Interviewing for a clerkship requires that you be as flexible and accommodating as possible. If you are given a range of dates, schedule the first slot available. Not only will this signal your enthusiasm for the clerkship, but it will increase your chances of success. Some judges hire as they interview, so they may fill all of their slots mid-way through their interview dates and cancel interviews with candidates at the end of their schedule.
You must pay your own interview travel expenses. Consult the Financial Aid Office for information on options available to assist with these expenses.
After you have scheduled the interview, call or email nearby judges to whom you have applied and try diplomatically to arrange to meet with them while you are in the area.
Most judges will want to meet you in person. However, some judges may conduct interviews by video or telephone with candidates who do not live nearby. If you would prefer to interview virtually, suggest that gently. Confer with Dean Peck if you have questions about how to engage the judge in this discussion.
Learn About the Judge
Learning about the judge’s interview style and preferences is essential. Log in to Symplicity and check for feedback from previous applicants who have interviewed or clerked with the judge. Click the “clerkships” tab. Then select “Interview Evaluation” or “Clerkship Evaluation” by judge’s last name, and click the “review” button. Next, email Dean Peck so she can search administrator-only resources to help you find other Cornell connections to the judge.
Conduct a general internet search and read the website for the judge’s court. Also review the following resources to view the judge’s professional background, news articles, published opinions, lawyers’ evaluations and staff rosters. Some resources may not be available to alumni; contact Dean Peck for help.
- Leadership Connect
- Westlaw: Almanac of the Federal Judiciary
- LexisAdvance: Litigation Profile Suite and Context
Interviews with judges are as varied as the judges themselves. While the ultimate hiring decision rests with the judge, typically you will interview with the judge’s entire staff: the administrative assistant and law clerks as well as the judge. Even if interviews with clerks and staff seem more informal, keep your guard up; they will be giving the judge feedback on your performance. You may meet with each person individually or in a group. Interviews can last from 30 minutes to several hours. Remember that from the minute you enter the courthouse you are interacting with people who may have input into your candidacy. Be sure to turn off your phone before you walk through the front door of the building. Not only will this prevent a call from disrupting your interview, but it will eliminate the temptation to sneak peeks at it when you are waiting. Your entire focus needs to be on the task at hand.
Frequent Interview Questions
It is hard to predict what questions a judge might ask. Some judges are looking for “fit,” so they may engage in relatively casual conversation. Others may seek to assess your analytical skills and engage you in substantive conversations about the work you’ve done and your thoughts on the law. Some judges focus on law-related questions; some may “quiz” you (for instance, asking questions about recent Supreme Court decisions or requiring you to respond to a legal issue in writing). You need to be prepared for a wide range of questions and styles.
It is essential for you to practice answering questions OUT LOUD as you prepare for your interview. Just thinking about what you will say or making notes isn’t enough. Each day before the interview, spend some time having a friend or family member ask you likely questions and then practice your answers on them. Schedule a mock interview with Dean Peck to get started.
Below are questions you should be prepared to answer:
- Why do you want to clerk?
- Why do you want to clerk for me?
- Why do you want to clerk for this type of court?
- Why do you want to live in this location?
- What plans do you have for your legal career after a clerkship?
- Why should I hire you?
- Have you read any of my opinions?
- Tell me about X or Y or Z on your resume.
- Tell me about something that is NOT on your resume.
- Describe the argument in your writing sample.
- Describe the argument in your journal Note.
- Why was your Note not published?
- Describe the argument in the moot court competition you competed in.
- Describe the argument in X publication.
- Describe the argument in your undergraduate thesis.
- Why did you go to Cornell Law?
- What has been your favorite/least favorite law school class?
- What has been your favorite/least favorite case you’ve studied?
- What do you think of current events, especially well-publicized Supreme Court opinions?
- Given your background with ___, do you feel you will be able to evaluate cases impartially?
- What accomplishment are you most proud of?
- What do you like to do when you have free time?
- Tell me about your family and where you grew up.
- Are you married or do you have a significant other?
- What was the most recent movie you saw or book you read?
Questions for You to Ask
The following questions can be asked of either the judge or her/his clerks. They are drafted here as if asked of a judge; modify them appropriately for clerks.
You may get to the end of the interview and find that all of your questions have been answered in the previous discussions. If you are asked whether you have any questions, indicate that you were going to ask X, Y, and Z, but since those questions have already been answered you don’t have any more for now.
- What makes a good clerk in your chambers?
- How much interaction do you have with your law clerks?
- How are cases assigned to the clerks?
- What is the process of drafting an opinion?
- Do clerks have the opportunity to watch trials or appellate arguments?
- What does a typical clerk’s day look like?
- Where are you in the hiring process?
- Would you like additional materials from me?
- If I am lucky enough to receive an offer, is there anything I can do before I come to your chambers to prepare?
Send a hand-written or typed thank-you note to the judge, clerks and administrative staff with whom you met. Should the judge be making decisions quickly, email thank-yous are appropriate as well.
Expectations About Acceptance
Perhaps most importantly, you should bear in mind that the informal protocols governing offers and acceptances of clerkships are very different from those of other legal employers. Judges expect that you will accept their offer. Some judges will make an offer at the end of the interview or within a day or so thereafter, while others may wait weeks or even months to contact you. Typically offers are extended by phone, but they can arrive by email or even U.S. Postal Service. No matter when or how you get the offer, be prepared to say “Yes.” Telling a judge you will get back to her/him can, aside from costing you that offer, tarnishes the Law School’s relationship with the judge and may cause the judge to pass over future Cornell applicants. Moreover, if you eventually accept the offer, having put the judge on hold can get your relationship off to a bumpy start.
Because judges will expect you to accept their offer, you might try to arrange your interviews (to the limited extent possible) so that you interview first with those judges for whom you think you would most prefer to clerk. Of course, while this is ideal, it will not always be possible, since your preferred judges may not respond to you as quickly as others.
On occasion, your interview with the judge will convince you that clerking for her/him would clearly be unwise. The ideal course under such circumstances is to write a letter (or email, if time is of the essence) and withdraw graciously as soon as possible after the interview without indicating your unfavorable reaction to the judge. Get in touch with Dean Peck immediately if you are considering withdrawing from consideration after an interview.