Introduction to Judicial Clerkships: Part II (Page 1 of 3)
September 13, 2012 at 2:06 PM
This post will highlight advice and experiences of SCU Recent Alumni, including:
* The Skills You Need as a Judicial Clerk
* Distinguishing Yourself on Your Application
* Things You Should Know About a Clerkship Before Applying
Featured Interviewees and Clerkship Positions Held:
Phillip Lee, SCU Law Class of 2008 – U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, 2010-2011; U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, 2012-Present.
Kent Shum, SCU Law Class of 2008 – U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
1. What type of work did you do, and how did you manage your schedule?
Phillip: Law clerks generally live and breathe legal research and drafting opinions. Oftentimes, a law clerk’s schedule is dictated by the chambers’ docket. As a result, you manage as you go. There are times when you will work “law firm” hours, and during other times, the hours are very manageable.
Kent: The court is constantly flooded with motions and papers from hundreds of active cases. Law clerks must review the parties’ positions, research applicable law, analyze the issues, and draft orders responding to the motions and papers. In terms of managing my schedule, there are no secrets. You just sit down, roll up your sleeves, and do the work.
2. How did you go about researching and choosing judges to apply to?
Phillip: After graduating in 2008, I submitted applications for clerkships all over the country until I was offered a position at a federal district court in 2010. During this period, the internet was my guide, and I was willing to go anywhere for a clerkship. So, I did not necessarily “choose” any particular judge.
3. What are some things a student should expect (or should know) before taking up a judicial clerkship?
Phillip: I think people underestimate the steep learning curve that comes with clerkships, especially in the busier courts. Please be mindful of this fact, and understand that you will be expected to be up to speed on varying areas of law in a limited period of time. Also, you will be working in a small office type environment consisting of law clerks, a judicial assistant, maybe a courtroom deputy, and the judge. Be respectful and nice to everybody.
Kent: I also agree that the initial learning curve is steep. But to alleviate some of that, I recommend taking drastic steps now to improve the quality of your writing. Most law students’ writing upon graduation is subpar. Of course, improvement cannot be had without having many substantive writing assignments. One way to shortcut that is to read and internalize books on legal writing from good legal writers. I highly recommend The Winning Brief by Bryan Garner.
4. What are some things you think current students should know about the application process?
Phillip: Oftentimes, it is a random process. Many judges turn to their network of colleagues, former colleagues, former law clerks, and friends for referrals. I do not think there is any standard rubric the judges apply in selecting candidates. Therefore, as with anything else, do not take rejections personally and stay motivated.
Kent: Many judges have their law clerks look over the applications before filtering them to the judge. And they will scrutinize them. Your writing in your application materials must be perfect! Even seemingly harmless things are red flags: bluebook errors; typos; stylistic problems; misspellings; formatting issues. These mistakes suggest that you are not the candidate the judge wants to hire.
5. How can students distinguish themselves in the application process?
Phillip: I tried to highlight certain aspects about my background that I thought were unique. For example, I practiced patent law before my clerkships and I was in the military before law school. For some judges interested in either or both, I may have caught their attention. In my experience, several judges were impressed enough to interview me, and two federal judges were impressed enough to offer me positions with their respective chambers. In addition, once you get the interview and during the interview itself, being sincere and genuine will take you a long way. Surprisingly, many candidates are anything but sincere and genuine.
Kent: Generally, all law clerk applicants are highly qualified. That doesn’t necessarily mean the top-ranked schools, or even the top grades. It may be that the applicant has a record of success, or perhaps the applicant is well-known for her diligence or creativity. Think Steve Jobs in his early days. But because most applicants are highly qualified, the distinguishing factor can be something else, such as a personal recommendation or connection.
6. What did you like most about the clerkship? What kind of skills did you gain by the end of the clerkship?
Phillip: At the district court, I was exposed to all aspects of trial court litigation. I learned a great deal about procedure, which I have come to value highly.
At the circuit court, parties are afforded essentially one opportunity to present their case orally and in writing. I find that the best attorneys are those who are able to appreciate the key legal and factual issues that are most pertinent to the appeal. Understanding the difference between the most important issues versus those that are superfluous or cumulative is the blueprint to a successful brief and oral argument.
My research and writing skills have improved exponentially since I became a law clerk. What I like most about my clerkships is the opportunity to observe and learn from some of the most exceptional people in our profession. The judges that I have had the honor of serving have become great mentors and role models. Also, I have had the pleasure of meeting many brilliant law clerks, some of whom I now refer to as friends.
Kent: Being on the inside is a unique experience not available at law firms. The quantity and quality of work serves to sharpen one’s writing and wits. But what I find most interesting, are the lawyers that pass through. We see many lawyers---both good and bad. And the vast majority of lawyers; along with their briefs; are bad. In instances where the lawyer is particularly bad, it can be quite entertaining. You learn what not to do from bad lawyers, and what to do from good lawyers. You also learn that it is quite easy to identify good lawyers from bad lawyers---read their briefs (or hear their oral arguments)! Some lawyers may have some great marketing to suggest that they are great. But the proof really is in the pudding.
Thank you to the Santa Clara Law Alumni who generously contributed to this blog post!