Interviews & Offers
The time period in which offers are made is very constricted. You may receive an offer from one judge before you hear from another judge whom you would prefer. Judges often expect very quick responses to their offers; some have even been known to extend offers at the interview and to expect an answer then and there. It is important to be prepared for what may become a pressured decisionmaking process. As you go through that process, please know that we at Penn Law are here to help you as you navigate the process, and we encourage you to reach out to any member of the Clerkship Committee if you need advice; if you have trouble reaching us and the matter is time-sensitive, you can always try Prof. Struve’s work number – 215-898-7068 – which forwards to her during daylight hours. Here are some points to consider in advance.
As discussed in an earlier section (see Devising a Judicial Clerkships Application Strategy), before applying to a judge you will have researched the judge, court, and location, and you will have concluded that, based on what you know from this basic research, you would happily accept a clerkship with that judge. Once a judge offers you an interview, that is your cue to deepen your research about that particular judge. If you have not already done so, you should now talk with people who know what this judge is like. That might include your fellow students; your mentors from a summer job; Penn alums, or others, who have clerked for this judge, or who have clerked for a judge in the same courthouse; and your faculty recommenders.
Keep in mind that the work environment for clerking is different from most other employment settings, as you will be working in a relatively closed environment with a small number of colleagues. The tone and culture of your workplace is heavily influenced by the judge and his or her personality and expectations. This makes it all the more important to learn about these less tangible but important aspects of your work experience.
As recent events have underscored, abusive behavior – including harassment and bullying – can occur in any type of workplace, including a judicial chambers. And the dynamics of a judicial chambers may make it particularly likely that such behavior could be unknown to outsiders. Thus, we would like to emphasize that you should not hesitate to withdraw your application or, if given an offer, to decline the offer, if during your research or during or after your interview you develop cause for concern about the workplace experience in a particular judge’s chambers. The vast majority of clerkships provide wonderful work experiences, but even the judiciary is not immune from bad actors. And in the event that you encounter harassment or other abuse, either during the application process or in a clerkship itself, please remember that that Penn Law stands ready to be a resource to you. In addition, in the federal courts, the Office of Judicial Integrity has information on reporting harassment here and the on contacts for several circuit courts for reporting harassment are here. Many state courts have comparable processes as well.
Even apart from concerns about the workplace environment, we realize that you also will likely have preferences as among the judges to whom you have applied. If you receive multiple invitations to interview, you should try (diplomatically) to schedule the interviews with your most-preferred judges earlier than those with other judges.
Once you get one interview in a location of your choice (if it is at some distance) it is appropriate to call the other judges in the area to let them know you will be traveling to that location. Knowing you will be available may cause a judge to offer you an interview.
When granted an interview, you will often encounter the following procedure: you will be introduced to the staff of the office and will spend some time with the judge’s clerk/clerks before talking with the judge. This is part of the interview. Be gracious with the staff. Often the members of a judge’s staff have been working with the judge for years and they are very close. In many cases the clerks have a good deal of say in the decision-making process. They are meeting with you not as a confidante but rather as an evaluator.
For clerkship interviews scheduled after January 1, 2020, financial support for travel to interviews is available for current students based on financial need. For car, bus, or train travel, the school will reimburse up to $90 for each trip. For interviews that require air travel, the school will reimburse up to $300 for each trip. We expect that students will use less expensive means of travel whenever feasible, and will reserve trips in advance to keep costs to a minimum. Please note, this funding will not be available for any interviews with federal judges which do not comply with the Federal Law Clerking Hiring Plan. To submit a request for reimbursement, please click here. (Please check with Chris Fritton to see if you qualify before submitting this request.) Please contact Chris Fritton with any questions.
Preparing for Interviews
As noted above, the interview process will provide you with an opportunity to learn more about the work environment in a given judge’s chambers. The interview is also, of course, your opportunity to persuade the judge to hire you. The discussion below is designed to help you with the latter task.
Be prepared for your interview! Some students suggest reading some of the judge’s recent opinions to use them as a topic of conversation. (We are not suggesting that you be prepared to talk about the case at the level the judge will be; rather, we are suggesting that you use your knowledge of the case as a starting point for questions and conversation.) Be sure to have thoughtful questions to ask of the clerks. Try to gather information about the judge’s interests and be prepared to speak about them. Bring out any ties you may have to the judge — undergraduate school, law school, interest in the same legal field (e.g. he or she was a prosecutor before going on the bench). Remember that you will be working closely with the judge; any personal connections you can make will be valuable.
Remember, clerkship interviews are not like other interviews. In other interviews, the goal is often to avoid negatives, and it is okay to fish around for an area of mutual interest during the course of the interview. In clerkship interviews, it is a given that the judge will have more qualified applicants than they have slots. Your goal is to emphasize your positives as much as possible. In short, you need to know as much about the judge that you will typically know at the end of the interview before you even walk through the door.
