Landing a federal clerkship is an excellent way to begin your legal career, but if we’re keeping it all the way real, these positions are extremely tough to get. I used to think that federal clerkships were the only clerkship options available, because they were all I ever heard about. To get even more specific, I primarily only heard about federal clerkships within the U.S. District Court or a U.S. Court of Appeals. Therefore, I remained completely oblivious to the diversity of federal clerkship options, not to mention the diversity of state court clerkship options available. Don’t even get me started on Staff Attorney positions – this completely viable option never even came across my radar. I have no doubt that other law students have experienced the same thing.
Types of Clerkships Available
If you’re considering a judicial clerkship, there are a ton of options available for you. Judicial clerkships are split into either federal clerkships or state court clerkships. Now, as for the subcategories within these clerkship options please see the below.
Federal Clerkship Options
When you hear the term federal clerkship, you probably immediately think about a clerkship with a U.S. District Court, a U.S. Court of Appeals or even the U.S. Supreme Court. But did you know that there were other federal clerkship options out there? I for sure didn’t. Federal clerkships are also available in U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Federal Magistrate Courts and even specialty courts such as: the U.S. Court of International Trade, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the U.S. Tax Court and the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Staff Attorney Positions
If you are interested in a federal clerkship, don’t overlook the possibility of working for a federal judge in an alternate capacity as a staff attorney. Much like a federal clerk, a staff attorney will have the opportunity to develop their research and writing through preparing legal memoranda for appellate cases. However, the primary difference is that a staff attorney may support the entire court as opposed to an individual judge, which is typically the case in a federal clerkship.
State Court Clerkship Options
State Courts also offer a variety of clerkship options in their state trial courts, state intermediate appellate courts and state supreme courts.
How Do You Choose?
So now that you know the many options available, how do you possibly choose?
As you make this decision, a few things to consider are: your grades/class ranking, your career path and the jurisdiction that you ultimately want to practice in.
1. Grades/Class Ranking
Your law school grades and overall ranking should definitely play a role in the type of clerkship you apply for. While I do believe that any dedicated applicant can receive a clerkship offer, chances are that if your grades are on the lower end of the spectrum, you are less likely to receive an offer for one of the more coveted clerkship options.
Therefore, if your grades are in tip top shape and you’re graduating at the top of the class, the world is your oyster – consider applying for any of the clerkship options I’ve highlighted in the section above. A clerkship at the U.S. Supreme Court or with a U.S. Court of Appeals could absolutely be in your future. However, if the competitive reality of these positions knock you out of the running, don’t lose sight of the other options available. A clerkship with a U.S. District Court, a State Supreme Court or a State Appellate Court is a very possible option.
If your law school grades were average, and you still desire to obtain a clerkship, go for it! A clerkship can still be a reality for you considering the variety of options available. If you fall in this category I recommend first of all considering the contacts within your network. Do you already have a relationship with a judge who is looking for clerks? If so, maybe start by applying for a clerkship in his/her chambers. Your network will be key in gaining access to a more competitive position. If you have no judge in your network, then I recommend applying for a clerkship in a state trial court. These clerkships are still very competitive, however, these judges may consider your class ranking/grades less than for a federal clerkship.
2. Career Path
Your chosen career path should also impact the type of clerkship you apply for. If you have a particular interest in Bankruptcy law, Tax law or International law, consider clerking in a specialty court. A clerkship in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Tax Court or the Court of International Trade, would give you the opportunity to develop your skills within these particular practice areas. Having such a specialized clerkship would definitely have a positive impact as you continue within that specialized practice once that clerkship is over.
3. Location You want to Practice In
As you explore your clerkship options, you should also consider the location where you ultimately want to practice. If you’re already set on a specific location, then a state court clerkship would be a great option. This option would give you the opportunity to develop your network within that particular state and as a result this would improve your chances during the post-clerkship job search. However, if you are set on a particular jurisdiction and would love a federal clerkship, consider completing a clerkship in a U.S. District Court in your state of choice. You could also consider a clerkship at the U.S. Court of Appeals that covers the judicial district of your state of choice.
In the alternative, if you’re not set on a particular jurisdiction, then a federal clerkship is ideal for you. A federal clerkship gives you the flexibility and the reach to be a competitive applicant in any state during your post-clerkship job search. Therefore, if you have strong grades, a federal clerkship would be an excellent choice for you.
As you fine tune your options, please be sure to check out this update to the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan as it will likely impact your application submittal timeline.
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