Different schools of thought exist when it comes to cover letters for job applications. Back when I applied for legal jobs, I took a “do no harm” approach, using the cover letter merely to transmit my résumé, transcript, and writing sample. But jobs were more plentiful back then.
In a tougher legal job market, employers expect more from cover letters. For cover letter advice from an in-house perspective, see David Mowry’s post. For cover letter advice from a small-firm perspective, see Jay Shepherd’s post.
And for an example of how not to write a cover letter, keep reading….
This clerkship application letter went to a judge up in Alaska. It’s now making the rounds among Alaska law clerk circles.
We’ve removed the salutation line and the sign-off, but everything else is intact. And no, the salutation line did not read “DEAREST BELOVED” — which might come as a surprise, since the letter is more flowery than the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Here it is (click to enlarge):
“Law school reinforced my understanding that knowledge is a tool.” But it’s not the only “tool” out there.
Looking on the bright side, reading this cover letter while plowing through hundreds of clerkship applications must have given the judge a chuckle. It’s nothing if not… refreshing. “I sipped confidently from this hearty libation.”
That was my second-favorite line. My favorite: “I am extremely self aware.”
We might do more on epic cover letters for legal jobs. If you have a specimen you’d like to share, send it our way by email (subject line: “Cover Letter”). Thanks.
Earlier: Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Enclosed Please Find … No Reason to Hire Me
House Rules: Use Your Résumé and Cover Letter to Get Inside
Judges Reveal What It Takes To Get Inside Their Courtroom
Student Lawyer sits down with five judges from the ABA Judicial Division to get their expert advice on landing a coveted judicial clerkship, making the most out of this opportunity once you’re in their chambers, secrets to working well with judges, and other tips from the bench.
MEET OUR JUDGES:
Judge Delissa A. Ridgway was appointed by President Clinton in 1998 to the US Court of International Trade. Based in New York, the Article III trial court has nationwide jurisdiction over disputes involving the interpretation and application of US customs and international trade laws. She has a long history of leadership in the bar and in the community, and is a member of the American Law Institute as well as a fellow of the American Bar Foundation. A former chair of the ABA Judicial Division’s National Conference of Federal Trial Judges, Judge Ridgway currently serves on the Council of the ABA Section of International Law and in a number of other leadership posts in the ABA and in other organizations.
Judge Frank Sullivan Jr., former justice of the Indiana Supreme Court (1993–2012), is professor of practice at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. Judge Sullivan Jr. has been active in the ABA and is a leader of its Judicial Clerkship Program which encourages minority law students to seek judicial clerkships.
Judge Jeri Kaylene Somers has been vice chair of the US Civilian Board of Contract Appeals since 2008. She previously served as a judge on the Department of Transportation Board of Contract Appeals, an assistant US attorney, an Air Force judge advocate, and a military judge. Judge Somers also teaches in the government contracts program at George Washington University Law School. In May 2014, President Obama nominated her to serve on the US Court of Federal Claims (she was renominated in January 2015).
Judge Toni E. Clarke was appointed to the Seventh Judicial Circuit sitting in the Circuit Court for Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 1998 and presides over many types of cases including civil, criminal, foreclosure, family, and juvenile. Judge Clarke received her JD from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law. Prior to her appointment, Judge Clarke practiced law in both the public and private sector. She was the first African American female to serve as state’s attorney for Prince George’s County as well as the State of Maryland. Judge Clarke is a former president of the J. Franklyn Bourne Bar Association and was the first African American to serve as president of both the Women’s Bar Association of Maryland and the Prince George’s County Bar Association. Currently, Judge Clarke is on several committees of the ABA’s Judicial Division.
Judge Annette J. Scieszinski serves Iowa’s 8-A Judicial District as one of six traveling judges on a 10-county circuit. After 15 years in private law practice in rural Iowa, and two terms as Monroe County attorney, she was appointed to the bench in 1996. Judge Scieszinski has served as president of the Iowa Judges Association, and recently was selected as one of three trial judges to preside in the Iowa Business Court, an experimental docket dedicated to complex litigation. She is now the chair-elect of the National Conference of State Trial Judges. For many years, Judge Scieszinski has contributed her services as a volunteer mentor for the ABA Judicial Division’s minority clerkship program.
