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Devising a Judicial Clerkships Application Strategy

In deciding which judges to apply to, you should consider the following factors: 

  • Do you prefer appellate or trial court?
  • Once you have targeted a particular court or group of courts, which particular judge or judges are right for you?
  • What “type” of judge, intellectually, temperamentally, politically, and personally, are you looking for?
  • How free are you to consider less popular geographic areas where clerkships may be more available?
  • How competitive a particular clerkship is and what your chances are.

Researching Judges

It makes no sense to apply to a large number of unscreened judges whose names you have picked at random.  A well-researched judge list pays off. Chances are that judges you are more interested in will be more likely to be interested in you. In addition, careful research will avoid the problem many students have had when judges they were not as excited about gave them interviews and offers before judges that might have been a better fit even started their interviewing process. We have several resources listed in Researching Judges. There, you will also find a list of judges who have hired Penn clerks. However, do not limit yourself to these judges. Every year, judges who have not hired from Penn before do so.

In addition to our online resources, speak with 3Ls who will be clerking after graduation, recent graduates who are clerking or have clerked, your professors and lawyers at your summer employment.  (For a list of professors and staff who have clerked, click here.) Do not ask only about the judges they may have clerked for; ask if they have recommendations of other judges who could provide an excellent clerkship experience. Some questions you might ask are:

  • What is the judge’s personality like?
  • How is the judge viewed in the legal community?
  • Does the judge prefer clerks who agree with her or are willing to argue different views?
  • Does the judge have personal or political beliefs that affect his/her judging?
  • Is the judge close to or standoffish from his clerks?
  • What are the best/worst things about working for the judge?
  • How extensively does the judges edit and comment on the clerks’ writing?
  • What is it like living in (town/city/area)?
  • What hours do the clerks work?

For details on clerkship vacancies with particular federal judges, visit the Online System for Clerkship Application & Review (“OSCAR”). There, many judges will post their clerkship openings, will indicate whether they accept applications by mail, online or via email and, in many cases, will list exactly what application materials they wish to receive. Be aware, however, that not all federal judges use OSCAR to post clerkship openings. If there is a federal judge you would like to apply to who has not posted any information, we suggest you call chambers, be sure to mention that you first checked OSCAR and ask if the judge is hiring for the term.

Evaluate the Competitiveness of Particular Clerkships

The application process for clerkships is highly competitive. The number and quality of applicants for a given clerkship is a function of the particular judge’s reputation, the prestige of the court, the nature of the work, the relationship of the judge to his or her clerks, and the court’s location.

Circuit court clerkships are highly competitive, particularly in such traditionally esteemed courts as the Second, Third, Ninth, and District of Columbia Circuits. While any of a number of credentials, skills, or talents may spark a Circuit Court Judge’s interest, strong academic success is an essential.

District court judges also look for excellent academic achievement. In general, district court clerkships are quite competitive, though this varies from one court to another, and often from one judge to another. Some judges, particularly in the Northeast Corridor, California, and Chicago, receive hundreds if not over a thousand applications per year.

Several states’ highest level appellate courts are extremely competitive because of the reputation of the judges; Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York are included in this group. Again, you can safely assume that a clerkship with the highest level appellate court is more competitive than one with the state’s mid-level courts, which are in turn somewhat more competitive in most jurisdictions than a trial court clerkship.

Whatever the type of experience you seek, you can maximize your chances for a clerkship by expanding the group of judges you will consider. For the federal bench, this may mean looking at clerkships in geographic locations that do not attract an influx of candidates from top-tier law schools (i.e., non-Chicago Mid-West, South, Northwest, Southwest, or “up-state” locations in New York, Pennsylvania or other competitive states). Even if you feel sure that you do not want to “settle down” in a particular city, a one-year stay there in a rewarding clerkship can be an excellent experience. If you are eager to clerk, be open to out of the way locations.

Students should also consider clerkships with federal magistrate judges and bankruptcy judges, which are generally less competitive. Likewise, those interested in specialized careers should consider the specialty courts, such as the Tax Court, the Court of International Trade, or the Federal Circuit. Here, taking courses in the areas of these courts’ jurisdiction can improve your chances.

Finally, newly appointed judges may attract fewer applications and thus offer better opportunities. You can keep track of new appointments and confirmations by checking the web sites listed here.

How Many Judges?

Although we don’t limit the number of judges to whom you may apply, the Faculty Clerkship Committee expects that you will keep the number of your applications at a reasonable level and that you will do appropriate research before adding a judge to your list. Our hope is that you will not apply to a judge for whom you would not be willing to clerk (based on what you can discern from the paper record). Having said that, we also recognize that the process of learning about a given judge is just that – a process. There may be important things about a given chambers that you might not be able to discern from initial research and that you only learn as you conduct more focused research and outreach during your application process. Thus, we would like to underscore that you should not hesitate to withdraw your application or, if given an offer, to decline the offer, if during your research or in your interview itself you develop cause for concern about the workplace experience in a particular judge’s chambers. For further thoughts on this, please see “Interviews and Offers.”

Many students want to know if there is a “magic number” of applications they should send to give themselves the best chance of lining up a clerkship. We can’t provide that number. As is discussed above, some clerkships are more highly sought after than others and will have an extremely high number of applicants. Others, in areas around the country, will see fewer applicants. Another factor: some judges have a close relationship to the Law School and will give Penn Law applicants very serious consideration, while others may not have had much experience with Penn Law clerks.

In recent years, the number of judges to whom our students apply has averaged around 60-70. If you do your research carefully, you should feel comfortable applying within this range. In deciding on a specific number of judges for you, you will need to consider your competitiveness, your flexibility, and the cost of printing, mailing and potentially traveling to interview in one or more locations.