Clerkship Study Alumni Clerk Findings

Courting Clerkships: The NALP Judicial Clerkship Study

Section 4. Findings of the Alumni Law Clerk Survey

Demographics of Law Clerk Respondents
Profile of Successful Characteristics
Decision to Apply for a Clerkship
Experience with the Application Process
Programs, Resources and Services Provided by Their Law Schools
The Judicial Clerkship Experience
Impact on Post-Clerkship Career
Additional Law Clerk Assessments of the Clerkship Experience


The final phase of the study, an examination of alumni law clerks, evaluated former and present law clerks' perceptions regarding the application process, the value of the judicial clerkship and its impact on their future careers. In addition, through qualitative comments the survey sought to capture the essence of the clerkship experience.

Of the approximately 4,000 alumni in the pool schools to whom the law clerk surveys were distributed, 931 alumni returned their completed surveys to NALP — an extraordinary return rate that approaches 24%. These data encompass a broad representation nationwide of law clerks from federal clerkships, state appellate and trial court clerkships, and clerkships in local jurisdictions.

Demographics of Law Clerk Respondents

The demographics of the law clerk respondents to the alumni survey appear in Table 46. The respondents are roughly equally divided between men and women; most are in the age range of 26-30 years, heterosexual, non-minority and non-disabled. As such, this distribution is closely similar to the demographics observed above for the student respondents who applied for a judicial clerkship; the only discernible differences of note are the slightly higher percentage of women and Asian/Pacific Islanders among the student group. (See Table 27.) A comparison to the general law clerk population from the class of 1998 finds our survey group to be fairly representative in its demographic composition as well. (See Table 2.)

The respondents to the alumni law clerk survey represent a broad cross-section of courts nationwide, as reported in Table 47. In the aggregate, 55% of these alumni clerked for federal courts and 40% for state courts, while 59% of these clerkships were at the trial level and 36% at the appellate level.

Table 48 presents a comparison of the demographics of the alumni law clerks by type of court. In Table 49, the demographics of these law clerks are arranged in further detail by level of court. Some interesting trends appear among these respondents, with proportionately more women represented from state, local and other courts and at the trial level, particularly magistrate, bankruptcy and other; and, conversely, more men in federal courts and at the appellate level. The highest percentage of Black/African American clerks in our sample come from local courts, and the highest percentage of Asian/Pacific Islanders from federal courts. A relatively high percent of these groups were found in bankruptcy courts as well.

When examined by court combination, similar patterns emerge in our group (see Table 50). In the aggregate, more of the women law clerks are from state courts and local trial courts, more Black/African American clerks are from local trial courts, and more Asian/Pacific Islander clerks come from federal appellate courts. Moreover, the predominant age category represented across courts is 26 to 30 years. These demographics essentially mirror the demographics in the general law clerk population as well.

In addition, Table 51 explores these demographics by the status of the judge for whom these alumni have clerked. Overall, almost three-quarters clerked for an active judge, 15% for a senior judge, and 10% for a chief judge. The gender distribution by judge varied; slightly more women than men clerked for the active judges, with these percentages reversed for the chief judges, and skewed more heavily towards men for the senior judges. The race/ ethnicity distribution of law clerks also showed an interesting and diverse mix, with a considerably higher representation of Asian/Pacific Islander clerks than other minority groups for the senior judges, a somewhat higher percentage of Hispanic/Latino clerks for the chief judges, and a broader variation among minority groups for the active judges.

Profile of Successful Characteristics

Law school activities reported by the alumni respondents confirm the demographic findings of the student survey as to the activities of those students who received a clerkship. A significant percent of these law clerks reported that they had "top grades/ high class rank" (49%), had been a teaching or research assistant (44%), were on the law review/ law journal (44%), and/or had significant professional work experience prior to law school (36%). These alumni mentioned other law school activities or characteristics with somewhat less frequency, and, once again, nearly one-third had a summer or academic year judicial intern/externship. (See Table 52.)

