You need to be prepared to supply judges with a resume, cover letter, list of recommenders, law school transcript, law school grading policy, writing sample, and three recommendation letters from members of the law school faculty.
As always, your resume should be carefully reviewed and updated before you send it. Appearance and content are both important. It MUST be free of spelling mistakes and typographical errors. Some judges are comfortable reading longer resumes, so you needn’t worry about keeping your resume to one page, and you should consult with Director Rizzi about whether a two-page resume is right for you. Judges interview relatively few candidates for each available position. Therefore, your paper application has to make you stand out among hundreds of applicants. Review a sample resume here. Keep in mind these general guidelines:
- Emphasize your intellectual ability and engagement. Judges want clerks who are bright people with active and inquiring minds, qualities they do not necessarily measure by law school grades alone. Include all academic honors and awards, merit scholarships, etc., on the undergraduate as well as graduate level; participation in programs or activities that provided broad or intense learning experiences, or that represented academic achievement; extracurricular activities that are creative (e.g., drama) or intellectually demanding (e.g., debating).
- Your GPA: Here are the options for stating your GPA1:
- If you are ranked: “GPA = x.xx – ranked number x in my class.”
- If you are in the top 5%: “GPA = x.xx – ranked number x”
- If you are in the top 10%: “GPA = x.xx – top 10%”
- If you are near the top 10%: “GPA = x.xx (top 10% = x.xx)”
- Otherwise2, indicate “GPA = x.xx”
- Emphasize writing experience. If you are on a journal and have a note sufficiently underway, include the title. It may pique a judge’s interest. Do not limit yourself to legal writing. Did you do an undergraduate thesis or honors paper? List it, with title. Other possibilities include journalistic experience and non-legal jobs that involved substantial writing.
- Give a sense of who you are and what’s important to you. Judges receive hundreds of applications from smart people at good law schools. Distinguish yourself by listing volunteer, community service, or extracurricular activities before and during law school, your interests, skills such as foreign languages, experiences such as travel, or unusual jobs. This is not the occasion for a safely neutral, “plain vanilla” resume.
- If it is not a household word, explain it. For example, Boardman, Kerr and Fraser prize winners should state and define the honor. Awards, activities, programs and achievements that are not reasonably self-evident should have a clear, but succinct, explanation. Do not belabor the explanation of “typical” legal internships or jobs. Do include any unusual or significant projects.
- Important: You should redraft your resume, adding all items that might fit these guidelines, and then make an appointment with Carl Rizzi to review and refine it.
The same concerns about both appearance and content, which apply to resumes, also apply to cover letters. Your cover letter should be considered a writing sample. Even a strong resume and references may not be enough to overcome poor grammar, bad sentence structure, typographical errors, or misspellings in your cover letter. Edit and proofread carefully. It is difficult to give generic advice about the style of this letter. Some people write a short transmittal letter that simply describes the materials enclosed. Others use the cover letter as another opportunity to emphasize what sets them apart. It is probably not worth discoursing generally on “why I want to clerk.” On the other hand, there are several situations in which a substantive cover letter clearly makes sense. If you had an extended “life before law school” – another career, substantial academic training in another discipline, etc. – you may want to briefly discuss why you came to law school and what your prior life adds to your professional legal skills. Similarly, if you are applying to a specialized court, like the bankruptcy court, you should mention any relevant experience (e.g., accounting) as well as any directly relevant courses you are taking. If you plan to practice in the geographic area, say so. Finally, if you have special interest in or connections to a geographical area, highlight them. Many judges, especially in state courts and federal district courts outside major metropolitan areas, look for people who have lived, or plan to practice, in the area. Again, we urge you to try your hand at a draft and bring it to your meeting with Director Rizzi. Review our sample cover letters for ideas here.
Whether simple or substantive, all cover letters should convey the following basic information:
- year of graduation and year of clerkship applied for;
- a list of what’s in your application packet;
- names of people serving as your references with a description of who they are if there is anything useful to be added on this subject (e.g., “Professor X, for whom I am working as a research assistant”);
- if the area is geographically distant, a reference to any travel plans you may have, in order to facilitate scheduling an interview. This is likely to be more effective with state court judges or geographically-isolated federal district court judges than with the bulk of federal judges, who have no trouble getting applicants to come to them.
In addition, if any of the following apply to you, include in the cover letter:
- if you have a high class rank and/or journal experience, mention this in your first paragraph;
- your journal note was selected for publication;
- you are applying only to courts in a specific geographic area because you have a strong commitment to practicing in that area;
- there is something specific about a judge’s background that makes you particularly interested in clerking for that judge (but don’t be overly obsequious).
Important: Stating in your cover letter that you are applying for “your next available term” or “the 20XX-XX term or any subsequent term”—instead of listing only a specific term—may somewhat increase your odds of obtaining a clerkship with that judge by signaling flexibility. However, if you use such phrases or otherwise suggest you are flexible as to the starting year, and if the judge offers you a different start date than was advertised or for which you were hoping, then it would be poor form to decline the offer on that basis, absent a compelling change in circumstances, which you should discuss with Director Rizzi.
