Clerkship Study Law Student Findings

Courting Clerkships: The NALP Judicial Clerkship Study

Section 3. Findings of the Law Student Survey

Demographics of Student Respondents
Significant Characteristics of Successful Students
Decision Whether to Apply for a Clerkship
Experience with the Application Process
Programs, Resources and Services Provided by Law Schools
Outcomes of the Clerkship Applications and Offers
Student Assessments of the Process

The third phase of the study surveyed third-year law students nationwide to identify their perceptions regarding judicial clerkships and the application process, including: perceptions regarding the application/selection process, i.e., arduousness, equity and fairness relative to gender, ethnicity and other demographic variables; the impact of educational and consumer debt on student interest in applying for and/or accepting clerkships; perceptions regarding the value of the clerkship relative to one's legal career; and the role family "legacies," individual social capital and/or networks play in acquiring clerkships.

Of the approximately 14,000 law students in the pool at the schools to which the law student surveys were distributed, a significant number — more than 11% — returned their completed surveys to NALP. These comprehensive quantitative and qualitative data identify significant trends in the clerkship application patterns and perceptions of law school students.

Demographics of Student Respondents

Of the respondents to the law student survey, 796 or 48% applied for a clerkship and 855 or 52% did not apply for a clerkship. The demographics of the students who did apply for a clerkship and those who did not were substantially the same. Over half were women and most were heterosexual, non-minority, not disabled, and between the ages of 20-30 years. (See Table 27.) These application demographics roughly mirror the final population of law clerks reflected in the employment data discussed in Phase I of this study.

For example, a comparison of the racial and ethnic distribution of clerkship applicants from this survey with the final population of judicial clerks reveals that 84.8% of the applicants were white, a figure close to the 85.1% of white law clerks in the most recent class (1998). (See Table 27 and Table 2.) Hispanic students represent 2.6% of the applicant group, compared to 2.8% of the law clerks from the Class of 1998 (versus 5.3% in the law school population); Asian/Pacific Islanders comprised 6.7% of these applicants, compared to 5.6% in the overall clerk population (6.1% of the law school class); and African-Americans accounted for 4.7% of the applicant group, compared to 6% of the law clerks (7.5% of the law school class).

These data suggest that the racial and ethnic distribution of judicial clerks may simply be a reflection of these patterns in the student applicant population, rather than a difference in the success of their applications. If so, in order to increase minority representation among law clerks, efforts should focus on increasing the number of minority students who apply, particularly among certain groups such as Hispanics and African-Americans.

Further support for this proposition appears in Table 28, which presents a comparison of application and offer rates among the demographic groups. In our study, the overall "success" rate of those applying for a clerkship was quite high at 69.5%. Two of these groups had even higher success rates: Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic/Latino.

An analysis of the distribution by gender reveals that women represent 55.5% of the student applicant group, which is somewhat higher than the final population of women as 51.2% of all law clerks, and considerably higher than the representation of women as 47.3% of federal clerks. (See Table 4.) A gender differential emerged in the success rate of their applications, with 66% of the women who applied receiving a clerkship offer, in contrast to 74% of the male students in our study (Table 28). The gender patterns in judicial clerks and applicants, although favorable when viewed in the context of the overall law school class, tend to vary with the type of court (federal versus state and local), and may also reflect a lower success rate of women applicants when compared to their male counterparts.

A much lower percentage of students in the upper age category (36 and older), 48%, received an offer (Table 28). Moreover, more than any other demographic group, students in this category perceived their age to be a disadvantage leading to unsuccessful clerkship applications. (See the following discussion of Table 31.)

Significant Characteristics of Successful Students

Examining other law school activities reported by the student respondents showed that over half have one or more of the following characteristics: "top grades/high class rank" Endnote 1 (54%), membership on the law review/ law journal (54%), or experience as a teaching or research assistant (53%). Many (45%) had significant prior work experience. These students mentioned other law school activities or characteristics with somewhat less frequency, although nearly one-third had a summer or academic year judicial intern/externship. (See Table 29.)

