This is a question we ask clerkship applicants all the time, and their responses vary greatly. Some applicants, especially alumni, are enthusiastic – perhaps because they understand the full scope of a magistrate judge’s duties and how a clerkship with a federal magistrate can slingshot their careers. Current students can be more wary. This article will hopefully confirm the former and dispel the latter, as Cornellians who have clerked for magistrate judges tell us time and again that a clerkship with a magistrate was a clear winner for them.

First, a quick overview:

What exactly are federal magistrate judges? Each of the 94 United States District Courts employ magistrate judges to oversee a wide variety of matters. Magistrate judges are not Article III judges, but instead are appointed through a public notice and screening process for a renewable term of eight years. As of 2014, there were 531 full-time federal magistrate judges serving in district courts, and in the preceding year, those judges disposed of 1,179,358 matters.

Jurisdiction for federal magistrate judges is delegated by the district court in which they sit, so the work that they do varies by district. Broadly speaking, other than final disposition of cases, federal magistrate judges may be authorized to preside over all other matters coming before the district court. And, with the consent of both parties in a civil case, a magistrate will have complete oversight of the case. A terrific summary of the duties of magistrate judges is set out in a white paper recently drafted for the Federal Bar Association, “A Guide to the Federal Magistrate Judge System”:

Although their precise duties may change from district to district, Magistrate Judges often conduct mediations, resolve discovery disputes, and decide a wide variety of motions; determine whether criminal defendants will be detained or released on a bond; appoint counsel for such defendants (and, in the misdemeanor context, hold trials and sentence defendants); and make recommendations regarding whether a party should win a case on summary judgment, whether a Social Security claimant should receive a disability award, whether a habeas petitioner should prevail, and whether a case merits dismissal. When both sides to a civil case consent, Magistrate Judges hear the entire dispute, rule on all motions, and preside at trial. Id at 1.

A Guide to the Federal Magistrate Judge System, Federal Bar Association

Lastly, in some jurisdictions they may interact more with attorneys, through oral arguments, discovery conferences, and mediation sessions, than their district court counterparts.

What do federal magistrates’ clerks do?

As you’d expect, they engage in a great deal of research and writing. They draft judicial opinions, either for referred motions or in the form of a “Report and Recommendation” (R&R) for dispositive motions. (The R&R is the magistrate judge’s suggested opinion and ruling on the case, which goes to the district court judge assigned to the matter for review and, in many cases, will be adopted verbatim by the district court judge, becoming the final disposition of the matter.)
Magistrates’ clerks may well work beyond the traditional research and writing of other federal clerks, however, because magistrates’ caseloads can be greater and duties more varied than you would typically see in an Article III court. Magistrate clerks may oversee the judge’s daily docket and keep track of the motions and matters that come into the chambers each day. They may help the judge prepare for mediations, conferences, oral arguments and trials, and in some cases may assist the judge in those proceedings. Magistrate clerks may take on legal and administrative duties in support of the judge’s work presiding over pre-trial criminal proceedings.

Why should you clerk for a federal magistrate judge?

If you’re interested in civil litigation, especially in a large firm, a magistrate judge’s chambers will give you a front-row seat to discovery disputes and pre-trial motions that are the bread and butter of a BigLaw associate’s workload. If you are interested in criminal prosecution or defense, this is again a terrific opportunity to understand the ins and outs of pre-trial criminal practice and get to know the criminal defense lawyers and Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the jurisdiction. You will be exposed to many substantive areas of law, and you will gain valuable experience in multi-tasking and working under tight deadlines. (In fact, many magistrate judges hire only experienced alumni clerks, since these candidates are typically better equipped to hit the ground running in a busy magistrate’s chambers.)

If you’d like to learn more, consider watching this recording from 2019 of “Why Clerking for a Federal Magistrate Judge is a Path to Career Success.”

Where do you begin?

Duties and docket vary by jurisdiction, so it’s first important to get a sense of the work that magistrate judges do in your target jurisdiction. The Lexis Litigation Profile Suite can be very useful in figuring this out. Also, don’t hesitate to speak with attorneys you know who practice in the jurisdiction. You can learn a lot about what magistrates do and how they are perceived by practitioners by inquiring with your colleagues. You’ll find that federal magistrate judges are held in high regard by attorneys because the work of a magistrate judge is demanding and the quality is very high. But you’ve just read this article, so it’s easy to see why that would be the case.

As always, we’re here to help. Please don’t hesitate to be in touch for a personalized discussion about whether applying for a clerkship with a federal magistrate judge is a good choice for you.