The federal judicial clerkship hiring path is mysterious for most law students. If you’re lucky, your school has an office dedicated to helping you find a post-law school clerkship, but if that is not an option, you may feel unmoored in your search. Let’s talk a bit about applying for a clerkship as a law student with a disability.
Federal and state judges both hire clerks, and the kind of work you will do depends on what kind of judge you work for. For our purposes here, I’ll be writing about federal clerkships, though most of the advice could apply to state applicants as well. There are several types of federal judges: magistrate, special (think federal claims, tax, bankruptcy, etc.), district, and appellate.
The workload within each of these courts will vary greatly by judge, but as a general rule, district courts move much faster than appellate courts. A district court clerk might have hours or days to work through an opinion or memo, whereas an appellate clerk might have weeks to round out an appellate opinion. Consider your optimal environment – do you tend to work best when you move from assignment to assignment at a rapid pace, or do you succeed when you can dig into just a few projects at a time?
Should I Disclose my Disability in my Application?
The answer to this will always be “it depends.” Are you tired of hearing that yet? Disclosure is always your choice. Judicial hiring is incredibly personal. Judges can get upwards of thousands of applicants for anywhere between one and four spots. The hiring process is unbelievably competitive and rather idiosyncratic. Judges can decide whether to hire from only a small pool of schools or may only hire people who love fly-fishing or people who can answer the most obscure question about a case the judge heard a decade ago.
It is so important to not take the hiring process personally. Many students submit dozens (and some, hundreds) of applications in the hopes of being invited to interview. Timing plays a huge role too – apply too early and you’ll be outside that judge’s hiring window, but apply too late and they’ve already hired their clerks. Some judges hire years in advance. In short, apply everywhere.
You might be wondering why I am going into all of that detail about hiring. Sometimes when you have a disability, it’s easy to imagine that maybe you weren’t hired because of the disability. And sometimes that’s the unfortunate truth, but I tend to think that judicial hiring is different. For one, the judges are able to look holistically at your law school record and writing sample. This allows them to see the kind of quality work they can expect from you.
There is no obligation to disclose your disability. If you do some investigative work on the judges you are particularly interested in working for, you may even learn about a connection they have with a particular disability. You can absolutely tailor your applications to your advantage in those cases.
Some disabilities don’t lend themselves to not disclosing. If you will need an accommodation to get through the interview, you will need to make those requests as soon as possible. Many judges have a very short window between the interview invitation and the interview. In these cases, you will need to arrange whatever accommodation with the judge’s judicial assistant (this person may refer you to another office, depending on the courthouse) almost immediately after getting the invitation.
If you don’t need any interview accommodations, you have more choices. If you will need job accommodations you can wait until after you have an offer to make those requests. If you won’t need any accommodations at all, you can decide if and when to disclose.
I have a profound hearing loss and included membership in deaf advocacy groups on my resume. Any judge who looked at it could infer that I had a disability. This led to several wonderful conversations about being disabled in the law and self-advocacy during my interviews, and ultimately led to a fantastic clerkship experience with a judge who did everything he could to ensure that I was able to hear everything in and out of the courtroom.
Your story will be unique. I’ve always been of the mind that I wouldn’t want to work somewhere that wouldn’t or couldn’t accommodate my needs cheerfully. This may not be the case for you. If you do decide to disclose, take time to think about how to frame your disability in a way that makes it clear that it is a meaningful part of your life, but will not keep you from being able to do the work at hand.
What Kinds of Accommodations can I Ask for once I am a Clerk?
This will depend on your disability. As a deaf clerk, I needed captioning for the courtroom and sound amplification. I also let the rest of the chambers know that I should not be the person to answer the phone unless absolutely necessary. Luckily the captioning was as easy as logging into the court reporter system and amplification simply meant plugging into the court’s sound system with special headphones.
If you need a text reader or different software, the court’s IT department will work with you. Be prepared to advocate for what you will need – you may well be the first person with your particular disability to work for that judge or even in that courthouse. In an ideal world, the judge will work with you to make sure you get the accommodations you need. Give yourself plenty of time before the clerkship starts to talk with HR and the judge to work out a reasonable plan.
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