Notably, only a very small percentage, 8%, of the students who applied and received an offer reported having a special connection to a judge. This fact contrasts with the perceptions among many of the students who offered as a reason for not applying for a clerkship, or for not succeeding with their clerkship applications, that they did not have the right "connections" to acquire a clerkship (discussed below).

Student perceptions of the important factors in the judges' selection of law clerks paralleled these findings. As listed in Table 30, the academic record was perceived most often (84%) as "extremely important" to the judge. The vast majority of the students also rated evaluation of the interview as extremely important, followed by such factors as law school attended, personal character traits, and law journal membership. Moderately important according to the students' view were faculty recommendations and writing samples. In addition, these perceptions largely coincided with those of the career services personnel of their law schools, who ranked as the top factors for success: students with high class ranks, law review, and the support of top faculty (see administrative survey results, discussed above).

Asked to give their perceptions of the reasons for any of their unsuccessful applications, student resoundingly answered that their application was not competitive enough (81% chose this response), and of these two thirds detailed as the reason that their grades or academic record were not strong enough. (See Table 31.) Additionally, many of these students (41%) stated that they did not have the right "connections" to acquire a clerkship, and nearly as many (36%) felt disadvantaged by their law school's reputation. Many students offered as an explanation of their non-competitive record their lack of law review or law journal membership. Overall, more than one-half of the students offered as a reason for their unsuccessful applications the belief that some aspect of the selection process caused them a disadvantage. Almost two thirds of these (62%) pointed to the timing of the process and over half implicated the arbitrary nature of the process. One student lamented about the arbitrary nature of the application process: "I really do not know why I was rejected. That, I think, is the worst part because I thought I had all the right qualifications."

Overall, only a relatively small percentage implicated their demographic background as a reason for unsuccessful applications, but differences in these perceptions did surface by demographic type. About five percent of women felt disadvantaged by their gender, but 17% of minorities felt disadvantaged by their race or ethnicity. A greater portion of the openly non-heterosexual students, fully one quarter, indicated that their sexual orientation was a disadvantage in the application process.

Surprisingly, the group that most emphasized feeling disadvantaged was those in the upper age category (36 and older); one-half of this group felt they did not have the right connections to acquire a clerkship, 57% pointed to their age, and 35% stressed the arbitrary nature of the process. In addition, in the 31 to 35 year age group, 56% felt disadvantaged by their law school's reputation, and a striking 46% were unable to obtain strong enough recommendations. These data, when combined with the lower actual success rates of older students (discussed above), suggest that age as a demographic factor may play a much larger role in the selection process than previously believed.

Decision Whether to Apply for a Clerkship

Clearly students recognize the value of the clerkship relative to one's legal career. For those who did apply for a clerkship, the factors that most influenced their decision to apply appear in Table 32. The top ranking factors cited were: the desire to gain the work experience of a clerkship (87%); the impact of a clerkship on their future career (81%); the prestige of clerkships (69%); and discussions with others (64%). Of these influential discussions, most involved lawyers in practice, followed by other law students, and faculty members.

Table 33 presents a comparison of clerkship applications to future career plans of the respondents. Notable here is the fact that students interested in pursuing a public sector or academic career were more likely to apply for a clerkship than those planning to enter private practice — and were somewhat more likely to be successful.

The student respondents who did not apply for a clerkship cited most often as a reason for not applying that they preferred a different post-graduation option (61%). (See Table 34.) A substantial percent of the students (43%) indicated that they did not think their applications would be competitive; of these, the vast majority (87%) thought their grades or academic record were not strong enough for the type of clerkship in which they were most interested, while a third believed they did not have the right "connections" to acquire a clerkship. More than one third of the non-applying students stated as a reason that they lacked the finances to apply or interview for a clerkship, emphasizing as a deterrent the financial differential of the clerkship salary given their considerable educational debt.

