Why Clerk?

Clerking for a judge or for a court is a unique experience, as is the process of applying for a clerkship. Your first step in approaching the clerkship application process is to read this article and read other articles that seem interesting to you. Then, seek advice from Elizabeth Peck, Assistant Dean for Judicial Engagement and Professional Development, or another member of the Faculty Clerkship Committee. Do not forget that other faculty members who have clerked can be valuable resources as well. Contact Dean Peck for a list of faculty who have clerked. We recommend that you speak with Dean Peck during the second semester of your first year to begin a discussion of clerkships. That said, it is never too late to consider applying for clerkships, so you should feel free to seek advice when the time is right for you.

Overview of the Job and the Options

Law clerks have been a vital part of the judiciary for more than a century. Titles and duties have varied throughout history; indeed, a law clerk’s duties have never been statutorily defined. No two judges use their clerks in precisely the same manner, but generally speaking, a law clerk’s fundamental duty is to assist the judge (or judges) with the disposition of cases. Typical tasks include conducting legal research, drafting, editing, proofreading, preparing bench memos, analyzing issues before the court, reviewing papers, and briefing the judge. A clerk may also be responsible for library maintenance, document assembly, and, if the clerk is working for a trial judge, they may assist at trials and other courtroom procedures.

Judicial clerkships are available in federal, state and municipal courts across the country. In courts of general jurisdiction, law clerks work on a wide range of civil and criminal issues. Specialized courts such as the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Tax Court, and the Court of International Trade also provide quality clerkship opportunities. In specialized courts the range of issues addressed is narrower, but the experience can be especially interesting if you plan to specialize in that particular practice area.

On the federal level, a general provision for each court authorizes the hiring of law clerks, and the number of clerks is set in the annual Financial Services and Government Appropriations Act. Senior judges have an allotment of clerks based on the caseload they choose to carry. The majority of these clerkships are one-year positions. However, a significant number of federal judges prefer two-year clerkships, which allow a clerk in their second year to train a successor. Also, some judges will opt for a permanent, or “career,” clerk(s), therefore they do not hire new clerks each year. Additionally, all federal appellate and some district courts are authorized a varied number of staff attorneys, who perform duties for the entire court. These may be one- or two-year clerkships, or, in some cases, career positions. Finally, some federal agencies have clerkship opportunities as well.

A vast number of clerkships are available on the state level, and as the size and structure of state court systems vary, so too do the type and availability of state court clerkships. Some state court clerkships are one-year positions (e.g., the New Jersey Supreme Court) and some are two-year positions (e.g., the New York Court of Appeals Central Staff clerkships). Many state courts hire clerks as permanent staff rather than hiring new term clerks annually.

The Benefits of a Judicial Clerkship

Judicial clerkships are an outstanding learning experience. A judicial clerkship provides the opportunity to hone research and writing skills while being exposed to a wide variety of legal issues. Furthermore, a clerkship offers insight into the judicial process and provides practical familiarity with the litigation process. Because law clerks have the opportunity to observe a large number of attorneys in practice, the experience exposes them to a wide range of legal styles and abilities. It may also provide insight into local legal employers that can inform decisions about permanent employment.

A significant benefit of a judicial clerkship is the mentoring relationship that often develops between a judge and their law clerks. The relationship is almost always an intensely personal one, and former clerks will tell you that the professional and personal relationship lasts throughout their careers.

The experience and training obtained in a judicial clerkship is valued by most law firms, public interest organizations, government agencies, and corporations. Large private firms often pay clerkship bonuses and provide a year of “credit” toward partnership when associates return from their clerkships. The U.S. Department of Justice actively recruits judicial law clerks for its Honors Program, which is the only avenue through which entry-level attorneys are hired at DOJ. Most public interest fellowship programs value judicial clerkship experience. Judicial clerkships are especially beneficial to those interested in pursuing an academic career. The majority of the permanent Cornell Law School faculty served as judicial clerks. Finally, even for those who do not seek a career in litigation, clerkships can be quite valuable.

While many Cornell clerkship applicants seek federal clerkships, there are a lot of advantages to state-court clerkships as well. First, clerking for a state court judge quickly establishes ties to the local legal community. This is especially important, even if you had previous ties to the geographic area. Local practitioners may take the view that a state clerkship evidences a particularly high level of commitment to the area. Also, an important element in considering a state court clerkship is the type of practice you want to move on to after your clerkship is over. Clerking in a state court will give you an opportunity to gain insight into employers for whom you might want to work when your clerkship ends. Or, if you are attracted to working for a state agency, law firm or public interest organization that operates in the state-court venue, a state court clerkship is invaluable. Another reason that state court clerkships may be of particular interest is that they are open to JD students that are non-U.S. citizens.

