Clerkship Study Law School Findings

Courting Clerkships: The NALP Judicial Clerkship Study

Section 2. Findings of the Administrative Survey of the Law Schools

Preparation through Programming
The Role of the Faculty
Other Support Provided by Career Services Office
Financial Assistance
Timing of Clerkship Applications
Perceptions of a Successful Student Profile
Correlations of School Support with Student Success
Additional Qualitative Comments

The second phase of the study examined the administrative support systems available to students who seek law clerk positions, specifically the issues of how law schools prepare students for clerkship application processes; the role law faculty assume in serving as references for students and as resources for judges; and the degree to which law schools allocate resources (staff and program) to support the application of students for clerkships.

These data represent a compilation of the responses of the 147 of the 181 law school career services offices that elected to participate in this inquiry by taking the considerable time and effort to complete and return the comprehensive law school administrative survey. Their voluntary contribution in doing so itself indicates the interest and support the law schools have vested in the judicial clerkship application process.

Preparation through Programming

One of the most visible indicators of support for, or efforts devoted to, the judicial clerkship process can be evidenced by the number and scope of programs on this subject conducted at the law schools. (See Table 9.) For the most part, these programs fall within the domain of the career services offices, although some are sponsored or cosponsored by student groups or another law school office or group. The "other" office or group most often cited is the faculty clerkship or advisory committee. Nearly all of the responding law schools conduct a program on an "introduction/overview of clerkships," with most of them sponsored by the career services office and about a quarter by another law school office or group. Similarly, the law school programming generally covers "mechanics of the application process," including how to interview for clerkships. Also widespread are the "panel" style programs with alumni law clerks, faculty members, or third year students sharing their experiences and offering advice to other students. Most schools also offer lectures by judges.

Perhaps most striking is the absence of specialized informational/support programs in this area for women and students of color — only about a quarter of the responding schools provide such programs. (See Table 9.) Also missing were programs on preparing for a clerkship — not offered by 64% of the law schools.

The survey also sought to determine whether the law schools had implemented any academic programs designed to support or encourage judicial clerkships. Only 15% of the schools reported such programs, with private schools reporting a somewhat higher presence than public schools. (See Table 10.) The schools that characterized themselves as having clerkship-related academic programs listed the following as examples: writing sample workshops, judges and the community courts, judicial process clinic, judicial opinion drafting, judicial practicum class, a class on judicial writing and judicial clerkships, and related courses such as "Federal Rules" and "State Procedure."

Internship or externship programs with local judges often provide an entrée into the world of judicial clerkships, as well as a valuable experience and enhancement to the law school education. As illustrated in Table 11, the vast majority of law schools reported having a formal internship/externship program.

Overwhelmingly, the schools with an externship or internship program believed that this has positively affected the number of clerkship applications; 91% of schools provided this response nationwide. (See Table 12.) A large percentage of schools (85%) also believe that externships have a positive effect on clerkship offers. (See Table 13.) A few schools explained that since their school does not provide law clerks for state trial judges, the program does not increase the number of offers. One respondent observed that judges may accept interns with lower grades than they would expect from a clerk, and another commented, "some judges who do not take post-grad clerks from regional schools will accept students (3Ls) through the internship process."

Explanations from the schools predominantly included comments about the positive value of these externships, such as the following sample:

  • "It gives students an opportunity to see the value of a clerkship prior to applying for post graduate positions. It also helps prepare a student for the interview and for the positions."

  • "[It] de-mystifies the courts in eyes of students; exposes students to the functions of the courts; allows judges to assess our students' skills; creates a pool of student mentors who can assist aspirants."

  • "A number of judges have extended offers to externs either in that court or in the chambers of another judge. Also the externship generally provides an excellent reference."

  • "Over the last couple of years more students have applied and a few have received clerkship offers because of their performance in the internships."

  • "It is a great avenue for students to try the judiciary on an internship basis and form a relationship with a judge. Many of our students with higher academic records clerk as part of our externship program and then go on to a clerkship with that judge; or use the experience to obtain another judicial clerkship."

  • "It has been an extremely positive experience for both students and the judiciary."

However, a few schools perceived the impact of these externships on clerkship applications and offers to be more limited.


As a group, law schools allocate considerable resources to the judicial clerkship process. In this area, these resources consist primarily of the collection of various informational sources and the judges' database created and maintained by each individual law school.