What is the top quality you look for when selecting a judicial clerk?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: The single most important quality is a demonstrated overall commitment to excellence, manifesting itself in all aspects of an applicant’s work (and, typically, life). On my court, all judicial opinions are published, and thus have a life (and a readership) far beyond any brief or legal memoranda that any lawyer will ever write. So “close enough” is simply not “good enough,” particularly since my court is the only court in the country deciding customs and international trade cases.
In addition, it is very important for a law clerk to be intellectually curious and driven—to want to get his/her hands “dirty” by becoming fully immersed in the facts and the law, and to mentally grapple with the case to arrive at the right result, every time, in each and every case, and then to push himself/herself to capture the facts and the reasoning in an opinion that is clear, well-organized, logical, persuasive, and compelling.
Interpersonal chemistry is also critical. Chambers is a very intimate working environment. It is important that my law clerks and I have good chemistry.
JUDGE SULLIVAN JR.: My office was small, both in size and number of people–two law clerks, a secretary, and me. As such, I was more concerned than anything else about having clerks with whom I would enjoy working at close quarters. To the student applying for a clerkship, this meant being himself or herself both on paper and during the interview so that I would get as accurate an impression as possible of what the person would be like to work with.
JUDGE SOMERS: There are two qualities that I value most highly in selecting clerks–superior writing ability and the capacity to work collaboratively with me and with other staff and clerks. My law clerks’ primary responsibility is to conduct legal research and to draft a variety of written work products such as memoranda of law, case summaries, and even first drafts of opinions. In carrying out this responsibility, my clerks work very closely with me at every stage of a case, discussing and evaluating the law, the facts, and the arguments of the parties. It is important for a clerk to be able to work independently and to show initiative. At the same time, the clerk should be able to judge when to seek feedback from me, or from more senior lawyers and clerks, where needed. A clerkship is a delicate balance between the independent work and judgment of the clerk, and close cooperation, guidance, and communication from the judge. The best clerks excel in both roles, and most importantly, recognize the difference in the two situations and act appropriately–not bothering the judge with every little thing, but knowing when to seek guidance and feedback.
JUDGE CLARKE: There is no number one quality. Good analytical, research, and people skills are essential. The ability to multitask is very important.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: The law clerk must be an excellent communicator–on an interpersonal level, in professional discourse (including email), and in legal writing.
What is unique about the judicial clerkship experience compared to other legal internships or summer associate positions?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: Judicial clerkships on my court are generally two years–sometimes shorter and often longer. Of course, this make a clerkship a longer work experience than summer associate positions and most legal internships.
Compared to other positions for new law school graduates (such as a position as a first-year associate at a law firm), a clerkship is typically a more intensive experience, offering the opportunity to develop an extremely close working relationship with a judge and to be the beneficiary of extensive one-on-one guidance and mentoring, which is something that is less likely to happen at a law firm (particularly a large law firm).
In addition, clerking gives a young lawyer a unique opportunity to gain perspectives on litigation, advocacy, and lawyering in general “from the other side of the bench” (i.e., from a judge’s vantage point), which is a perspective that only relatively few lawyers have and is something that the law clerk will reflect in his/her future work and will remember for the rest of his/her life.
Clerking also exposes a young lawyer, in a very short period of time, to a very wide range of briefs and examples of oral advocacy (something not available in any other setting), and is therefore a great opportunity to begin to define one’s own personal style (after seeing what works well, and what really doesn’t work).
And, lastly, there is nothing quite as heady as “making law.” To be able to do that in the first couple of years out of law school is incredible.
JUDGE SULLIVAN JR.: Foremost is that a judicial clerkship is a full-time positioning lasting a minimum of one year while legal internships and summer associate positions generally last only a semester or a season.
Even compared to full-time starting associate positions, there are several things that are unique about a judicial clerkship. The mentorship relationships that clerks establish with “their” judges are quite different from those between associates and more senior lawyers in a firm—and often last throughout their careers. In addition, by working with their judges in helping write judicial opinions, clerks directly and substantially participate in shaping the law.
