I am the first person in my immediate and extended family to attend law school. So, I had no idea that judicial clerkships existed, let alone that my application was being shaped the minute I walked into my first law school class. By the time I’d figured out what a clerkship is, that I wanted a clerkship, and what I needed to do to get one, I was well into my second year of law school and getting ready to put the actual applications together. I still managed to land a clerkship, but now I realize I could have been much more strategic, for better or worse, about the clerkship process. Here are two things that are critical in the clerkship application process and that I could have been more startegic about.
First, grades matter and there are things you can do to pump up your first and second year GPA that judges look at. Of course, entire books have been written about how to maximize your law school grades, but what I did not realize is that there are ways to plan out the classes you take and the order in which you take them that can tailor your grades to the clerkship application. For instance, if finance and accounting are not your strong points, then save the tax class until your third year when your clerkship applications have already been turned in. These kinds of tricks vary from school to school, but may be worth figuring out if you want to play the clerkship game. That said, I did not know about these strategies until the middle of my second year, and even then I chose to take the classes that I was most interested in at the time and I still got a clerkship.
Second, and probably most importantly, who you know matters. Judges get hundreds (were talking over 500) clerkship applications each year, and unlike the colleges and law schools we are all used to applying to, judges do not have an entire admissions staff to review these applications. So, many judges seem to rely heavily on personal references to help them sort through the stack of applications. Some judges only interview the applicants referred to them by a personal telephone call of certain law professors throughout the country, others accept calls from any recommender, and others turn to their current clerks for tips about the applicants. This is not to say that judges choose their clerks entirely on the basis of a personal recommendation, but it is often the first cut of the applicant pool. Any reasonable law student would look at this and decide that they need to go about networking and forming relationships with professors, students, and attorneys who know judges. However, this strategy can be difficult for some and is often discussed in gendered terms---women feel like they are “using” the people they get to know in order to get a recommendation and men feel like they “deserve” these recommendations. The gendered version of this strategy may be right, but for me, I think of it as a personal choice rather than succumbing to some natural instinct of my gender. I am a female, and I chose to get to know those professors and students and lawyers that I truly enjoy and that I hope to be like someday. Although none of my formal recommenders had direct connections to judges, I have formed life-long relationships with professors, students, and lawyers that I admire. In the end, I think my clerkship application was brought to the attention of my judge by a good friend of mine who is currently clerking for this judge. I did not ask her to do this, nor did I expect it from her, but I am convinced that when you form real relationships, your friends want to see you succeed and do what they can to make that happen.
In the end, both grades and who you know matter in the clerkship application process and you can be highly strategic about both. But, if law school for you is itself an end, rather than purely a means to a prestigious clerkship, you can live every law school decision to its fullest and still find your way to a clerkship.