For the many informational resources available in connection with the clerkship application process, the responding schools provided assessments of the value or degree of usefulness of each, as illustrated in Table 14. Postings of letters from judges seeking clerks proved to be the most highly valued resource. Also highly valued by the schools are the clerkship handbooks published by their career services offices; however, 23% of schools, mostly the smaller schools, do not publish a clerkship handbook. Among the other resources most valued are the NALP Federal and State Judicial Clerkship Directory, the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, and the WESTLAW® and LEXIS® resources.

Equally notable are the resources that the majority of schools do not have. More than 71% reported that they do not have a judicial clerkship section on their Web site; of those that did have this resource, most found it to be useful. Largely missing as well were collections of written comments from faculty, and more than half of the schools did not have written feedback from alumni law clerks. Those that did gather them regarded this information as valuable. Another significant resource, the Directory of Minority Judges of the United States, was not present at 49% of law schools, and the percent appeared even higher among certain school types; for example, 68% of the smallest school size and 52% of the public schools did not have this publication.

When asked what other kinds of informational resources would be helpful for students pursuing clerkship opportunities, the schools offered several suggestions.

Universally, the law schools cited a need for more comprehensive resources regarding the timing of applications, hiring, contents of application packages, terms of clerkships, biographical and general information on judges. A school commented that biographical and evaluative information on state court and local judges is lacking in most materials. Some schools suggested that judges and courts send notices to all law schools, rather than just those who were "top tier," and that postings by courts should include all openings within the court. One sought bar association directories from each state listing federal and state judges and addresses. One respondent suggested a national database of names and addresses of judges from which students could do a mail merge, while another requested a directory from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. (A directory from the Administrative Office is currently under development.) Many respondents expressed the wish that more judges would participate in the NALP Judicial Clerkship Directory by filling out the survey forms sent to them; one proposed enlisting the involvement of schools to call federal judges, so that this information would be more complete.

In the absence of a uniform comprehensive resource, most schools maintain their own database of judges. Of those schools that maintain a database, less than half include information regarding all three levels of federal, state and local judges. (See Table 15.) The vast majority of these databases contain contact information, and most encompass application materials and procedures on these judges. Some provide information about former law clerk hiring and names of current law clerks for these judges.

Career services offices generally devote considerable time and resources to maintain and update their database of judges. As summarized in Table 16, over half use printed resources and comments from students/alumni/faculty on an ongoing basis, and almost half of the schools mail surveys annually. Many of these schools make telephone calls to judges' chambers on either an annual or ongoing basis; less than a fifth do not use such calls to update their database. (See Table 17.) In addition, some schools specified web sites from other law schools or the courts; or utilized newspaper articles, local publications, information sent by courts, and postings from judges as further sources. Most schools (93%) that do possess and maintain a judges' database generally do not make their database available to others outside of their law school.

The Role of the Faculty

Perhaps the most prominent, structured role of the faculty in the clerkship application process arises in the form of the faculty clerkship committee. Nationwide, about half of the schools have a faculty clerkship committee, with the frequency lower for public and smaller schools. (See Table 18.) The composition of this committee appears relatively consistent across the schools. Most include non-faculty members. Schools with non-faculty members on this committee provided as examples: the assistant dean or director of career services, career services administrators, administrative deans, two student representatives, alumni who have clerked, a writing instructor, and a retired judge. The term of the chair of the faculty clerkship committee is most often annual (81% nationwide), as is the term of the committee members. The dozen or fewer schools that reported multi-year terms characterized them alternately as "indefinite," "variable," "two or more years," "on-going," or "determined by dean."

The most common function of the faculty clerkship committee in the application process is providing advice to students. Other secondary functions include programming, policy-making and, in a few schools, screening. (See Table 19.) In schools that do not have a faculty clerkship committee, alternate parties serve this function, ranging from a professor who serves as an informal volunteer or appointed advisor, to several faculty members, a judicial clerkship advisor, or an associate dean.

In general, faculty members have a broad and varied supportive role in the clerkship application process. Most significantly, members of the faculty write letters of recommendation in nearly all of the law schools responding to the survey. Providing information and advice to students on the application process, and on individual judges, appeared next frequently as roles for the faculty in the vast majority of the law schools. In most law schools, professors also participate in clerkship programs for students and review writing samples, resumes, and/or cover letters for students. (See Table 20.)