JUDGE SOMERS: I think the key difference between a clerkship and other positions is the much higher level daily face-to-face interaction between a clerk and the judge. This professional “intimacy” means that the level of trust and communication between the judge and the clerk must be very high. Law clerks interact more directly with judges, leading to a closer and more collaborative working relationship than might exist between a summer associate and a law firm partner, or between a legal intern in a government agency and the general counsel. Moreover, a judicial tribunal is neutral, existing solely to determine the rights of the parties before it. Therefore, a judicial clerk, assisting the judge in this task, is not an advocate for any one party as he or she would be in most other positions. Rather, the clerk objectively applies the law and the facts in the work product submitted to the judge.
JUDGE CLARKE: Judicial clerkships are longer in duration, which affords more time to observe good and bad lawyering and to work on a larger variety of issues.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: Law clerks have unparalleled access, and thus insight, into the soul of the judiciary–the evolving culture, the ethics, the rigor, the humanity. The experience enables the student to become a superb lawyer with deep understanding of the judicial forum; it enlightens the student to the broad opportunities there are for public service, perhaps even in the judiciary; and it equips the student with valuable analytical and writing skills. And, frankly, it takes away the “intimidation factor” many new lawyers confront when dealing with courts. We’re all human!
Do you have any general advice for students seeking to stand out from the pack of applicants? What about specific advice regarding crafting a cover letter, résumé, or making a strong impression during an interview?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: When we review clerkship applications, we assume that an applicant has devoted more time and effort to his/her application than any other written work product that he/she has ever produced. Accordingly, we give no consideration to (i.e., we discard) any application packages that spell my name incorrectly or have typos in a cover letter, résumé, or writing sample. If an applicant can’t manage to produce a cover letter, résumé, and writing sample without a typo, there is no reason to believe that there would not be typos in opinions and orders that he/she would prepare for me.
I give “bonus points” to applicants who tailor their cover letters to my court (particularly where the text of the letter is tailored specifically to me); and I am impressed where a cover letter says more than (in effect) “Here is my résumé. I’d like to be a law clerk”—that is, where an applicant takes the time and effort to craft a letter that is, in fact, an advocacy piece (which is what it should be), developing themes, using topic sentences followed by a few sentences that illustrate the point made in each topic sentence. Applicants should use cover letters and résumés to make themselves “come alive” on paper. (Again, that’s just good advocacy.)
If possible, prepare for an interview by talking with one of the judge’s former law clerks (or, at a minimum, a recent former law clerk of another judge on the same court), to get practical real-life insight into the actual work of the court, in addition to all the other preparation that one would normally do (e.g., reviewing the judge’s bio, reading a number of the judge’s recent opinions, etc.).
It’s a good idea for an applicant to identify a few specific “themes” or major points about himself/herself in advance to weave into the interview. I also recommend “role playing” the interview in advance. The best interviews are very conversational, with lots of give-and-take (which leaves me confident that the applicant and I have good chemistry).
In addition, an applicant should always send thank-you notes following interviews, not only to the judge, but also to any other members of chambers staff with whom the applicant interviewed. The notes need not be long, but they should be personal. If an applicant uses the exact same (or very similar) language for all thank-you notes, it suggests laziness or a lack of attention to detail. And there is no reason to choose between sending thank-you notes via email versus the US Postal Service. Do both. As a judge, it is really lovely to receive a nice note a few days later, as a pleasant reminder of an interview. It leaves a very positive impression.
If you are interviewed but ultimately not offered the clerkship, it’s not a bad idea to send another follow-up note to thank the judge once again, after you get the bad news. Another clerkship may open up in the judge’s chambers unexpectedly; or one of the judge’s colleagues may ask the judge for recommendations.
JUDGE SULLIVAN JR.: A student should make it clear why he or she is applying to a particular judge. A student should not have a standard cover letter or even, I would argue, a standard résumé; they should be tailored for each judge to whom they are directed. A clerkship applicant who tells me in his or her cover letter, résumé, or interview that we are from the same home town, or that he or she knows a judge or lawyer I know well, or that he or she has studied one of my court’s opinions tells me two things of value: that he or she puts extra effort into even relatively straightforward tasks like writing cover letters; and that he or she has something in common with me that might well make our working together enjoyable.