Only a relatively small percentage, 11%, of the alumni law clerks reported having a special connection to a judge while in law school. This fact provides further support for the findings of the student survey which found that, contrary to the perceptions among many of the students who did not apply for or receive a clerkship, very few of the students who applied and received an offer actually had a special connection to a judge (discussed above).

Interestingly, the views of the law clerks did not entirely coincide with those of the students and career services professionals with regard to the important factors in judges' selections of law clerks. Based on their past application experience and their observations as a law clerk, these alumni identified most often as "extremely important" to the judge the evaluation of the interview (81%) — even more highly than the academic record, which had received the strongest weight from their student counterparts (discussed above). (Of course, one must recognize that grades are an important component in obtaining this crucial interview.) According to the law clerks, second in importance were personal character traits. Rounding out the top five along with the academic record were "other" factors (e.g., maturity, personality, special skills) and law school attended. Faculty recommendations and writing samples were moderately important, consistent with the student evaluations as well. Not very important in the clerks' view were demographic characteristics and personal connection to the judge. (See Table 53.)

Decision to Apply for a Clerkship

These alumni law clerks distinctly recognized the value of a judicial clerkship in their initial decision to apply. Asked about their decision to clerk, these alumni provided nearly identical responses to the students who answered this query (discussed above). The factors that most influenced their decision to apply were the desire to gain the work experience of a clerkship (90%); the impact of a clerkship on their future career (82%); discussions with others, primarily lawyers in practice (66%); and the prestige of clerkships (64%). (See Table 54.) Judicial internships and externships appeared most often among the programs specified by these alumni as influencing their decision to apply for a judicial clerkship. Additional reasons cited were the flexibility of the clerkship term and hours, and the opportunity for a transitional year to decide future career plans, as well as a wide range of personal reasons.

In identifying the factors that influenced their decision to apply to particular courts, the law clerks named geographical considerations as the most salient (71%), desiring to clerk in the locale or court of their future practice. More than one-half looked to the level of the court (trial/appellate), while almost as many focused on the type of court (federal/state/local). Many linked their decision to their interests and future career plans (e.g., a particular area of the law, academia, appellate or trial work). Only 6% specified financial considerations in their selection of courts. (See Table 55 for the complete list of factors.) Once again these responses reflect substantially the identical factors emphasized by the student respondents (above).

Table 56 illustrates law clerk appraisals of the factors that influenced their selection of judges to whom to apply. Just as the students had, the law clerks selected as the most important the reputation of the judge (55%). Other significant factors identified by the law clerks were: the atmosphere in chambers/working conditions (52%); the length of the clerkship term (one year versus two year) (33%); and the mentor relationship (27%). Note that almost one-quarter of the students had cited as important that the judge previously hired clerks from their law school, whereas less than 10% of the law clerks named this factor. Considerably de-emphasized by the law clerks, as well as the students, were factors such as: personal connection to the judge (12%), political affiliation of the judge (11%), and race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability status of the judge (5%). (See also Table 36.) Geographic considerations appeared most often among the explanatory comments specified as their "other" reasons.

More than one-half (53%) of the law clerks concluded that their perception of their grades or another aspect of their law school record affected their selection of courts and judges to whom to apply. This figure was somewhat less than the response by the students who had applied for a clerkship, 61% of whom answered this question affirmatively. (See Table 37.)

In order to focus more closely on the financial factor, this survey asked the law clerks whether the costs related to the application process affected their choices. As appears in Table 57, the majority (67%) responded that costs did not affect their choices during the application process. A relatively small percentage, 17%, applied to fewer judges as a consequence of the cost, 16% applied or interviewed primarily with local judges, and 6% accepted fewer invitations to interview. Once again, the financial factor does not appear significant for the choices made by applicants during the clerkship application process; although, as discussed above, some students pointed to financial considerations (i.e., the salary differential) as a reason for their decision not to apply for a judicial clerkship in the first instance and others complained of the expense and difficulty of arranging their travel for interviews on short notice.

