seek a faculty member's advice about whether it is a good sample to use. You should not, however, submit work that has been heavily edited by another person.
It is always a good idea to produce multiple drafts of your work: Rewriting and reworking drafts is a key to becoming a successful writer of any kind. Do not be afraid to edit and reedit your draft until you are satisfied that it represents your best work.
You are strongly discouraged from using memos or briefs prepared for your Lawyering Process class because they were written in an early phase of your development as a legal writer and do not necessarily represent your capabilities after your second year of law school. Additionally, judges from across the country have indicated that they view first year briefs as a red flag that the student has not done any meaningful writing since their first year.
Must include substantial case analysis: Your writing sample should discuss case law and its application to a legal problem. This does not mean simply listing a few cases and stating their holdings. It should involve a more developed analysis of how the cases are similar to or different from the case at hand, and why.
Choose more complex issues over simple ones: If you are trying to decide which part of a larger memo to excerpt for your writing sample, it is probably better to choose a section that discusses a relatively complex issue. This gives you the opportunity to demonstrate your ability to work with precedents, distinguish or harmonize them, and apply them to the facts in your case.
If you are using a sample from work, get permission from your employer: Before using a writing sample that originated as a project for an employer, first obtain the employer's permission. Concerns about confidentiality or litigation strategy may make it inappropriate to submit some work products as writing samples. If the employer gives you permission, you should block out all identifying names and case numbers. Be sure to give the employer advance notice that you would like to use something as a writing sample in case it takes some time to secure approval. Sometimes it is better to insert fictional names for parties instead of blocking them all out; the reader will have an easier task of reading the brief.
Cover sheet: Prepare a cover sheet for your writing sample that includes any necessary explanations or clarifications. For example, you might explain that your writing sample consists of just one of three issues that were covered in a brief or memorandum. This may help provide a context in which the judge can view your excerpt. You may also wish to include a short description of the facts underlying the legal problem or problems analyzed in your sample. Finally, explain any redactions and clarify that the writing sample is your unedited (or at least not substantially edited) work.
2. How should a writing sample look?
While it is true that nobody's perfect, it is not true that a writing sample cannot be perfect. Pay attention to the following suggestions (incidentally, most of these suggestions apply equally to your cover letter and resume).
- Must be well organized and flow logically: Your argument should proceed in a logical fashion and the reader should be able to follow your analysis easily. Each paragraph should begin with a topic sentence that clearly sets out the focus of that paragraph.
- Use language concisely: Do not use longer, obtuse sentences where shorter, more direct phrases will do.
- Write mostly in the active voice (i.e., say, "The batter hit the ball," not "The ball was hit by the batter.").
- Pay attention to details! Your writing sample must be flawless. This requires meticulous proofreading. There should be no typographical errors, no grammatical errors, no language usage errors, and no blue book citation errors. Remember, judges are looking for clerks whom they can trust to produce a professional work product. Any type of error, whether in your cover letter, resume, or writing sample, may be enough to disqualify you immediately.
- Do not make glaring, common writing mistakes! Similarly, poor usage and grammar will often be sufficient to land your writing sample and your application in the reject pile.
- It's = it is; Its = the possessive of it
- Be sure your subject and verb tenses agree
- Know the difference between there, their, and they're
- It is best to use gender neutral language: You may accomplish this either by using "he or she" or "his or her," or by using the plural. For example, this sentence: "In some states, a landowner must exercise reasonable care to keep his premises safe for all lawful visitors" can be rewritten as either "In some states, a landowner must exercise reasonable care to keep his or her premises safe for all lawful visitors" or "In some states, landowners must exercise reasonable care to keep their premises safe for all lawful visitors."
Other good sources about legal writing:
- Richard A. Posner, Goodbye to the Bluebook, 53 U. CHI. L. REV. 1343 (1986)
- Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers, 66 CAL. L. REV. 727 (1978)
Letters of Recommendation
- Number of letters of reference: Two to three is typical but check the application requirements for each judge carefully. For federal judges, start with the FLCIS and/or the court's website to find this information. Only as a last resort, call the judge's administrative assistant to find out exactly how many letters of reference are required.
- Who should you ask to write a letter of reference? In general, you should select people who know you and are well acquainted with your writing and analytical abilities.
- Typically, you should ask law school professors who know you well and in whose classes you performed well. You need to schedule a meeting to get to know any professor who really doesn't know you.
- Consider asking individuals who know the judge. This is very helpful because judges take these letters more seriously.
- You can ask lawyers for whom you have worked.
- Prepare a packet of materials to give to the people who have agreed to write a letter of reference. The packet should include copies of your resume, transcript, and writing samples. Even people who are well acquainted with you and your abilities will appreciate being able to refer to specifics contained in these materials.