Recommendations can be crucial. A routine letter of recommendation doesn’t hurt. A strong letter of recommendation helps. A telephone or, to a lesser extent, email recommendation from a professor, lawyer, or other person known to the judge is welcome by the judge and very helpful. Students seeking clerkships should find professors at their schools (as well as lawyers and others in the community) who know the judges to whom they are applying and solicit them for recommendations. Even if a student doesn’t have a strong relationship with such professors, lawyers, or others, the judges will be impressed by the initiative.
Judges are on the lookout for clerks who are smart and a student with a strong law school academic record should make that clear. If a student’s overall law school academic record is not the strongest, students should include things in the cover letter or résumé that show they are smart, e.g., outstanding performances in particular classes, success in activities like moot court, strong undergraduate academic record, etc. Judges understand that some outstanding law students suffer through a terrible first semester or even first year and so have lower overall GPAs; students in that situation should make it clear in their application materials.
JUDGE SOMERS: This goes back to the key qualities I look for in a law clerk–superior writing ability and capacity to work collaboratively but independently. If an applicant wants to catch my eye in a crowded field, the resume must clearly convey that he or she has these qualities. This can be shown trough paid job experience, education, work on a journal, volunteer work, etc. Applicants hurt themselves when they cram every job they have ever had onto a resume. I think jobs should be left off unless it’s clear that the job involved a skill or knowledge relevant to the clerkship. I do want to stress that, at least for my chambers, in selecting clerks, paid work experience is not the only way for an applicant to show the needed skills and knowledge. It can help an applicant to stand out and to show that he or she is well-rounded by including a short section on other interests. For instance, an applicant might include that he or she is an avid runner and has completed three marathons. This shows an outside interest, as well as a noteworthy accomplishment.
Once an applicant has been offered an interview, it is critical that they take the time to research the organization. For example, the bread and butter of our work at the Civilian Board is government contracts. A candidate who expresses interest in working here because of a love of employment discrimination law (over which we do not possess jurisdiction) tells me that the candidate did not research the Civilian Board prior to the interview.
JUDGE CLARKE: Make sure the judge’s name is spelled correctly. Cater your cover letter to the judge to whom you are applying. It’s flattering to the judge to include something that demonstrates anything you might have in common with the judge.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: In the final selection process, a successful candidate will have demonstrated sound, professional writing skills. Beyond that and the other important information (like academic background, law-related work experience, etc.) to stand out from the crowd as a unique individual, applicants should emphasize the breadth of their interests, and include something that will become thematic . . . such as any language proficiencies (i.e., fluent in French), interesting hobbies (i.e., parasailing), work-ethic indicators (i.e., worked self through college and law school at Applebee’s), charitable passions (i.e., helped build a Habitat for Humanity house), talents (i.e., writes poetry), etc.
Can you share a brief anecdote of a clerk that most impressed you and why?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: Once, a law clerk who was working on a particularly complex case (where the record ran into the tens of thousands of pages) discovered that all the parties were completely misreading a key set of data. I was extremely impressed that he had dug into the record to review the data set himself, rather than just reading the parties characterizations of it in their briefs. And I was extremely impressed that, after reviewing the actual data set, he had the self-confidence to believe that he might be right (and that all the parties and their lawyers and economic experts might be wrong). In fact, he was right. His discovery blew the case wide open, and sent all of the parties back to the drawing board. His discovery had a profound effect on that case and on a long line of related cases.
On another occasion, one of my law clerks and I had been working very intensively on a case for quite some time, and she had already completed a rough draft of the opinion. But she came in one Monday morning and told me that she had been turning the case over in her mind all weekend, and she was now convinced that we had it all wrong (for reasons that she then explained in detail). It took a lot of intellectual honesty and integrity on her part to even entertain the notion that she/we might be wrong, much less to admit it to me, particularly when it meant rewriting virtually an entire opinion and reaching the exact opposite result. She could have saved herself a lot of work by keeping her mouth shut; but it was more important to her to “get it right.”
I’m impressed any time a law clerk is wrestling so long and so hard with the facts and the law of a particular case that he/she is “living and breathing” that case. That is what all good judges and lawyers do.
