While landing a judicial clerkship isn’t always easy or quick, we’ve found that some clerkship strategies are better than others. Below are the top 10 ways NOT to get a judicial clerkship and tips for how you can avoid falling into these classic traps.
1) Applying only to judges with openings posted on OSCAR
This is an easy mistake to make with some grave consequences. If you apply electronically to only the judges who have openings listed on OSCAR, you are missing a significant number of judges who don’t use the OSCAR system or who use it to post positions but want you to apply via paper. It is certainly more work to find those non-OSCAR judges and apply in hard copy, but if you want a clerkship, going the extra mile is essential. Take a look at our advice on going the few steps beyond OSCAR here.
2) Assuming that your application will stand out on its own
When you apply for other types of legal positions, there’s someone on the other end of the application process who is paid to give your application at least a cursory review. But with clerkships, judges often don’t have designated hiring staff, so your application may never be read by a judge or clerk. Frequently, the key to success rests in having someone the judge knows or respects get in touch with the judge to highlight your application. A call or email from a former CLS clerk, one of your recommenders, a CLS professor who knows the judge, one of your employers (especially if that person is a judge), or even, in some cases, Dean Peck, can help your application get the attention it deserves.
3) Limiting yourself geographically, especially by applying only to highly competitive locations
A lot of Cornellians want to practice in highly competitive locations and often successfully land private and public sector positions in those places. It is natural, then, for you to take the same approach with clerkships: “I want to be in City X, and I’ll just apply to judges there.” This may substantially limit your clerkship outcomes. Lots and lots of other people want to be in fabulous City X too, and even in a big city, there are only so many positions. It is not uncommon for a judge in a popular place to receive over 1000 applications for 3 slots. To maximize your likelihood of success, you have to cast a wider net. The good news, especially with federal courts, is that clerkship credentials and skills are widely transferable. Thus, even if you clerk for a federal judge 2000 miles away from the city of your dreams, it will still be worth it. The year or two you spend in City (or town) Z will give you invaluable skills that can help secure you a fantastic job in City X.
4) Having even one typo in your application materials
Judges and clerks are looking for any reason to drop the applicant pool from 1000 to 999. Don’t give them the opportunity to do so because you added a second “e” to “judgment.”
5) Applying right at the posted deadline
When a judge provides a formal deadline in a job posting, it may be tempting to assume that the judge will wait until that date to begin reviewing applications. And you may think spending the extra few weeks to perfect the tone of your cover letter is a sound and strategic decision. This is likely not the best approach. Many judges will begin reviewing applications the moment they start rolling in and will wrap up hiring new clerks long before the deadline arrives. Always apply as soon after learning of a clerkship opening as you reasonably can. And if a position has been open for many months, it’s not a bad idea to call the judge’s chambers to confirm that the clerkship is still open before you apply.
6) Using the same resume that you’ve used for other applications
A judge is not just hiring another employee: he or she is hiring a new member of the judicial family. It stands to reason, then, that the judge wants to know more about you than bare-bones facts. Most judges are comfortable with two-page resumes, so take the space you need to present a full picture of yourself: explain non-obvious acronyms or honors; enhance your interests section; and provide detailed explanations of leadership positions on a journal or other activity. This is your chance to give the judge lots of points of connection with you, which will be especially helpful during the interview stage.
7) Prepping for the interview as if it’s a final exam
As you get ready for the interview, it seems like a good idea to read and, to the extent possible, memorize, a good many of the judge’s published opinions as well as your journal note, your senior thesis, plus a few notable SCOTUS opinions for good measure. Is it true that the judge can ask you about any of those things? Yes, yes it is. However, remember that an interview is not an exam. You will not get the clerkship if all you can do is recall the details of voluminous cases and your own work. The interview is a conversation – a substantive conversation – but a conversation nonetheless. Limit the time you spend researching and memorizing, and use the bulk of your prep time to practice (out loud, with another person, preferably) answering the typical questions that you’ll get. Want more thoughts on interviews? Read our advice here.
8) Ignoring your social media presence
This one wouldn’t have been on the list until we heard the following true story from a judge. This judge (located in fabulous City X) had hired a clerk from another law school (whose name everyone in America would know immediately). After hiring that clerk, the judge did a cursory search of the clerk’s social media presence. Turns out that the clerk was a very frequent user of social media and posted on multiple platforms daily. The judge ultimately rescinded the offer because the judge was concerned that the clerk would not be able to reform their social media habits while in chambers, which might compromise confidentiality. While this may have been an idiosyncratic response, it is a good reminder that what you post to social media, and how frequently, can have real effects on your clerkship success.
9) Coasting through your third year
After two challenging years in law school and two summer experiences that stretched your limits, you may want to take it down a notch as a 3L. While this is a natural and understandable response, if you decide to apply for clerkships during your third year or as a graduate, judges are going to be looking carefully at your course load and academic performance across all semesters of law school. Be sure that your final semester or two of courses show the judge that you are someone who doesn’t coast. Similarly, be thoughtful about when you exercise your S/U option during your law school career. Given that many upper-class courses carry a mandatory S/U grade and that teaching and writing credits are also S/U, it can be easy to inadvertently end up with a semester containing all S grades.
10) Giving up
“You can’t win if you don’t play,” the Powerball ads tell us. Well, the chances of landing a clerkship are notably better than winning at Powerball (1 in 292 million), but they will be 0 if you get burned out and stop applying. The clerkship search can go on for months and months without feedback from judges. So, pace yourself and don’t fall into any of the traps above. Contact Dean Peck at any time to strategize or revitalize. She may not have the secret to winning Powerball, but she can definitely help you improve your odds of clerkship success.