How to speak judge: an insider's guide to getting, and surviving, your clerkship
“A clerkship is a peek behind the kimono of the judicial system,” one of our junior associate sources sagely informed us. We at Chambers Associate wouldn't want you to be shocked by your first look at the hidden parts of the nation's federal and state courts. So here's some insider info for surviving the clerkship system, as gathered from a host of junior associates who've lived to tell the tale.
1. Ace the interview
“Make sure your application is absolutely perfect,” advised our sources. “The clerks took the first stab at going through the pile and even the most minor thing would get you knocked out because we had so many excellent candidates. It must be absolutely flawless.”
While some clerks experienced a soft ball interview “wanting to see if the personalities meshed,” others experienced a firmer pitch. One counselled that “they'll see through any fluffier classes you're taking, so make sure you do the nice tough ones.” Another advised that “they went through my references with a fine tooth comb so make sure the recommendations are really emphatic and great.”
“It's absolutely hands down the best way to start a legal career.”
This interview is followed by a session with the judge's existing clerks that's “really rigorous, sometimes more rigorous than with the judge!” They're likely to ask questions on specific points of law on your writing sample. This step is worth the bother, agree our sources: “It's absolutely hands down the best way to start a legal career.”
2. Respect the justice
Our sources were clear: “Mesh with the judge you're with: you spend so much time with them that you basically have to get on well.” One source explained that “You want to be extremely deferential and respectful, and to give him all the information he might need at his fingertips so he doesn't even need to question that he has everything he needs.” And although some judges might not be quite so strait-laced, it makes sense to be ready to grovel until they show they're happy to get slightly more pally.
“You're not working for a system, you're working for a person.”
3. Learn to speak judge
Meshing with your judge also means getting intimate with each justice's individual quirks and bugbears. As one philosophical junior expounded, “you're not working for a system, you're working for a person. There are humans behind all these systems and the quicker you realise that, the better you'll be and the better your relationship with your judge will be, too.” One source explained that “sometimes a judge likes to phrase things a certain way. Mine liked to use the phrase 'trial judge' instead of 'trial court' in memos, for example. He actually provided a memo on what some of his quirks were upfront, which was very useful.”
There's also plenty of opportunity to read between the lines of judgments, too. “You'd definitely notice in the language whether there was comfort or discomfort in what they were doing by how heavily they were relying on the standard of review. Sometimes you see phrases like 'we are constrained by the standard of review' which is basically saying 'Hey, we don't agree with what the trial judge did here!' That's a way of signalling they disagree with something on the facts.”
4. Cosy up to clerks
As one veteran of the system explained, “I think that because lawyers are competitive by nature you will inevitably have people trying to one-up each other and get in a judge's good graces.” But working closely with a judge's other clerks can be the key to surviving and thriving under pressure. Another source explained that “the other clerks and I edited 100% of each others' work before it went to the judge, as everything that goes out of chambers has to be perfect. It's important to be collaborative because it's a very challenging environment. One of your co-clerks might have experience in the area of law so you bounce ideas off each other.”
5) Actually, be excellent to everyone
Most judges have an administrative assistant that helps them out. Our sources warned clerks to “remember that that assistant is theirs, not yours.” So don't dump a pile of filing on their desk at 6pm. Another tip was to “remember that they've been there a while, so they're a wealth of information. And for an opinion to get out it takes all members of the team, so to the extent you can work collaboratively, it's incredibly valuable.”
6. A matter of opinion
Some judges lean on their clerks for a valuable second point of view, while others prefer to hear as few peeps as possible from their brood of junior lawyers. One source found that “you could express opinions on sentence structure or grammar, but not the direction of the opinion itself.” But others got far more experience, finding that “she generally had her mind made up, but she also wanted to hear all sides. She'd want us to play devil's advocate so she could understand the other party's position. Although that said we were still deferential, remembering that her vote counted the most.”
“The opportunities it affords you afterwards are definitely worthwhile.”
7. It's all worth it
Although clerking might mean tough times, low salaries, and none of the swanky perks of BigLaw life, none of our sources regretted their stint in the law courts. One source told us that “I know a lot of people are discouraged from going into the process of clerking because in law school you are told you will make a considerable salary and have a certain kind of comfortable lifestyle that going to government work won't give you. But the opportunities it affords you afterwards are definitely worthwhile.” Another junior lawyer felt that “you learn a tremendous amount in a short period of time and you really have a chance to see how things operate at court, which can be clouded by mystery.”
For a fuller run-down on the clerkship experience, check out our feature on Chambers Associate here and another on SCOTUS clerkships. Applications for clerkships are now open, via the centralized portal OSCAR.