JUDGE SULLIVAN JR.: In 1997, I was assigned to write the opinion of the Indiana Supreme Court in an important case. I gave the case to Lakshmi Reddy, one of my law clerks at the time, to work on. After doing some research, she came to me and told me that she had concluded that the court’s tentative decision was wrong; that according to the law, the other side should win. I told her that I was the judge and she should write the decision the way I told her. She came back a few days later and told me that she was sorry but that she was convinced that the law pointed in the opposite direction from the way I saw it. With some exasperation, I told her that if she wanted to draft the decision of the court the way she thought it should read, I would study it but probably still not agree. In a few weeks she came back with a brilliantly written decision–75 pages long!–that totally persuaded me, and ultimately a majority of the court, that she was right and we had been wrong.
The story speaks for itself, I think, in illustrating both the importance of clerks in helping judges decide cases correctly and the ability of clerks to participate directly and substantially in shaping the law.
Lakshmi Reddy is now Judge Lakshmi Reddy, having been elected judge of a trial court with general jurisdiction in Terre Haute, Indiana, last fall.
JUDGE SOMERS: That is a difficult question. I have had many excellent clerks in my years as a judge. Our situation at the Civilian Board is somewhat unique in that we have 16 judges but each judge does not have his or her own law clerks. Instead, we have a pool of law clerks who perform work for individual judges as needed under the broad coordination and supervision of our chief counsel. This allows the law clerks the opportunity to work with more than one judge on a variety of matters, providing a broad experience in different judges’ styles and methods of case work. This also results in each judge having the opportunity to work with many more law clerks than is probably typical.
Even given this larger pool of clerks, one does stand out. As an avid endurance runner, I value perseverance and determination. A former law clerk who really impressed me held a full-time job while working at the Board and yet was able to produce top quality work product that was always on time. She was determined to get the most out of all opportunities she had been given, from law school to the clerkship to the job. In the process, and out of necessity, she developed outstanding time-management skills. While clerking at the Board, she also approached me for career advice, which I am always happy to provide to my clerks and students. After witnessing her diligence, and her commitment to excelling at all of her responsibilities, I suggested to her that she might be a good fit for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. I was very pleased when she followed my suggestion and I was even more pleased when she was accepted by the Air Force JAG Corps, which always chooses from a highly competitive pool. She has kept in touch and tells me that she is now stationed in Germany and is enjoying an interesting and challenging position.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: They have all been impressive, and their command of electronic research resources is astounding! Yet, one who stands out is a woman who brought extraordinary common sense and logical reasoning to her work. She would think through the big picture of the legal issue at hand, yielding perspective that helped me better analyze the law and its application to specific case facts. And, since this law clerk was so adept at communicating her thoughts and judgment well, it ended up saving me time in analysis and deliberation. This law clerk brought an intellectual maturity and seasoning that often takes year for lawyers to attain.
What are some common mistakes you’ve seen in applications that students should avoid?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: I am not impressed when an applicant hand-scrawls the addresses on the outer envelope transmitting an application. It is unprofessional and communicates that an applicant may lack sound judgment or may not be attentive to detail. Type the address labels.
Another seemingly minor (but potentially telling) point: On the envelope, the judge should be addressed as “Hon. First Name Last Name” or “The Honorable First Name Last Name” (not “Hon. Judge First Name Last Name” or “The Honorable Judge First Name Last Name”). On the other hand, the greeting in the letter should read: “Dear Judge Last Name:” (not “Dear Honorable Judge Last Name:” and not “Dear Honorable Last Name:”). Similarly, in conversation with the judge (e.g., in an interview), an applicant should refer to the judge as “Judge” or “Your Honor.” And, in conversation with members of the judge’s staff, an applicant should refer to the judge as “the Judge” or “Judge Last Name.” By properly addressing the judge in correspondence and in conversation, an applicant demonstrates that he/she has a measure of sophistication and reinforces that he/she is attentive to detail.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: Often students are too wordy in describing their past positions (such as listing all the tasks they completed there.) They should be mindful of the need to keep the résumé user-friendly–readable by busy people. It is important to communicate what type of positions have been held, but effort should be trained on doing that in a lean manner.
JUDGE SOMERS: A key mistake I’ve seen is applicants who cannot discuss the writing sample they submitted. If it was prepared a while ago, reread it before the interview, nothing is more awkward (and devastating to credibility) than the candidate saying to me in an interview that he or she doesn’t really recall what that wiriting sample was about–and, yes, this has happened.
