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Types of Judicial Clerkships

In considering a clerkship, you will want to think about the type of experience you are seeking. Generally, there are three types of clerkship experiences:

  • Trial Courts - Busy, fast-paced clerkship with much of your time spent in court observing trial lawyers in action. Time out of court spent researching and drafting memos, jury instructions, orders and draft opinions.
  • Appellate Courts - Smaller number of cases with more in-depth opinions written. In-court time involves observing formal oral arguments. Out-of-court time involves reading the record below and briefs submitted on appeal; writing memos and proposed draft opinions.
  • Specialty Courts - Courts of limited jurisdiction specializing in a particular type of case or controversy.  Work may involve either trial or appellate work.

A. Federal Courts

1. United States Supreme Court, Circuit Courts, District Courts

  • United States Supreme Court: The nine Justices of the Supreme Court hire their clerks far in advance, usually a year and a half or so before the Court term of the Clerkship. The retired justices also hire one clerk each.  US Supreme Court clerks have almost always obtained a clerkship prior to applying for their Supreme Court clerkship, most often in a distinguished Circuit Court or, in rare cases, in a state supreme court or a federal district court. Many Justices take several clerks with work experience after law school.  If you are interested in applying to the USSC, please see Applying to the Supreme Court of the United States.
  • Circuit Courts: There are currently thirteen Circuit courts throughout the country, eleven geographically defined Circuits, the D.C. Circuit, and the Federal Circuit.  Judges appointed to the Circuit Courts can sit anywhere within that geographic Circuit; although they may hold chambers in a central location, many judges also maintain a chambers closer to their residence and may travel for oral arguments (adding, in some cases, the benefit of some travel to the clerk’s schedule).
  • District Courts:  The federal trial courts, which try cases in all areas of federal jurisdiction not designated to a specialty court, are dispersed widely throughout the country.

2. Specialty Federal Courts 

  • Bankruptcy Courts -  District Courts refer all cases arising under the Bankruptcy Code to the Bankruptcy Court. 
  • The US Court of Federal Claims - This Court, which sits in Washington, DC, has jurisdiction of claims against the US.  These often involve government contract cases, tax cases, Fifth Amendment taking claims, some patent claims, Native American cases, and government personnel cases.
  • The Court of International Trade - This Court, which sits in New York City, has jurisdiction over cases concerning imports, their valuation, and their classification.
  • Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit - This Court has jurisdiction over appeals from District Courts in cases involving patents and certain claims against the US, and from the US Court of Federal Claims, the Court of International Trade, the Court of Veterans Affairs, the Merit System Protection Board, the Patent and Trademark Office, boards hearing government contract cases, and some additional Article I agencies.
  • The US Tax Court - This Court, which principally sits in Washington, DC but has a field office in Los Angeles and conducts trial sessions throughout the country’s major cities, has jurisdiction over controversies involving decisions of the Commissioner of Internal Revenue on income, estate, and gift taxes, with some additional jurisdiction in particularized tax matters.
  • Administrative Law Judges: - Some Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”) for various government agencies also hire law clerks. These positions can be rewarding for graduates with a defined interest in a particular area of practice. For a list of agencies whose ALJs hire clerks, please click here.

For links to these courts please click here.

3. Other Federal Court Options

  • Magistrate Judges - The federal system has magistrate judges, appointed by the District Court, to handle certain tasks for that court, such as conducting preliminary hearings in criminal cases, trying misdemeanor cases, hearing discovery motions in civil actions, and trying civil actions when the parties consent. The responsibilities of each magistrate judge are described by the appointing District Court, and these responsibilities can vary widely.  Many magistrate judges hire law clerks, and some of them are hard to distinguish from District Judges in terms either of ability or of the work they perform. You may want to consult with the chambers to learn more about the matters handled before deciding to apply to any particular magistrate judge.
  • Pro Se Clerkships - Most federal courts have a Pro Se office which assists poor litigants who are appearing without counsel. A Pro Se clerkship can be a valuable experience for someone considering public interest law who seeks inside experience with federal courts and contact with federal judges.

B. State Courts

The state court systems vary for each of the 50 states. The trial courts are sometimes defined jurisdictionally, with family courts handling domestic matters, chancery courts hearing corporate and transactional matters and criminal courts for prosecutions. Appellate courts, too, can have specialized jurisdiction; in Pennsylvania, for example, the Commonwealth Court is an intermediate appellate court with jurisdiction over appeals of administrative orders and trials, while the Superior Court hears appeals of other civil matters as well as criminal and family matters.

State court systems vary in the method of judicial selection.  In many states, judges are elected; in others, they are appointed by the Governor or some other elected official. State trial court caseloads are typically much greater than in the federal system, perhaps resulting in less time for careful consideration of legal issues. When looking for a state court clerkship, it is very important to seek input from local lawyers as to the nature of the court and the type of experience you can expect. To find alumni in jurisdictions of interest to you, click here

Many excellent clerkship opportunities are available in state court systems.  Many states’ highest level appellate courts are equal to the federal courts in the quality of work produced and the esteem in which the judges are held.  The Delaware Chancery Court is particularly prestigious for transactional lawyers.  State court clerkships at all levels can not only provide you with an excellent learning experience but can also introduce you to a legal community you might like to join and help you to develop contacts there.

For specific information about state court clerkships, please click here.

C. Senior Judges

Many courts have senior judges. These are judges who have reached a certain age and have either elected or were required to take senior status.  Some of these judges opt to take a reduced case load.  Others have the same work case load they had before they took senior status.  Most senior judges have at least one law clerk and many have several.  They offer excellent clerkship opportunities.

D. Staff Attorney Clerkships

Both federal and state courts often have “staff attorneys.” This team of lawyers works on issues assigned by the court. For example, the staff attorneys might research an area that has been presented to the court over and over again. They may prepare bench memos on these and other issues. The staff attorneys may be assigned to a particular judge as an auxiliary clerk on a complex matter. They may do research on administrative matters that could improve procedures for the court. A common responsibility of staff attorneys is to pre-screen pro se complaints, often filed by prisoners, to determine if they are meritorious.

These positions can be structured like a typical clerkship, with a limited term of employment, or they may be permanent positions that are filled only as vacancies in the staff arise.

Staff attorney positions offer very “clerk-like” experiences and should not be overlooked. Some federal Circuit Courts (notably, the Seventh, Fourth, and Fifth) have expanded their staff attorney offices as their work load has increased.  Job postings for staff attorney positions can now be found on OSCAR.