- Also provide these individuals with the correct spelling of the judge's name and his/her complete address. Make sure the letter of reference will be addressed to the specific judge, not "To Whom It May Concern." Sometimes it is helpful to provide the people who are writing letters of reference for you an Excel spreadsheet with the judges' names and addresses so that they can perform a "mail merge" when writing the letters. If you need help creating this database, contact the Career Development Center for help or download this Mail Merge Tutorial »
- Recommendation letters can be sent directly to the judge or you can include them in the packet of materials that you submit to the judge. If confidentiality is an issue, the people writing letters of reference can place them in a sealed envelope that you then include in the packet. Please note that the federal judges have expressed a strong preference for receiving all application materials in one envelope. You will need to collect your letters of reference and include them in one envelope along with your resume, cover letter, writing sample, and transcript for the federal judges.
Please refer to the Career Development Handbook for information on resume writing. You should utilize the Career Development Center for individual consultations to discuss your resume in more detail.
- Include distinctive experiences (anything, within reason, that distinguishes your resume from all the rest on the judge's desk). Consider including community service, career achievements before law school, foreign languages spoken, unusual travel experiences, music or other unusual abilities or interests. If you find out in your research of a particular judge that you share a common interest, include it in the resume. You might be selected for an interview solely because you share this interest with the judge.
- Your resume should be on one page, but you may go to two pages if you have extensive work experiences and your resume is too abbreviated or cramped on one page. If you go to two pages, you need to fill the second page. Leaving a large section of "white space" on the second page is not appropriate.
- If your resume does not include "accomplishment statements," you should make an appointment to see one of the Career Consultants in the Career Development Center for assistance.
An unofficial copy of your law school transcript should be included with your application materials. Official transcripts might be needed at the interview stage
Above all, keep in mind that judges are people. They want a law clerk with whom they think they will enjoy working. Sheer ability in terms of job skills is not enough. Personality and interpersonal communication skills are important in the interview.
- Realize that your interview begins when the judge's secretary calls you to make an appointment for the interview. EVERYONE with whom you come in contact, such as secretaries, court bailiffs, and court reporters will have an opinion about you. Treat these people with respect. Any person on the judge's staff who has a less than ideal interaction with you can cause your application to be rejected.
- Be prepared to speak intelligently about the law, your classes and why you selected them, the topic of your seminar classes, the substance of your past work experiences, your writing sample, and your plans for the future.
- Read a representative sampling of judge's opinions. Be familiar with recent opinions as well as noteworthy opinions. Pay attention to dissents and concurring opinions. These are opinions that the judge felt strongly about and will be more likely to remember and discuss. Awareness of opinions:
- Will impress the judge and give you an opportunity to interject into the conversation.
- May indicate substantive areas that the judge will want to discuss.
- Research other aspects of the judge. There are a variety of resources for finding out additional information about judges, including these mail merges and databases »
- Read the judge's biography. Almanac of the Federal Judiciary and The American Bench: Judges of the Nation are both great resources for information about judges that may not be widely known (access these resources on Westlaw).
- Talk to the judge's former law clerks. (Lists of DU alumni who have clerked for judges the past few years are available on the DU Law Judicial Clerkship web page). Talk to them to determine what the judge is looking for and find out more about his/her interview style.
- Find recent news stories about the judge by searching on Lexis or Westlaw, or performing a Google search.
- After an interview, judges often have candidates speak to their current clerks. Take it seriously. Judges are often influenced by their current clerks' comments.
- Prepare questions! Demonstrate that you know something about the judge and the court. (See the list of sample interview questions beginning on page 147 of Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships - available in the Career Development Center).
- Read the Interview Chapter in the Career Development Handbook. There are dozens of interview questions that you should carefully consider and answer before you interview with any legal employer. Spending time answering these questions beforehand will greatly enhance your interview performance.
- Schedule a mock interview with the Career Development Center or participate in one of the Mock Interview events scheduled in the fall and spring. Do what it takes to prepare for the interview process. A mock interview will help you practice your "articulate responses" and ease those pre-interview jitters.
Follow Up with a Letter of Thanks
It is always a good idea to write a formal letter of thanks to the judge after an interview. You can use the thank you letter to send some follow up information such as an additional writing sample or an official transcript, if requested by the judge. Also write a thank you letter to the judge's current law clerks if they interviewed you as well. Sample thank you letters are included in the Career Development Handbook.
Former Judicial Law Clerks at DU Law School
Consult with faculty and staff who have had judicial clerkships for their advice and assistance:
- Federal: Professors: Brown, Kamin, Katz, Moffat, Ruan, and Smith; Career Development: Kathleen Nalty