What is your process for selecting clerks?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: I have a wide network of trusted contacts (mostly law professors and other judges) who regularly refer candidates to me. I keep a personal file of such applications and a separate file of the hundreds of unsolicited applications that I receive every year. When I get ready to conduct interviews, I review the information that I have on candidates in my personal file, and my current law clerks review all of the unsolicited applications that we have received and narrow those down to 25 or so, which I then review with my law clerks to winnow the 25 or so down to a more manageable number. Applicants are interviewed first by my law clerks, and then meet with me.
In recent years, I have also begun asking each interviewee to complete a basic writing exercise after the interview process (but before leaving the courthouse), to give me a better sense of the applicant’s basic writing and proofreading skills. Writing samples are a good means of excluding applicants; if an applicant’s writing sample is bad (i.e., poorly drafted or riddled with typos and grammatical errors), it is a safe bet that the applicant is not a good writer/proofreader. But the opposite is not necessarily true. In other words, it is not safe to assume that an applicant with a good writing sample is a good writer/proofreader. I have learned through painful experience that, in many instances, applicants’ writing samples are so heavily edited and proofread that they bear no relationship to the applicants’ actual writing/proofreading abilities. The writing exercise helps me screen out the applicants whose writing samples do not accurately reflect their work.
My law clerks and I discuss initial impressions of each applicant after his/her interview is complete and we have had a chance to review his/her work product from the writing exercise. But we defer the decision-making process until after all interviews have been completed. Although the ultimate decision is (of course) mine, I give great weight to my law clerks’ views. We generally reach a consensus fairly quickly. I always check references before extending an offer, and, if we are having difficulty deciding between two candidates, the reference checks will be decisive.
I am mindful of diversity in hiring. Gender diversity is not much of an issue, but racial/ethnic diversity is more troublesome. Part of the problem is that there are relatively few lawyers of color practicing in international trade and related fields. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. We all need to be doing more to address the issue.
JUDGE SULLIVAN JR.: I selected clerks in different ways. Most frequently, I selected clerks following on-campus interviews at the four law schools in Indiana. This procedure is not followed by many judges but is one that I found not only valuable but invigorating–keeping me in contact with a substantial number of law students each year. Almost as frequently, I hired several students to be my clerks on the basis of recommendations either from current clerks who knew the students as underclassmen while in law school or from former clerks who interviewed the students for positions in their firms and thought I might be interested in them as clerks. I hired one clerk on the basis of a recommendation from a professor I knew at a law school far from Indiana for whom she served as a student research assistant. I hired one clerk after viewing his performance winning his law school’s moot court competition of which I was one of the judges. I hired two clerks whom I met in the ABA Judicial Clerkship Program. I hired one student to be my clerk who had been referred by an outstanding law professor–who also happened to be the student’s mother!
JUDGE CLARKE: My current law clerk and administrative assistant review the volume of letters and résumés we receive and narrow them down to about 15. I then review the 15, discuss [impressions with my clerks], and determine which 5 or 6 to interview. When the applicant comes in for the interview, he or she first meets with my administrative assistant and current law clerk, then with me. After the interview, I meet with my law clerk and administrative assistant to discuss the applicant. A decision is made after all have been interviewed and references checked. I usually give preference to applicants from my law school, then interns, then ABA/JD Judicial Clerkship Program participants.
JUDGE SCIEZINSKI: In my judicial district, we contract with one law clerk for a one-year term, typically running August 1 through July 31. The clerk offices in one courthouse, and serves 6 circuit-riding judges who cover 10 rural counties. Our administrative office advertises the position, collects the applications, commits the basic backgrounds to a spreadsheet, and coordinates the interviews of the 6 to 8 candidates who show the most promise for our assignment. All the judges participate in reviewing applications of the candidates to be interviewed, and are personally involved in the interviews. Typically, the choice is reached by consensus of the judges. It’s a deliberative process that involves the diverse perspectives and priorities of the judges around the table. The priorities that vary in rank include: academic success, writing experience and ability, interpersonal communication skills, and balance of life experiences.