The four most highly rated factors on which faculty members generally base their level of recommendations and support for a particular student were class rank/overall grades; grade in that faculty member's class; evaluation of written work; and law journal membership. (See Table 21.) The summer or academic year judicial internship/externship, along with law clinics, received the least emphasis for faculty recommendations, despite the value placed on these experiences by students, career services professionals, and judges. Several respondents also commented that the factors for recommending a student vary for each faculty member, and some individual faculty members set their own limitations on the number of letters they will write per student.

The survey asked whether career services offices have experienced difficulty in getting the faculty to send letters of recommendation in a timely fashion. Overall, one-quarter of the schools responded in the affirmative. To rectify this problem, several schools described their informal efforts: their own and the deans' multiple follow-up communication in writing and person, offers of assistance, and strongly encouraging the students to follow up with faculty. In addition, some schools have implemented more formal procedures, including preparing letters through the recorder of the clerkship committee, keeping a log of requests and occasionally reminding faculty members, and a centralized process through the office of career services with faculty support.

Other Support Provided by Career Services Office

Career services offices generally provide counseling or advising in connection with judicial clerkship applications. In some instances, clerkship counseling is done in a separate office outside of the career services office. With a wide range of possible titles reported, the responding schools indicated that the primary person in this office handling judicial clerkship counseling or administering a clerkship program is typically a director (76 or 52% of the reporting schools nationwide), or an assistant dean (50 or 34%). Occasionally the title of this individual reflects the clerkship role. In addition, 92 schools nationwide report a second person, and 35 schools designate a third person whose responsibilities at least in part include clerkship counseling or advising. Most of these individuals are full time, with varying titles, for example, assistant or associate deans, associate directors or assistant directors, attorney or career counselors, and other administrative titles. Similarly, the responding law schools reported widely varying numbers of hours devoted to counseling in connection with the clerkship process, from which comparisons among schools cannot be reliably ascertained. Clearly, the time spent with the clerkship process by these law schools is substantial.

A little more than half of the career services offices also provide some kind of clerical support for students in connection with the processing of the clerkship applications. (See Table 22.) Of those, most supply students with a list of judges on a disk to mail merge. Other services offered by the schools include gathering letters of recommendation from faculty; collecting all application materials; preparing and labeling envelopes or packages; and mailing the complete packet to judges. A lesser number of schools also handle mail merging and processing cover letters and/or other clerical services.

These services, when provided by a career services office, are generally available to all students who would like to apply for judicial clerkships. However, in their explanatory comments, some schools elaborated that either they strongly encourage students to apply to the appropriate level court, the faculty committee must support the candidacy, highly ranked students are targeted, they must get one faculty recommendation to participate through the office, or the dean's letter must be approved based upon the student's academic standing and participation in other activities.

Most career services offices also reported that their school did not have a policy limiting the number of clerkship applications that can be sent per student. Almost all of the schools that did mention a limit in their processing of the applications stated that, over that number, students may send an unlimited number of applications independently.

Financial Assistance

In contrast to the frequent clerical help, more than 40% of career services offices provide no financial assistance to students in connection with the clerkship application and interview process. At most, they supply phone access for long distance calls (21%) or postage for applications (8%) — or small percentages supply some combination of phone access/postage with travel or "other" expenses. (See Table 23.) Of the "other" financial assistance, some schools furnished as examples: copying, fax, travel loans for interviews (two schools), computer and printer use. This trend can be seen across school types and sizes, albeit with minor variations in percentages for types of expenses for which financial assistance is available.

Moreover, no schools responded that their school offered any other financial assistance for the judicial clerkship term other than loan forgiveness. (See Table 24.) At most, a small percent of schools (8% nationwide) reported a loan forgiveness program that includes judicial clerkships, with this availability higher for the largest schools (12%). Loan forgiveness programs appeared more prevalent in private schools (10%) in comparison to public schools (5%); however, this may also reflect the greater need in terms of debt burden for students at private schools. A handful of schools added that loan deferment was available under certain circumstances.

Timing of Clerkship Applications

Law schools in every category type and size of school indicated that the lack of uniform guidelines hinders the clerkship application process. In their qualitative comments, this issue overshadowed all others, as numerous schools elaborated on their frustrations with the lack of uniform guidelines. The respondents addressed the problem this creates in their efforts to provide effective support for their students in the clerkship application process without draining the resources of their offices.