Almost one-third of these students stated that they felt discouraged by some aspect of the application process; of these, about two thirds pointed to the timing or the arduousness of the process. The lack of timing guidelines and the lack of information about individual judges' application procedures and requirements emerged again from their qualitative comments as major factors precluding many of these students from entering the clerkship application process in the first instance. It is interesting to note that relatively few of these students implicated as a reason the fairness in hiring relative to race/ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or gender. Of those who did not apply for a clerkship, two thirds would have done so if one (or more) of these factors were different. The proffered reasons closely mirror those given by the students who applied for a clerkship and gave reasons for their unsuccessful applications, thereby offering further evidence of the widespread nature of these perceptions.

Asked to identify the factors that influenced their decision to apply to particular courts, the students named geographical considerations most frequently (73%). More than one-half of the students looked to the level of the court (trial/appellate), while almost as many focused on the type of court (federal/state/local). Only 7% registered concerns about financial considerations in their selection of courts. (See Table 35.)

Table 36 displays student appraisals of the factors that influenced their selection of judges to whom to apply. The students most frequently chose the reputation of the judge (44%). Other significant factors included the length of the clerkship term (one year versus two year) (39%); the atmosphere in chambers/ working conditions (38%); and whether the judge had previously hired clerks from their law school (24%). Considerably de-emphasized by the students were a personal connection to the judge (8%) and race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or disability status of the judge (8%).

Overall, and across demographic types, nearly two thirds of the students who applied for a clerkship noted 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. (See Table 37.) This observation is consistent with the reasons reported both by those students who did not apply for a clerkship at all due to their perceived lack of competitiveness, and by those who were unsuccessful in any of their clerkship applications. Grades, law review, and the academic record play the largest role in both the perceptions and the reality of a successful clerkship application.

Experience with the Application Process

The clerkship application process appeared problematic for a large number of the students in several respects. Almost half (45%) of the students in our group who applied for a clerkship reported experiencing difficulties with the mechanics of the clerkship process. Of this significant portion, the majority once again identified as the primary difficulties: determining the application requirements and deadlines of each judge (53%) and the timeliness of the application (51%). (See Table 38.)

One of the most problematic aspects of the application process for students was the obtaining and control of references, as illustrated in Table 39. The person most often chosen as a reference, selected by more than 25% of the students, was a professor for whom the student wrote only an exam; yet these types of references are generally the least useful from the judges' perspective, as judges tend to prefer professors who know the student's writing abilities well. Some students did ask professors for whom they wrote a paper or essay (22%), as well as lawyers in practice (19%). Most strikingly, one-third of the students indicated that they experienced difficulties in finding people to provide these references and an even greater percentage (36%) reported problems with the content of the letters. A large number of students expressed the concern that their professors did not know them well enough to write meaningful recommendations, due in part to the part to the earlier timing of the application process. In addition, almost one-third of the students experienced problems with the timely submission of these letters.

Student comments on their issues concerning references included the following:

  • "If you have not worked for a professor [as a research assistant] it's hard to find professors that know you well enough to give you a recommendation."

  • "It was hard to find professors who knew me well after only two and a half semesters of in law school — most were large classes."

  • "It would have been easier if the process was later when I knew more professors."

  • "Professors tend to be very busy and to write many letters, so you have to jockey for a good position."

  • "Some professors limit reference letters to one student per judge — thus you had to find professors early."

  • "Some professors think (erroneously) that students they are recommending should limit their search to keep the recommendation letters from being diluted. This is true only for the very elite students. For the vast majority of us, we have to apply to 100 or more judges."

  • "Although all my references readily agreed to mail letters on my behalf, I didn't know any professors who were well-connected to judges or the whole clerkship process, and I think that hurt me."

  • "Sometimes people simply do not realize the importance of getting the letters turned in on time."

The financial burdens of applying for a judicial clerkship did not appear to be paramount for the students or as burdensome as has been commonly perceived. For example, students were asked to assess their total clerkship interviewing costs (i.e., airfare, lodging), exclusive of costs that would have been incurred anyway such as travel home during a school break. The vast majority of students, 73%, responded that these costs fell in the lowest cost level ($0-500). As with the selection of courts, the financial factor does not appear to be the most significant concern for the students during their application process. Yet others in their general comments did point to the expensive nature of the clerkship application and interview process as a reason for their dissatisfaction:

  • "I am very happy with the clerkship I got, but the process was an expensive, unorganized nightmare."

