How Many Judges Should I Apply to?

Federal Judges

The number of applications you should submit is a function of your particular goals, geographic preferences, and how selective the judges are; this will be a central discussion topic in your counseling sessions. This is as much an art as it is a science. There’s no baseline number of applications you should send.

Keep in mind the following:

State Judges

The number of applications you should send to state court judges is guided by (1) the state(s) in which you plan to practice after your clerkship and/or to which you have ties, and (2) the types of courts to which you are applying. For some applicants who have narrowed their focus to one state and who seek to clerk only on the court of last resort in that state, the total number of applications may be in the single digits. However, when an applicant is open to clerking in more than one state and is interested in both trial and appellate-level courts, the number of state court applications can be very high. Because state court clerkship applications always require that hard copy letters of recommendation be prepared by law school staff, the number of letters requested could easily become very high, as well. If you request hard copy/PDF letters of recommendation for more than 100 judges per calendar year, you may need to make an appointment with Dean Peck to refine your strategy. (Note that in states like New Jersey in which applicants can send in one application to a central administrative office for dissemination to judges around the state, that application will be treated, for purposes of the limitation above, as one application.)

What Factors Should I Consider When Selecting Judges?

Because the clerkship-hiring process tends to be idiosyncratic and because information about individual judges is hard to come by, generating a list of judges to whom to apply is also not an exact science. Still, it is in everyone’s interest for you to come up with a list that is reasonably tailored to your situation. The following sections provide some guidelines for this tailoring process.

Judges with a Cornell Connection

A judge’s positive experience with the Law School through a previous Cornell clerk, a visit to judge Moot Court, a personal or professional relationship with a faculty member, etc. can create special receptivity to applications from Cornellians. Contact us to obtain the following charts to help focus your search:

Be sure you strategically consider applying to judges on these lists, especially judges who currently have a Cornell clerk. Current clerks may be able to help Cornell applications reach a judge’s short list.

Geographic Considerations for Federal Clerkships

State court clerkships are typically most useful to graduates who seek to practice in that state (or a nearby state) after their clerkship ends. By clerking for a state court judge, you will learn state law and procedure, and you will become familiar with the state judiciary and practitioners who appear before state court judges. In addition, while ties to a state are not essential, state judges may have a preference for clerks who have a connection to their state or who can demonstrate that they plan to stay in the state after their clerkship ends. When considering the states to which you should apply, select those states in which you have family, attended college or law school, have worked, know well, or would like to begin your legal career.

Type of Court

Another consideration is the level of court for which you wish to clerk. Clerkships differ, of course, depending upon the level and jurisdiction of the court. Federal court of appeals clerkships are usually more competitive than federal district court clerkships, which are usually more competitive than clerkships with federal magistrate judges or bankruptcy judges. Similarly, in the state court systems, courts of last resort are usually more competitive than intermediate appellate courts, which are usually more competitive than trial-level courts. Think seriously about applying to courts below the courts of last resort in your chosen state(s): state appellate-level and trial-level state court clerkships can be both intellectually interesting and useful for post-graduate job searching. You should refer to the resources mentioned above to research specific judges’ hiring criteria.

A note about “senior” and “recalled” judges in the federal system: Court of Appeals, District Court, and Court of International Trade judges have life tenure, and they may retire if they are at least 65 years old and meet certain years of service requirements. Many judges who are eligible to retire elect to continue to hear cases on a full- or part-time basis as “senior judges.” For an in-depth discussion of senior judges in federal courts, read our article. Retired Bankruptcy, Magistrate, and Court of Federal Claims judges also may be “recalled” to active service. Therefore, senior and recalled judges may have a full workload and a complete complement of clerks. If you are otherwise interested in applying for a clerkship with such judges, do not disregard them because they are on senior or recalled status.

Stacking Clerkships and Gap Years

Some clerkship applicants will apply for a second clerkship after securing a first.

In some cases, the applicant will seek to stack their clerkships. In other words, they will seek to secure a second clerkship that will commence immediately after the first clerkship ends. For example, you might secure a clerkship with a federal district court judge for the year following graduation. Then, you might seek a second clerkship, this time with a federal appellate judge, which will begin as soon as your district court clerkship ends. Stacking may be essential when a federal appellate court judge requires applicants to serve with a district court, or other court, before the appellate clerkship begins.

In other cases, the applicant will seek a second clerkship to fill in a “gap year,” because the first clerkship secured will not commence for a year (or two), thus leaving a gap between graduation and the start of the clerkship. We encourage you to make an appointment with Dean Peck about these possibilities and their implications for your legal career.

Viewpoint

If you have strong political or jurisprudential views, you need to decide before you begin the application process whether you will feel comfortable clerking for a judge whose views may be different from, or even diametrically opposed to, your own. Certainly, some conservative judges have liberal clerks and vice versa. Many clerks and judges report that this arrangement can be very intellectually stimulating. However, if you know that you will feel uncomfortable by constantly being at philosophical odds with your judge, you should not put yourself in that situation. You are likely to gain more from the clerking experience if you are comfortable with the fit between your views and the judge’s. And you must, in the end, be confident that you can put your best efforts behind the position the judge decides to take.

Affinity

Like viewpoint, how you feel about clerking for a judge with whom you share affinity (or not) is the most important thing. If you are a member of an underrepresented group, are you seeking a clerkship with a jurist who is like you in some way? Or who, at least, is affirming and supportive of people who share your affinity? Or does that not matter to you? When you are compiling your list of judges, take an honest look at your feelings about issues around affinity so that you will apply to judges for whom you will be very happy to clerk.