Understanding when individual judges wish you to apply is a challenge. Judges do not articulate their preferences at the same time, so this information is not available all at once. The best tool available for ascertaining when and where to apply is the Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR).
OSCAR is a website developed by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) to facilitate judicial clerkship applications. The AO lists every federal judge in the OSCAR database. However, each judge decides to what extent they will utilize the OSCAR system—typically dividing judges into three categories:
- Judges who do not use OSCAR at all will indicate, “Not Participating in OSCAR”
- Some Judges will use OSCAR to communicate available clerkship positions and their preferred method of receiving applications
- Some judges will use OSCAR to receive applications via electronic upload
The OSCAR site is very user friendly. Your first step is to create a profile in OSCAR by clicking on the “Register” button on the home page. Once on your home page, you should use the Training Resources to familiarize yourself with how to use the site. It is very useful to sign up for delivery of a weekly email from OSCAR, which announces newly posted clerkships.
Applying Electronically via OSCAR
If a judge requires you to apply electronically via OSCAR, you should, of course. Applying electronically involves uploading all of your application materials and selecting your recommenders so that their recommendation letters will be uploaded. Detailed instructions are available in the OSCAR tip sheets and video tutorials.
If the judge gives you a choice – OSCAR or hard copy – you should think strategically about the decision. Because it is easier to apply via OSCAR, you will be competing with a larger pool of applicants. Also, judges can filter applications by class rank, so if you are not ranked, a paper application may be a better approach.
Applying with Hard Copy Materials
Some judges prefer that you submit hard copy materials. You will know that a federal judge wants hard copy materials because (a) they have expressed that preference via an icon that looks like a large manila envelope next to their name, or (b) the judge has no information on record in OSCAR. For judges in group (b) or where the information is clearly out of date, it is perfectly appropriate to call the judge’s chambers to gather more information.
For each judge to whom you apply, you will need to:
1. Assemble a resume, cover letter, reference list, writing sample, transcript, and a law school grading policy. If you want to mail merge your cover letter, using judges’ contact information in the Symplicity clerkship database, see these instructions.
2. Request your hard-copy letters of recommendation. Instructions are here.
Application Timing for First and Second-Year Students
The Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan, a hiring timeline and agreement which some federal judges follow, governs the hiring of first and second-year students.
Visit this web page to view the details of the plan. Here’s the plan in a nutshell:
Participating judges agree that they will not consider candidates or make offers until mid-June in the summer following a student’s second year of law school. OSCAR is the gatekeeper for the plan because applications from second-year students will not be released by OSCAR until the plan opening day in mid-June. Second-year students will be allowed view-only OSCAR access during the spring semester of their second year.
Note that this is a voluntary plan: individual judges or groups of judges may choose to participate but judges are not required to do so. The roster of participating jurisdictions is being kept current on NALP’s website, here, so please refer to that page for participation information. Many judges in other jurisdictions will also voluntarily participate.
Other judges do not wish to participate in the plan. They may use the OSCAR system to notify candidates of their intentions, however, they will ask candidates to apply via paper or email before the plan opening day in mid-June.
Your Next Steps
Select classes carefully
As you select your courses, try to enroll in more than one class with your favorite professors, especially those in whose classes you’ve earned high grades in the past. The more opportunity a professor has to observe your performance and get to know you, the better your recommendation letter will be. Take smaller classes so you’ll have a greater likelihood of getting noticed and building a relationship with your professors. Enroll in writing-intensive courses to sharpen your skills and develop another writing sample option. Speaking of writing samples…
Plan early for your writing sample
Your 1L summer job is a great place to draft a 10-15 page writing sample. With this in mind, discuss this option with your summer employer so that you can work on assignments which will yield a good sample. Also, don’t forget that judges will want to see writing that is your work, and yours alone, so keep early drafts of your work product. Finally, note that your employer must give you permission to use a piece of writing as a sample and all confidential information must be redacted.
Likewise, keep your writing sample in mind during the fall and spring of your 2L year. Putting extra effort into proofing and improving your writing during your second year will help you generate a solid sample or two (and some applications will call for two) by the time you are ready to apply.
Think about recommenders
Apply for teaching assistant and research assistant positions. Professors often form strong bonds with their student assistants and will go the extra mile to help them get clerkships.
During your summers, talk with supervising attorneys about clerkships and recommendation letters. For many applicants, supervisor letters are a good choice to round out an application packet. In some cases, these attorneys know judges and may be willing to put in a call to a judge for you.
Do your homework, stay alert, and keep in touch
If you are targeting particular regions, jurisdictions, or judges, it is a good idea to get a sense for their timing early on, so that you can plan your strategy. Take the extra time to peruse the websites for jurisdictions in which you are interested and look carefully at the judges’ postings in OSCAR to get a sense of what kind of applicants they’re interested in interviewing.
Watch your email for messages from our office, as we will be monitoring developments and will work to update you regarding potential effects of the new plan.
Make an appointment with Dean Peck to make sure your strategy is on track.
Application Timing for the Third-Year Students and Alumni
3L and alumni candidates are not directly affected by the hiring plan; they may apply for any clerkship at any time. But, the plan can cause both federal and state judges to rethink their hiring timelines for all candidates. Some judges have decided that they will look at all candidates on the hiring-plan timeline, so 3L and alumni applicants should apply to on-plan judges along with the 2L class.
When hiring clerks during their 3L year or after graduation, federal judges hire year round and on a wide variety of timetables. It is safe to say that most clerks begin work in August or September each year. Some federal judges are hiring clerks 18 months to three years in advance of their start dates. On the other hand, some judges hire only alumni clerks, so they hire on short timelines that are only feasible for graduates who can leave their jobs quickly. In rare situations, judges may hire on a very short time horizon, for example, if a clerk leaves chambers unexpectedly. Also, newly appointed judges may have immediate hiring needs.
Not surprisingly, application particulars for state court clerkships vary by state. The Guide to State Judicial Clerkship Procedures, published by Vermont Law School, is the best resource to use for determining state court clerkship application procedures and timing. See “Guide to State Judicial Clerkship Procedures” here. Once logged in, click “Guide to State Judicial Clerkship Procedures.”
Most state courts hire students in the summer after their second year or in the fall of their third year. However, be aware that some state courts’ clerkship deadlines fall in the spring of the 2L year. Applicants may need to submit materials 18 months in advance of the clerkship’s start. If you are interested in clerkships in any of the following states, check the Guide to State Judicial Clerkship Procedures for application information: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, District of Columbia, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia, Washington (state), and Wisconsin. Many other state court judges accept applications on a rolling basis or at the discretion of individual judges.