What specifically do your clerks do while on the job?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: As soon as a case is assigned to my chambers, I assign the case to one of my law clerks. That law clerk is then responsible for managing all aspects of the case from that point forward, through final disposition–tracking all deadlines; reviewing all papers filed by the parties; making recommendations concerning how to rule on routine motions, as well as applications for preliminary injunctions, and other more unusual non-dispositive motions; preparing me for oral argument on dispositive motions (e.g., motions to dismiss, motions for summary judgment, and motions for judgment on the agency record) or the occasional bench trial; and researching and drafting an opinion in the case.
In addition, once a year or so (on a rotating basis), our chambers are responsible for “motions part” for a month, which is a little like being the “doctor on call” on top of our regular caseload. As “motions part” judge, we must handle all papers in unassigned cases (i.e., cases that have not yet been assigned to a judge). Although it is difficult to predict what will land on my desk as “motions part” judge, often we must deal with some hotly contested emergency matters in very high-profile cases.
JUDGE SOMERS: As I mentioned earlier, our law clerks work in a pool under the broad supervision of our chief counsel, and do substantive work for any of our 16 judges. At any given time, a law clerk is likely to have a variety of assignments from different judges. One judge may have a clerk drafting a statement of facts drawn from a transcript of a hearing, while another judge may have her clerk researching the case law on a specific legal question that has arisen in a case, while a third judge may have a clerk assisting him in conducting a mediation.
Personally, I have found that the most efficient use of a law clerk’s skills in my chambers is to have him or her research specific questions of law and draft memoranda citing precedent so I can use that precedent in my opinions. This is a collaborative effort, and I encourage the law clerk to seek further guidance, as necessary, throughout their research and writing process.
JUDGE CLARKE: Research, draft opinions, prepare memoranda for upcoming cases, and manage case files as they are brought to chambers.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: Often, the clerk is asked to sit in on arguments over a felony suppression issue, a civil summary-judgment motion, or a judicial review of an administrative decision, then study the pleadings, research the law, analyze the legal issues, and draft a proposed ruling. The clerk also will be asked to produce memos on legal issues–perhaps evidentiary issues anticipated at trial, or an emergency request for research while a trial is going on. Some judges engage the clerk to help prepare presentations for continuing judicial education, or public outreach. The law clerk also gets involved in proofing judges’ own rulings, or confirming legal citations or case record quotes. Our court is one of general jurisdiction, involving 10 different communities, and so the legal issues and the people we work with and for, are quite diverse.
Once they’ve landed the clerkship, what is your main advice to ensure they have a successful experience?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: It’s all about attitude. Jump in with both feet! Carpe diem. A clerkship isn’t even a “once-in-lifetime” experience; it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” experience that very, very, very, very, few lawyers ever get to have. Any new lawyer fortunate enough to secure a clerkship should vow to squeeze as much out of the experience as possible. For the one or two years of your clerkship, dedicate yourself to working as hard as you possibly can and learning as much as you possibly can. Your investment will be returned to you many times over. You will earn the trust and confidence of the judge; and, in addition, you will develop excellent skills and work habits, and a great network of contacts, all of which will serve you very well for the rest of your career (and your life).
If you view the clerkship as just a “job,” you not only disappoint the judge, you also deprive some other young lawyer of the clerkship that you are wasting, and you squander the opportunity for the extraordinary one-on-one training and mentoring that are the hallmarks of a judicial clerkship.
JUDGE SOMERS: Communication about the progress of all assignments is integral to a successful clerkship. Because the clerk is working on legal issues stemming from live cases before the judge, any delay in completing an assignment may affect the timeliness of the case’s resolution. It is up to the clerk to proactively communicate status of all assignments, as well as to seek feedback and guidance whenever the clerk is unsure of something. Nothing is more frustrating for all involved than to receive a work product that represents days or weeks of work by the clerk only to find it is unusable because the clerk was unclear on what was expected.
Apart from the interactions the clerk will have with the judges, it is also important to get to know the people outside of the judge’s chambers. The court support staff has a lot of experience and can be extremely helpful. A successful clerk should build a rapport with them and always treat them as professionals.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: The law clerk must develop self-confidence and keep the lines of communication open in issues of triage: managing an unpredictable and varying workload, coming as it does from multiple judges who all believe their tasks are the most important. The judges are, alas, all reasonable people who are empathetic with the pressures the clerk faces. In my experience, conflicts with project deadlines are readily resolvable with the clerk’s timely attention to them, and with open communication about them. We have a great team of judges to work with!
