What is a Judicial Clerkship?
A judicial clerkship is a full-time position working for a federal or state judge that often (but not always) starts right after you finish law school. Clerkships may be with any level of court (supreme, appellate or trial court). In addition to the traditional courts, consider special federal courts such as the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Court of International Trade, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, U.S. Tax Court, U.S. Court of Veterans Appeals, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s EOIR Immigration Courts.
Law clerks research and draft opinions and orders for the court. They also participate in many phases of the court’s decision-making process. There are “fixed-term” clerkships, which generally last one or two years, and there are “permanent” law clerks, also called “staff attorneys” or “research attorneys”, whose terms are indefinite. Most of the opportunities we are discussing here are fixed-term, though our graduates have been hired directly from law school into permanent Appellate Court Attorney positions with the California Court of Appeal recently.
Why Clerk for a Judge?
Judicial clerkships offer new graduates the unique opportunity to work closely with a judge, gaining insight into the judicial process and broad exposure to various areas of the law. Many lawyers view clerkships as the most prestigious and distinguished way to begin a legal career, and most employers highly value the learning experience judicial clerkships provide.
Students choose to clerk for several reasons:
- To improve legal research, writing and analysis skills
- To work closely and form professional relationships with a judge and other clerks
- To gain a mentor who can provide career advice, networking opportunities, and feedback on research, writing, negotiation, litigation, policy, style of practice, and substantive law
- To gain insights into the workings of the legal system
- To learn opinion writing and what goes into the decision-making process
- To obtain practical training in litigation, trial strategy, and other legal skills
- To learn to make tough decisions quickly
- To see different attorneys’ styles of practice
- To gain exposure and to make contacts in a legal community
Where do I find Judicial Clerkship Opportunities?
The Administrative Office of the United States Courts has set up a national database of federal law clerk vacancies at https://oscar.uscourts.gov/. The Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR) is a single, centralized clerkship posting and application site, which also has many other application-related resources. We also recommend that you follow OSCAR’s hiring page on LinkedIn, here.
There are almost no fixed-term clerkships available in California. These courts, with rare exceptions, hire career “research” or “staff” attorneys instead. San Francisco and Los Angeles Superior Courts do hire a limited number of graduating law students as term clerks or fixed-term staff attorneys. If you are able to venture beyond the borders of this state, there are literally thousands of clerkship opportunities at the state and local level outside California. The CDO subscribes to Vermont Law School’s annual Guide to State Clerkships. This guide, which provides basic information on the hiring procedures for state appellate and trial courts, is available online at http://www.vermontlaw.edu/Resources.htm (the current username and password are located in the document library of McGeorgeCareersOnline).
Can a Judicial Externship Open More Opportunities?
Judicial externships are full-time or part-time school year or summer positions for law students which offer an opportunity to receive academic credit through the Externship Office while working for a judge or court. Judicial externships can sometimes lead to clerkships upon graduation, either with the same judge, or more often, with another judge who appreciates a clerk with some previous experience. For more information about judicial externships, see the Judicial Externships tab in the McGeorge Externships LibGuide (MEL).
When Do I Apply?
Federal judges start considering rising 3L (Class of 2022) applications as soon as June 14, 2021 and continuing through graduation. They will start considering Class of 2023 applications as early as June 13, 2022 and then on through graduation. State judges tend to hire during a student’s third year, but if you have a particular judge or court in mind, make sure to find out what their particular hiring timeline is by consulting the Vermont Guide, the court’s website, or a CDO advisor.
Okay, I’m Interested…What is my Next Step?
Contact the Career Development Office for a copy of our comprehensive Judicial Clerkships Guide and to hear more about how we will support the process of receiving and processing your letters of recommendation.