We encourage you to read the feedback we have collected from Cornell graduates who have clerked in federal and state courts. Their comments are overwhelmingly positive and provide tremendous insight into the clerkship experience. Some discuss the clerkship search process as well. Log in to Symplicity and click the “clerkships” tab. Then select “clerkship evaluation.” You can search by a variety of factors (name, court, city, etc.) or just browse all of the evaluations to get a broad range of information.

Where Can I Clerk?

State Courts

Most state court systems mirror the structure of the federal system, with trial courts of general jurisdiction, intermediate appellate courts, and a court of last resort. In addition to these courts of general jurisdiction, most states also have trial courts of limited jurisdiction as well.

Some states, like New Jersey, hire hundreds of new clerks annually for one- to two-year clerkships for their trial, appellate, and highest court. Others, such as New York and California, do not hire clerks routinely since judges in those states prefer their legal staff to commit to long-term positions. Review our online state court resources here to learn more about specific states.

U.S. Supreme Court

Practically speaking, clerkships with the Supreme Court are available only following clerkships with other courts. If you think you are interested in a clerkship with the Supreme Court, speak with a member of the Faculty Clerkship Committee or a faculty member who has clerked there. Contact Dean Peck for a list of faculty members who have clerked in this court.

U.S. Courts of Appeals

The district courts are grouped into circuits (the First through the Eleventh Circuit and the D.C. Circuit) with one court of appeals in each circuit. The courts of appeal consider appeals from their district courts and review rulings of administrative tribunals such as the Board of Immigration Appeals and the National Labor Relations Board. There is also a Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is located in Washington, D.C. This court has jurisdiction over appeals from district courts in cases involving patents and certain claims against the United States, the U.S. Claims Court, the Court of International Trade, the Court of Veterans Affairs, the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Patent and Trademark Office, the boards that decide government contract issues, and a few other Article I agencies.

The principal function of the clerk for an appellate judge is to research the issues of law and fact presented by an appeal and review transcripts of proceedings below for errors by the trial judge or counsel. Law clerks may be required to prepare bench memos, assist the judge in preparing for oral argument, draft an opinion pursuant to a judge’s directions, or to edit and cite check opinions written by the judge. Appellate clerks do attend oral arguments; however, there is significantly less time spent in court than at the trial level. Appellate opinions typically contain an exhaustive and detailed analysis of the law, and these opinions are frequently published.

U.S. District Courts

District courts have jurisdiction over cases arising under federal question and diversity jurisdiction and comprise the first level of the federal court system. District courts consider a wide range of civil and criminal matters. There are 94 U.S. district courts; they are located across each of the states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, and the Northern Mariana Islands (each state or territory has at least one district court, some have as many as four). Since district courts are trial courts, a law clerk at this level is involved in the many decisions that take place at every stage of the litigation process. Briefs submitted tend to be shorter than at the appellate level. Decision making is fact oriented. A clerk may assist with discovery disputes, settlement conferences, pretrial, trial, and post-trial motions, and, in criminal cases, sentencing. Trial court clerks, in general, have substantial contact with attorneys and witnesses. District court opinions are published only when the trial judge elects.

U.S. Magistrate Judges

Each federal district court has magistrate judges attached to it. Each district establishes its own rules regarding the assignments that may be made to magistrate judges. Generally, these judicial officers perform many functions similar to those performed by district court judges, but they do not have the authority to make final decisions. Magistrate judges typically have a great deal of responsibility in handling the pretrial stages of cases: issuing arrest warrants, handling discovery matters, and making recommendations on motions for dismissal and motions for summary judgment. Magistrate judges can try individuals accused of minor criminal offenses and may also conduct all of the proceedings in civil cases upon the consent of all parties. Therefore, a magistrate clerk’s duties are similar to the duties of a district court judge’s clerk, e.g., writing legal memoranda, assisting with courtroom proceedings, and drafting opinions and recommendations. (Note that the appropriate title to address the Magistrate by is “Judge.”)