  • "The only difficulties are the personal expense and lack of structure to the process. But I feel it was worth it."

  • "Some students who are very deserving of clerkships have spent $3000-$4000 and gotten nothing. Something needs to be done about the costs. Many judges could cooperate in their interviewing and do regional `interview weekends' so students wouldn't have to make so many trips."

Moreover, a substantial number of students cited the financial differential of a clerkship salary as a component of their decision not to apply for a clerkship at all.

Programs, Resources and Services Provided by Law Schools

Although many of the law schools do provide a variety of clerkship programs according to their responses to the administrative survey, the student surveys indicate that most students either did not attend most of these types of programs or thought they were not available. (See Table 40.) These data suggest that, in the schools that offer these programs, either students are not aware of them and need outreach by their schools, or these programs may be undervalued by their students; note, however, that the students did not classify them to be "not useful." Only two types of programs were highly rated by the mass of student respondents as "very" or "moderately useful" in the clerkship application process: those covering introduction/overview of clerkships and mechanics of the application process. The law schools appear to concur in this assessment of usefulness, as most report offering these two programs more than any other type (see administrative survey results, discussed above).

In contrast to the assessments of usefulness made by the law schools, the students did not generally perceive most resources to be highly useful. (See Table 41.) Many students commented for several of the resources that they "did not use" this source. As a whole, the students indicated that the following resources were the most used and helpful: the judicial clerkship handbook of their school, followed by the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary, WESTLAW®/LEXIS®, and the law schools' database of judges. The positive assessments of these resources in particular were shared as well by the administrative staff of most law schools (see administrative survey results).

In describing the level of assistance provided by their law schools overall, most of the students 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 they received adequate assistance in the area of interviewing. However, about 44% of the students would have liked additional assistance from their law schools in collecting information or advice about the judges.

Outcomes of the Clerkship Applications and Offers

Table 42 illustrates some interesting outcomes of the applications by type of court. Roughly one in ten applications at the federal level resulted in an invitation to interview, and one in four applications at the state level did so. It should be noted, however, that the number of applications might effectively be higher than appears, since for some courts a student submits one application to a pool, which is then distributed to many judges in that court. These numbers may not accurately reflect that practice, which is more common in the state courts. About one in three of the interviews with a state or federal judge resulted in an offer, although for state appellate courts, the yield rate appeared somewhat higher at 43%.

Further interesting data on clerkship offers are captured in Table 43. Student reports here indicate that judges generally give applicants more time to respond to clerkship offers than has been widely perceived. While the time period can range from "more than 1 month" to "on the spot," depending on the judge and circumstances, the response time most often described — identified by approximately one-third of the students — was "2 days to 1 week." Still, students frequently reported "on the spot" responses to offers as the least amount of time given (21%), and often even as the most amount of time given (12%). Many students expressed frustration with the time pressure they experienced in scheduling their interviews and responding to an offer. Many of the students did not answer this question, noting that they chose to accept the offer on the spot and withdraw all other applications.

For several students, the time pressure in responding to the clerkship offer negatively impacted their application experiences, as illustrated by these sample comments:

  • "I had under 24 hours to decide, had to cancel interviews and make my decision before knowing what my other options would have been. Also, because of the timing issue my year it was total chaos."

  • "I found the lack of any deadlines very frustrating, as did many students. I was also disappointed with the short amount of time judges give to make up your mind after they extend offers. I had two appellate court interviews scheduled, but had to withdraw my applications because I was offered a district court clerkship and did not have time to interview with the two appellate courts."

As has been universally believed, most students do not decline the clerkship offer. As shown in Table 44, over two thirds of the applicant group, 68%, did not decline any clerkship offers. Of those who did decline offers, the predominant reason given (82% of the 161 responses) was that the student had accepted an offer from another judge. (It should be noted that most law schools instruct their students to withdraw all other applications upon accepting a clerkship offer from a judge.) In our extensive student pool, only one student identified financial constraint (i.e., educational and consumer debt) as the reason for declining a clerkship offer.