  • "Students have absolutely no idea when to apply and panic about getting their applications in on time. Judges change their minds all the time."

  • "It forces students to make career decisions too early in their law school education."

  • "Students usually do not have adequate writing samples this early in their law school career."

  • "It creates a labor intensive process to obtain and keep current hiring schedules for all judges and chaos is created for students without timing guidelines."

  • "Excellent candidates are left unseen; telephoning chambers for timelines is burdensome for both parties."

As a result, many schools commented, the clerkship applicant pool for the judges has been negatively impacted as well.

  • "There is a lot of confusion and chaos with regard to the timeline. The lack of any guidelines may even deter some students from applying for fear that their applications are already too late."

  • "To apply in the first semester of their second year during fall recruiting and call backs — clerkship applications sometimes are abandoned by some of the most competitive students for lack of time."

  • "The lack of uniform guidelines regarding timing has made it more difficult to encourage students to forgo private practice to pursue judicial clerkships."

  • "Also the judges may be limiting their ability to meet a majority and diversity of qualified candidates."

Some schools offered suggestions:

  • "Timing is everything. Enforce a schedule for judges and schools. Rules regarding the timing of offers would also be helpful."

  • "February 1 is a good date — any earlier makes it difficult for students interviewing with other legal employers through December to begin the judicial clerkship application process."

  • "Most people are not very optimistic about judges following a guideline regarding application dates. Also, while encouraged, it's difficult to get all the schools together on the same page too."

Roughly half of the reporting schools noted that their schools are making programmatic changes in response to this issue, by moving up clerkship programming for second year students to earlier in the fall semester and by including first year students in their clerkship programming.

Perceptions of a Successful Student Profile

When asked which students at their school are the most successful in obtaining federal clerkships, the career services professionals followed traditional expectations. As presented in Table 25, they named as the four most important characteristics: students with high class ranks; students on the law review/law journal; students with the support of top faculty; and students with a summer or academic year judicial internship/externship. Less than one-quarter of the law school respondents selected such characteristics as students with some special connection to a judge or those who participate in moot court.

In responding to the inquiry about which students at their school are the most successful in obtaining state clerkships, the law schools chose factors similar to their federal clerkship responses, but with slightly different emphasis; the support of top faculty appeared to be slightly more important for acquiring federal clerkships, while clinical experience weighed slightly more heavily in acquiring state clerkships. (See Table 26.)

Overall, these perceptions reflect commonly held beliefs about the important weight placed on grades/class rank, law journal membership, faculty support, and judicial externship experiences. It is interesting to note that, in the experience of career service professionals, a special connection to a judge does not emerge as a primary factor in acquiring federal and state clerkships.

Correlations of School Support with Student Success

A comparison of some of the above factors comprising "support" by the law schools with the acquisition of clerkships by their students suggests some interesting trends. Generally, schools that offer more (defined as greater than five) programs on clerkship issues have a slightly higher percentage of graduates accepting clerkships, with a median rate of 13%. The median for the group offering fewer programs was 10%. However, 14 schools that provided smaller numbers of programs still sent more than 15% of their students to clerkships. Law schools that provide academic programs designed to support or encourage judicial clerkships had a higher percentage of their graduates obtaining clerkships than their counterparts without these programs (16% versus 11%); while those schools that maintain a judges' database showed a similar tendency (13% versus 11%). In addition, the law schools with a faculty clerkship committee tended to have more of their graduates entering clerkships than those that did not have this committee (12% versus 11%); however, this positive correlation did not exist where the committee included a screening function.

On a cautionary note, a causative link has not been established between these factors from the law schools and the clerkship rates of their students, nor can this be ascertained from the present data. While the data may suggest factors that appear to help, we cannot conclude that certain schools are successful because of their programs, rather than as a by-product of their reputation or the academic achievements of their students. Perhaps in a future study, information could be gathered over time from individual schools to help to determine whether, for example, programmatic changes over time might be accompanied by an increased in clerkship rates for that school's graduates.

Additional Qualitative Comments

Overwhelmingly, the law school respondents to the administrative survey proved to be extremely supportive of this initiative to study and improve the clerkship application process. Most prolific were their supplemental comments on the lack of timing guidelines, discussed above. One respondent added, "We applaud the effort you make to increase awareness of the judicial clerkship process."

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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