U.S. Bankruptcy Courts

Each federal district court has an associated bankruptcy court. The U.S. bankruptcy courts have jurisdiction over claims arising under the federal bankruptcy laws. The volume of cases and proceedings in bankruptcy court is generally greater than in other trial courts. Law clerks can expect to work on disputes involving the interface between bankruptcy law and most other areas of civil law, such as contract law, labor law and tax law. Most trials are bench trials.

Staff Attorneys and Pro Se Clerks

In addition to clerkship positions with individual judges, all of the federal circuit courts and some of the federal district courts and state courts also have staff attorney and/or pro se law clerk positions available. Titles and duties vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in general it can be said that staff attorneys and pro se law clerks perform many of the same tasks performed by law clerks for individual judges, but they work for the court as a whole or for a particular panel of judges. These tasks include legal research and the preparation of memoranda, opinions, and orders in various areas of federal law. Typically, at least one-half of the cases handled by a staff attorney are cases in which one party is proceeding pro se. Some courts, especially the circuit courts, handle a large number of pro se matters and, therefore, have pro se clerks who handle these cases exclusively.

The staff attorneys’ or pro se law clerks’ office may work under the supervision of the chief judge, a committee of judges, a single judge, a senior attorney, the circuit executive, or the clerk of the court. The basic criteria used for selecting staff attorneys do not differ from those used by the judges in selecting their personal “elbow” clerks. A demonstrated interest in and commitment to public interest law is a big plus for positions involving a substantial number of pro se cases. Some courts classify staff attorney and pro se law clerk positions as “temporary,” meaning that they are for a one- or two-year duration, like “elbow” clerks. Other courts classify these positions as permanent. While most of these positions are available to recent law school graduates, a few of the jurisdictions require several years of practice experience.

U.S. Court of Federal Claims

The jurisdiction of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims extends to actions against the United States government. About one-third of the cases involve tax refund suits, an area in which the Court exercises concurrent jurisdiction with the district courts. Because invoking the federal claims court’s jurisdiction is more difficult than that of the district court or of the tax court, the cases presented tend to involve the most complex and difficult issues in tax law. Another aspect of the court’s jurisdiction involves government contracts, among the fastest-growing areas of federal law. Other areas of jurisdiction include inverse condemnation suits under the Fifth Amendment and claims by Indian tribes for unfair dealing by the U.S. government.

U.S. Court of International Trade

The U.S. Court of International Trade has nine judges and is based in New York City. This court hears cases involving the customs laws of the United States. The court rarely hears cases involving public international law, but most of the law clerks hired have studied international law in law school.

U.S. Tax Court

The U.S. Tax Court has jurisdiction over controversies involving deficiencies determined by the Commissioner of Internal Revenue in income, estate, and gift taxes, and other cases involving federal tax law. The principal office of the Tax Court is in Washington, D.C., and all clerks are located there. Although the court holds sessions throughout the country, clerks do not travel with the judges. The U.S. Tax Court is part of the legislative branch, and these judges are not listed on OSCAR. Information on the U.S. Tax Court’s clerkship program can be found here. The summer between your 2L and 3L years is typically a good time to apply for a U.S. Tax Court clerkship.

U.S. Court Of Appeals for the Armed Forces

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, formerly known as the Court of Military Appeals, exercises appellate review of court-martial convictions. Located in Washington, D.C., its jurisdiction is world-wide but encompasses only questions of law arising from courts martial in the United States Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard in certain specified instances. Its decisions prior to 1984 were final, but now are subject to review by the Supreme Court. The five judges are civilians appointed for 15-year terms by the President. While this court hears only cases relating to the United States Military, law clerks are not required to be active service members to apply for these clerkships.

U.S. Court Of Appeals for Veterans Claims

The United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims has exclusive jurisdiction to provide judicial review of final decisions by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals, an entity within the Department of Veterans Affairs. Located in Washington, D.C., the court provides veterans an impartial judicial forum for review of administrative decisions by the Board of Veterans’ Appeals that are adverse to the veteran-appellant’s claim of entitlement to benefits for service-connected disabilities, survivor benefits, and other benefits such as education payments and waiver of indebtedness.

Federal Administrative Agencies

A number of positions are available in which attorneys act as clerks to Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). Unlike federal judges who are appointed for life or specific terms, ALJs are U.S. Government employees. ALJs conduct formal administrative hearings and issue decisions based on trial-type proceedings. Typically, appeals from these decisions are made to the federal courts of appeal. Working as an ALJ’s law clerk can be useful to your career, especially if you plan to practice in the particular area of law in which the agency specializes.