What do you see as the most challenging and, alternatively, rewarding aspect of clerking in your courtroom?
JUDGE RIDGWAY: The most challenging aspect of clerking on the US Court of International Trade is the complexity of the work, much of which is fiercely contested, high-stakes, “bet-the-farm” litigation. And, of course, every case is international in scope. It is not unusual for a case to involve three or more parties, and six or more distinct issues. In many cases, the administrative record runs into the tens of thousands of pages, and, to understand a case, it is often necessary to master relevant economic and accounting doctrines and principles, as well as the operations of some particular industry and the structure of the economy of one or more foreign countries at issue. All in all, it can be quite daunting.
On the other hand, this is the only court in the country where a law clerk can have a steady diet of nothing but international cases. It is definitely exciting to know that, by definition, every single opinion that we issue has an immediate impact in one or more foreign countries.
In addition, wrestling one of these extraordinarily complex cases to the ground infuses a young lawyer with self-confidence. You quickly learn that, if you really push yourself, you can do much more than you think you can do, which is a very valuable lesson for a young lawyer.
JUDGE SOMERS: The most challenging aspect of a clerkship in my chambers is the specialized, complex subject matter with which the Civilian Board deals. Many students do not take government contracts courses while in law school and the process of familiarizing themselves with the area of government contracts can be arduous. I am always delighted when I see a clerk who did not have much familiarity with the subject matter at the beginning of the clerkship develop real interest, knowledge, and skill in it by the end of the clerkship. The most rewarding aspects of the clerkship are strong research and writing skills, lasting professional connections (even friendships), and pride in the fact that the clerk served to aid the administration of justice.
JUDGE CLARKE: The most challenging is the volume of work. Additionally, in my court, cases are not assigned to a judge for trial until 2:30 p.m. the day before, with some exceptions. Therefore it is sometimes a challenge to get cases prepared for the next day, particularly if there are a lot of cases or many issues to resolve before trial starts. The most rewarding part is the opportunity to understand what judges are looking for in pleadings, meeting the other judges in the courthouse, and observing good lawyering (and bad), so the law clerk will know what to do and what not to do when practicing law.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: The most challenging piece of the clerkship is having to juggle assignments from multiple judges who are often working only remotely (through email or telephone) with the clerk. The most rewarding part, would also be working with a variety of judges, which enriches the experience and equips the clerk with even more perspective and skill.
Most surprising or little-known fact about judicial clerkships:
JUDGE RIDGWAY: Unless they do a judicial clerkship, young lawyers cannot really grasp just how intimate the law clerk-judge relationship can be, or the extent to which the judge values a law clerk’s input (provided, of course, that the law clerk has devoted sufficient time and attention to the case). The first time I consult a new law clerk about how to rule on an issue or a case, the law clerk is often incredulous. Some have actually said something like “Why would you listen to me?” Why would you care about what I think?”
JUDGE SULLIVAN JR.: One surprising or little-known fact about judicial clerkships is the two intersecting networks of which a clerk becomes a part. One of those networks consists of all of the lawyers who have clerked for the clerk’s judge. In the case of my clerks, that’s a network of 28 clerks. A second network consists of all of the lawyers who clerked at the court at the same time for both the clerk’s judge and the other judges on the court. At our court, which had five justices, each of whom generally had two clerks at any one time, this amounted to an additional network of between 9 and 18 clerks. I’ve seen some remarkable and enduring friendships develop in respect of both of these networks.
JUDGE CLARKE: The relationship with the judge and the previous law clerks is like one big family.
JUDGE SCIESZINSKI: Clerks get to see a wide array of practice styles among attorneys (and judges, for that matter) and can pick up priceless dos and don’ts in the process. The variety of practice styles also reinforces students’ confidence that they can bring their unique personalities and bundle of skills to the practice of law, and be successful.
Compiled by Darhiana Mateo Téllez, managing editor of Student Lawyer. She would like to thank Henry Tran, 3L at Northeastern University in Boston and national student liaison to the ABA Judicial Division Council, for his assistance with this article.
Vol. 43 No. 7
Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.