In sum, these findings from the alumni law clerk survey provide further substantiation of the student survey results in establishing the perceptions and factors most important to applicants in the clerkship process.

Experience with the Application Process

It is significant to observe that most of the alumni (70%) responded that in retrospect they would not have done anything differently in their application process. Of course, one would expect these alumni to express more satisfaction and fewer regrets, as they were successful in at least one of their applications. However, conversely almost one-third did acknowledge that they would have done something differently. Their substantive narratives revealed that many of them would have: applied to more judges or more broadly across the courts, applied sooner or started the application process earlier, built stronger recommendations from the faculty, pursued the clerkship more aggressively through phone calls to chambers, and/or researched more to try to obtain additional information about the judicial ideology and the atmosphere of different judges' chambers, particularly by talking to former clerks. One respondent commented: "I would have applied to more judges and not taken the risks that I did. This experience has been too valuable to risk not getting a clerkship I could have obtained."

A resounding majority (80%) of these alumni law clerks expressed basic satisfaction with the clerkship application process. Not surprisingly, this figure compares favorably with the highest satisfaction rate among respondents to the student survey, 64%, which occurred among those who experienced a successful application process and received a clerkship offer; and greatly surpasses the satisfaction rate of 58% among students overall. Perhaps even more than the success of their application, the passage of time and the experience of a judicial clerkship itself lessen the residual negative feelings generated by the clerkship application process. Some of the alumni law clerks voiced frustration through their explanatory comments:

  • "The process is a free-for-all. It encourages both applicants and judges to compete so aggressively that they break their word, behave aggressively, etc. and this was the year before the judges stopped following the agreement to not interview before March 1! The process desperately needs to be revised."

  • "The application process is absurd. Judges end up hiring on the basis of first year grades. Nobody has clinic experience etc. by the winter of second year, which is why there is an obscene amount of emphasis on where you went to school and your grades — no other distinguishing criteria are yet available. It results in qualified students not being hired and a complete lack of diversity."

  • "The process is too random. Selection is largely based on luck."

  • "It was chaos — it is much, much worse now without semi-uniform rules; it needs fixing."

  • "There are many things that should change. The process should be later in the year and should have some central controls."

Programs, Resources, and Services Provided by their Law Schools

In describing the level of assistance provided by their law schools overall during their clerkship application process, the alumni law clerks echoed in nearly identical percentages the findings from the student survey discussed above. Most of these alumni felt that they received adequate or very useful assistance in obtaining information or advice about their cover letter, resume, writing sample or letters of recommendation; and received adequate assistance in the area of interviewing. However, about 43% would have liked additional assistance from their law schools in collecting information or advice about the judges.

The Judicial Clerkship Experience

To discover the essence of the judicial clerkship experience, the survey asked these numerous law clerks to provide detailed information as to the skills, relationships and contacts that their clerkship helped enhance or develop, as well as the extent to which these enhancements met or exceeded their initial expectations.

Table 58 displays law clerk assessments of how their clerkship experience affected particular skills. The skills indicated by the largest percentage as most significantly enhanced were writing/drafting opinions or memoranda and knowledge of court procedure, and "other" skills (e.g., self-confidence, communication and supervisory skills, diplomacy, sense of social responsibility). Also listed by the majority as significantly or moderately enhanced were general knowledge/experience; general legal ability/judgment; legal reasoning and analysis; and knowledge of case law/statutes. More than half of these law clerks felt that they did not use or learn the skill of writing/drafting speeches or articles, while 40% answered this for settlement techniques, and almost one-quarter did so regarding a knowledge of administrative matters. Overall, the law clerks identified the acquisition of and improvements to a wide variety of legal and professional skills.