To do this you need to do some research. Your best source of information is former clerks. Contact any Penn grad who clerked on the same court or in the same courthouse. They probably have had some exposure to the judge and probably know some of his former clerks. You should also mine any former summer colleagues, college alums, and any other contacts you may be able to find. Contact information for former Penn Law clerks, clerkships surveys and interview surveys can be found in Researching Judges.
You should also prepare answers to classic interview questions. Why do you want to clerk? Why did you go to law school? What was your favorite class and why? Who was your favorite professor and why? Where do you see yourself in ten years? Do you have any questions for me? Bear in mind that good interviewing technique is to ask open ended questions and allow the interviewees’ answers to display their thoughtfulness and maturity (or lack thereof). Please also try to work up answers that are not so generic that any applicant could be giving them to any judge.
Avoid answers that focus on why the clerkship would be good for you. You need to spend every moment in the interview trying to sell your candidacy.
Many judges like to discuss a substantive area of the law. They usually pick something you purport to know about. You need to go through your resume and remind yourself of your note topic, moot court topic, any other major writing. Many questions (like what was your favorite class) are often opportunities for you to set the agenda yourself. Make sure you use it wisely. Also, resumes are often museums of items that you have forgotten are there. Go through each line and make sure that you have at least a 2-3 sentence comment on each one.
Make sure to keep your answers short and have a conversation. Dialogue is more interesting than monologue, and judges tend to be gauging what it would be like to have you in chambers. Follow the lead of your judge’s interviewing style. If she’s formal and business like, act the same. If he’s relaxed and informal, relax yourself (but not too much).
Lastly, find out during the interview what the judge’s timetable is for making a final decision. Again, some judges will make an offer at the end of the interview. Sometimes the judge will ask you not to accept another job without calling first. This is not an offer, nor is it necessarily likely to lead to an offer, although it sometimes does. If you agree to phone the first judge, and are then offered a clerkship by a second judge, you should, of course, honor your agreement to call the first judge before accepting the second. Should this happen, you can allay any concern of the subsequent judge that you are not truly interested by explaining your interest in honoring your commitment to call the first judge before accepting the second judge’s offer.
Questions You May Be Asked
- What drew you to law school?
- Why do you want to clerk?
- Why do you want to clerk on this (level/type) court?
- How does a clerkship fit into your future goals?
- Where geographically do you want to practice?
- Do you have any ties to this community?
- What do you hope to gain from a clerkship?
- What areas of law interest you?
- What interests do you have outside of the law?
- What has been your most difficult law school class?
- What has been y our most/least favorite course?
- What other courses do you plan to take?
- Have you participated in moot court, trial advocacy, clinics?
- What type of research and writing have you done in law school and in your work experiences?
- How do you approach researching an issue you know nothing about?
- Tell me about your journal experience.
- Why did you choose the topic you did for your comment/paper? What was your thesis/position?
- Who is your favorite Supreme Court Justice and why?
- What is your most/least favorite Supreme Court decision and why? How would you have decided it?
- Do you prefer to work with others or independently?
- Are you comfortable under pressure and juggling many tasks? What experiences have you had like this?
- If I asked you to write a draft opinion with which you disagreed, how would you handle it?
- Why do you want to work for me?
- To what other judges/courts have you applied? Why did you choose them?
- What qualities do you have which will make you a good law clerk?
- Why are you the best candidate for this clerkship?
- Do you fell you could evaluate cases impartially given your personal views?
- Tell me everything you know about me.
- Have you read any of my opinions? Which ones?
- Do you have any questions for me?
Questions To Ask the Judge or Clerks
One of the most frequently mishandled opportunities in many interviews occurs toward the end of the interview when the judge may ask you, “Do you have any questions for me?” This is an open opportunity for you to steer the discussion in a particular direction. You should go to an interview with a plan of how to make the most of it.
Think in advance of questions that would highlight aspects of your candidacy that may not have come out in the interview. Possible directions include a question that highlights a point of commonality between you and the judge, initiates a conversation on a subject about which you are knowledgeable and in which you know the judge is interested (such as by asking them about an opinion the judge wrote), or signals to the judge your long-term career goals (particularly if you aspire to a career path similar to the one followed by the judge with whom you are interviewing). The specifics vary widely with each applicant. If you are well prepared, your questions should vary with every judge.
As noted earlier, you should not use these questions to obtain information about the clerkship or about the judge. Every moment in the interview should be used to further your candidacy and should be focused on why hiring you would be good for the judge, not why clerking would be good for you. You should also avoid questions that any applicant could be asking of any judge, as these will do nothing to further your candidacy.