List of References
While judges will ultimately receive letters from each of your recommenders, it will be helpful for the judges to have on hand your recommenders’ names and contact information, in the event they want to make affirmative outreach concerning your application. This list should be included as the last page of your resume. See a sample list of references here.
Unless otherwise indicated, a photocopy of your unofficial grade report, available from the law school Registrar’s office, is sufficient. You do not need to send an official university transcript unless the judge requires it. If you have applications pending and you have received new grade information, send a copy of your most up-to-date grade report, along with a brief cover letter, to the judges to whom you have applied.
Students should send a copy of the most current Cornell Law School Grading Policy for JD Students (the grading policy), and alumni applicants should include the grading policy published right after they graduated. Both current and historic grading policies are available on the Registrar’s website.
Your writing sample should be the best legal writing you have done. Typically judges prefer no more than 10-15 pages, so if your preferred writing sample is longer, send a discrete section. It can be a memo from a summer job, a portion of a moot court brief, or a part of a journal note. Attach a cover page with your name and contact information. Also indicate on the cover page the extent to which the sample has been edited by someone else, the context in which you wrote it, and that you have permission to use it as a writing sample if you wrote it for an employer. You cannot use a document which you wrote for an employer without permission (Click here to view a sample cover sheet.) Be very aware of confidentiality issues with memos and redact client-identifying information. Additionally, you should proofread the document and check your Bluebook cites.
Again, if you are sending a sample that has been edited by someone else, indicate the circumstances. Be aware that some judges request a sample that has not been substantially edited by another person. You should also be sure to make clear why and when you wrote the sample, e.g., for a seminar in a particular course, as part of a memorandum for an employer, for a particular journal. If your writing sample has been accepted for publication, be sure to indicate that and send the judge the published version if it becomes available at a later time. If you are using an opinion that you worked on for a judge (e.g., in a summer intern position), do not use the phrase “opinion that I drafted” or “opinion that I wrote.” Instead, indicate that you “worked on” the opinion or “wrote a draft opinion.” This is an important distinction to some judges. When sending a draft opinion, send the unedited version you submitted to the judge, not the published opinion.
Recommendation letters are a much more significant part of the application process for judicial clerkships than they are for many other legal jobs. During your initial counseling session with Director Rizzi at the beginning of your clerkship search, review your options for possible recommenders.
Plan to arrange for three recommendation letters. The recommendations most judges will find most useful will be from permanent members of the Cornell Law faculty, although you will have to consider how well they can speak to your skills and personal qualities. It is acceptable to ask for a recommendation from a visiting professor who is a permanent faculty member at another law school. Finally, a reference from an employer can be helpful, particularly if it happens to be an employer who knows something about the judicial clerkship process or knows the particular judge. However, unless the judge specifically asks for it, an employer’s reference should not substitute for one of the required two or three recommendations for student applicants. Alumni candidates may be best served by a combination of professor and supervisor recommendation letters. Consult with the Office of Judicial Engagement and Professional Development about letter-production logistics if any of your recommenders do not work at Cornell Law School.
If you plan to apply for clerkships at any point, you should make outreach to potential faculty recommenders ASAP. It takes time for a faculty member to write a good letter of recommendation for you. We believe a reasonable amount of lead time for faculty is three weeks. Note that lead time varies with season. During very busy times for faculty, including August, December, and May, professors may need more than three weeks lead time. Speak with your recommenders about their preferences. Your letter is likely to be only one of six (or more) the faculty member will have to write on a very tight time schedule. Some members of the faculty will not write letters to more than a limited number of judges, and/or will only recommend one applicant to a particular judge. Ask each of your recommenders whether he or she sets any limits.
After your recommenders have agreed to write for you, next you need to provide them with as much information as you can so that they can write an in-depth letter that provides judges with a rich portrait of you. Send your recommenders a copy of your clerkship resume and unofficial transcript. Also, complete a Recommender Form, located here, for each recommender. Take your time completing this form and feel free to consult with Director Rizzi if you have questions. If you can, plan to meet with each recommender in person to discuss your application strategy and how their letter fits into that plan.
Keep your recommenders apprised of your progress. Periodically let them know of the judges to whom you are applying so that they will know who is receiving their letters. Do not forget to ask your recommenders to update their letters every few months if you are applying over the course of the year. Letters can become stale if the writer uses language that refers to you at a particular time in your legal career. E.g. “Hannah is a current student in my class” or “Ben is a rising 2L.” A stale letter can hurt your application. Report back to your recommenders any success you have had! Faculty really enjoy hearing about your clerkship success.
1 Top 5%, and top 10% information is available from the law school Registrar’s office for each semester except the fall 1L semester.
2 Rankings beyond the top 10% are not released by the Registrar’s office. You MAY NOT estimate your rank.