The extent to which the development of these skills met or exceeded their initial expectations varied somewhat for these law clerks. Table 59 presents a comparison of the development of these skills by court combination. While overall the substantial majority of law clerks, 63%, responded that they "strongly agree" that their clerkship met or exceeded their expectations in this regard, law clerks from federal trial and state trial courts exceeded this figure in their selection of this most positive response. Still, more than half of the federal and state appellate court clerks answered that they "strongly" agreed, while the bulk of the remainder said that they "somewhat" agreed that their clerkship met or exceeded their expectations in this area. Across court types, the substantial majority of law clerks (96% overall) felt that the skills gained in their clerkships met or exceeded their initial expectations.

A positive development of relationships and contacts also emerged from these findings. Table 60 illustrates law clerk assessments of the specific relationships that their clerkship helped them to develop or enhance. As expected, the relationships in their own judge's chambers — their judge (87%), the other law clerks (71%) and the administrative staff (67%) — proved to be the most significantly enhanced. In addition, they developed relationships with other chambers, most reporting that their relationships with other judges, law clerks, and court personnel were also moderately or significantly enhanced. Not as many expanded their contacts with attorneys or the staff from other chambers.

Overall, the development of these relationships for nearly half of the law clerks greatly exceeded their expectations, while almost as many "somewhat" agreed that these contacts met or exceeded their initial expectations. (See Table 61.) Across court types variations in this assessment can be observed. Trial courts (state and local) received the most positive assessment, with appellate courts (federal and state) receiving slightly lower assessments. According to the law clerks, the growth of these relationships, while positive as a whole, is not as striking as the dramatic enhancement of their skills.

First and foremost appears to be the development of their relationship with their judge. As illustrated in Table 62, nearly two-thirds of law clerks "strongly agreed" that their working relationship with the judge met or exceeded their expectations, and 28% "somewhat agreed" with that assessment. As with the development of skills and other contacts, a similar trend across the courts can be seen, with the highest ratings given by clerks for trial courts, followed by appellate courts. Most law clerks (90% overall) reported a relationship with their judge that met or exceeded their initial expectations.

According to one clerk, "In my view, the primary value of my clerkship is reflected in my answers [to this question]. These contacts and relationships played key roles in my decision to remain in the community, and were extremely helpful in securing my post-clerkship employment. In addition, these contacts and relationships have significantly increased my level of confidence when appearing in court with the same judges, attorneys, and court personnel."

Law clerks resoundingly gave their overall clerkship experience high marks. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being most positive, one third described their clerkship experience as a "10" and 95% rated it as 7 or above. (See Table 63.) When asked whether they would clerk again, a remarkable 97% responded in the affirmative.

The only disadvantage stated repeatedly was the relatively low salary compared to other legal positions, particularly in large law firms — although most stressed that the experience far outweighed the salary differential and enhanced their value to employers. Also mentioned as a potential negative was the individual temperament and personality of the judge, and an occasionally isolated work environment. A handful of clerks feared the delay of their entry into their legal practice, while about as many welcomed the extra time during their clerkship to decide their future career paths.

The law clerks expanded upon their predominantly positive view of their clerkship experience in their substantive comments, which included the following:

  • "My clerkship has helped my legal research and writing skills as well as my analytical abilities. It has also given me significant insight into the judicial process. The primary drawback is that my clerkship salary is about one third of what law firms in the same city are paying, making my substantial student debt obligations difficult to finance."

  • "I value this clerkship for the insight and practical experience it provides. I am enjoying it immensely, and, other than the short term financial drawbacks, I cannot think of a better place to be at this stage in my career."

  • "The clerkship provides valuable insights into the court's decision making process, and into what makes for good/bad lawyering."

  • "My clerkship has proven invaluable. I have learned aspects of law and advocacy that might have taken me years to learn elsewhere. Connection to judges or the court is a reward in itself."

  • "Clerking is an invaluable way to learn the law, but also to learn what matters in the law. I can't imagine starting my career without having clerked."

Impact on Post-Clerkship Career

Table 64 shows the career plans reported by the present and former law clerks immediately following their judicial clerkships. The majority, 60%, entered or will enter private practice in a law firm. A handful reported entering federal government and public interest law; interestingly, roughly the same portion, 6%, of these law clerks chose to pursue another judicial clerkship.

The survey asked clerks to assess whether the clerkship affected the degree of success obtaining their post-clerkship position. As appears in Table 65, almost half of the law clerks responded that their clerkship helped a great deal, while almost one-quarter stated that it helped somewhat. Just over one-quarter believed that the clerkship did not substantially affect this factor. In essence, no one reported that the clerkship negatively affected the post-clerkship employment search. One clerk exclaimed, "Without a doubt, my two years of clerking got me the job I'll start in the fall." Another law clerk explained:

  • "My clerkship made a palpable difference even before I start. I worked at a firm after my third year. When I did my job search, the same firms who had turned their noses up at me after my first year were pursuing me — the only real difference on my resume was the clerkship . . . Now, I feel like I know what bad lawyering works like, so, hopefully, I can avoid doing it; and I have seen examples of wonderful lawyering which I hope to emulate!"

The law clerks described how their employment plans changed as a result of their clerkship experience. Many commented that their clerkship made them rethink their long-term goals and gave them a recognition of opportunities within the field. They also cited an emphasis on quality of life issues, as well as consideration of personal happiness and the value of job satisfaction. In addition, many addressed their need for increased financial compensation and a pressure to enter private practice at the outset. Several indicated that the exposure to many attorneys and law firms helped them decide which firm to join. As a result of their clerkship, some reported a heightened interest in government or academia or new aspirations to the bench. As one respondent stated, the clerkship "gave me confidence to do whatever I want."

When asked to characterize the degree to which their clerkship affected the ease of success in handling their post-clerkship duties, the former law clerks answered positively. (See Table 66.) Overall, one-half indicated that their clerkship helped a great deal in this regard, while 40% found it helped somewhat; only 9% believed that their clerkship did not substantially affect their management of post-clerkship duties, and virtually no clerks reported a negative effect. Significant variation appeared by court type, with the most positive response from law clerks in state trial and local trial courts, followed by federal trial courts, and a moderately positive response in federal appellate and state appellate courts.

Additional Law Clerk Assessments of the Clerkship Experience

The prolific nature of the additional comments of these respondents reflected the strong affirmative feelings generated by their clerkships, as a representative sample illustrates:

  • "I cannot emphasize enough the benefits derived from the clerkship. I worked for a wonderful judge, had the opportunity to meet and speak with a number of other judges, developed relationships with other clerks that I expect to maintain the rest of my life and was provided with insight I might never have gained (e.g., what to argue, what to stress, how to address weaknesses, etc.)."

  • "Being on this side of the bench is extremely helpful for a would-be litigator or professor. The only way to understand how judges make decisions is to be behind the scenes. An appellate clerkship is particularly great in that respect because you are exposed to so many different judges."

  • "I think being a clerk is probably the most challenging, rewarding and satisfying legal job available. Had I not already established career plans prior to clerking, I would have considered becoming a career clerk. I will be forever grateful for being given this opportunity."

  • "The clerkship has, without a doubt, made me a better attorney. In addition to further developing my law skills, e.g. research, writing, editing, oral advocacy, I have gained invaluable experience in understanding how a judge analyzes issues and makes decisions. The former skills can be learned in law school; however, the latter can only truly be learned through a clerkship."

  • "I am sure that there are aspects of my clerkship that will impact my career for the rest of my life. Many of the things that I have learned are not easily expressed. However, the information will impact future decisions as situations arise calling for an experienced legal and professional analysis. The `reality' forced upon me during the past two years caused me to mature well beyond my years both personally and professionally."

  • "I feel fortunate to have had this opportunity and would recommend every law student to consider clerking."

Executive Summary and Action Plan
Section 1. Historical Data
Section 2. Findings of the Administrative Survey of the Law Schools
Section 3. Findings of the Law Student Survey
Section 4. Findings of the Alumni Law Clerk Survey
Survey Participants

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