Student Assessments of the Process

Overall, although in the aggregate most of the students who applied for a clerkship were satisfied with the clerkship application process, a significant minority, 42%, were dissatisfied with the process. (See Table 45.) Not surprisingly, the highest satisfaction rate, 64%, occurred among those who experienced a successful application process and received a clerkship offer, while the most dissatisfied, 60%, were those who did not receive an offer.

Regardless of the outcome, their substantive narratives revealed that, for those students who have carried through the clerkship application process, the lack of timing guidelines and standard application procedures made the process chaotic and encumbered their experiences:

  • "There is no uniformity to the timing, and most courts begin hiring too early."

  • "The current system without a set time is impossible to deal with. The federal judiciary needs to come up with a concrete set of dates within which to operate."

  • "I think the application process takes place too early in one's law school experience, with too much riding on first year performance."

Several of them further criticized the arbitrary nature of the process:

  • "Very unsatisfied. This process is random and arbitrary. Both judges and students scramble to match up. In this mad rush students are willing to accept the first judge who comes their way — not the judge who is the best fit for them!"

  • "Especially at the federal level, the entire system is tremendously arbitrary and difficult to figure out. Judges have no constraints on timing, hiring or even courtesy and this makes it difficult for law students, who only get through the process one time whereas judges do it every year."

  • "Satisfied because I wound up with a perfect clerkship — but the process is chaotic, poorly managed, and abusive of students."

  • "The process is too selective/arbitrary/connections oriented to be so widely advertised by schools — the primary assistance was given to law review participants and none was given to anyone else by the faculty committee. Also there were no set dates that judges followed in the process."

  • "I got a clerkship I'm happy with and I got it early in the process so there was not a prolonged period of anxiety but for others it was a grueling wait often without a positive outcome. The results seemed quite haphazard. The amount of help provided by faculty and administration varied significantly from student to student, leaving some students a bit bitter."

  • "Too much depends on timing and `inside information.' The system is hard on people at the very top, who have difficult decisions to make, but the great majority of applicants rarely get the courtesy even of rejection letters."

  • "There is very little information available to help students in deciding what judges to apply to in terms of character and personality. The entire process is a disorganized free for all. I feel lucky to have ended up with the clerkship that I did."

  • "I'm glad I got a clerkship, but I've never been through a more arbitrary, expensive and disheartening application process."

Many commented that the emphasis on grades, law review, and being from a top ranked school excluded too many students from consideration for a valuable clerkship position:

  • "Too much focus on grades and law review to the exclusion of other very important factors — these are the only two factors that matter."

  • "Disappointing how much emphasis placed on grades."

  • "Because law school and law school grading are by nature arbitrary, application process should revolve around work experience and letters of recommendation."

  • "Judges all have different deadlines (often unspecified); judges ignore strong applicants from many schools because they only consider applicants from certain schools."

  • "It was very hard to get any useful information from career services and the judges only were interested in top students from top law schools."

Some students offered their suggestions for solutions to the problems with the clerkship application process:

  • Regional interview process (see comment above).

  • Less emphasis on grades and top tier law schools (see comments above).

  • Centralized resource of information on judges: "Need one comprehensive resource that contains accurate and complete information for all federal judges seeking clerks that year . . . Anything that can be done to better synchronized the time frames on which judges operate would be an improvement — right now it's a free-for-all!"

  • More law school support: "I am also dissatisfied by the lack of united front by our faculty and administration. We need to get more organized and invest more resources to this process like top schools do . . . Law schools need to do more to stay ahead of the process to help increase their students chances of securing clerkships."

  • Medical school model: "The process should be like the medical school system — we go through all of the interviews and are `matched up' at the end — it would take the stress off the students and allow us to not worry so much about timing issues."

  • Timing guidelines — and set dates further out in law school to later in the second year or even to the third year: "This is a terrible `process': the timing is wrong, riddled with insider trader, information gaps — it should be done in the third year, not the second year of law school."


1. A number of respondents commented regarding grading that not all schools rank their students and the definition of "top" was not specified in the survey. Due to the differences among the schools in grading and ranking systems, the survey sought only the students' own perception and self-definition of "top" grades and rank, as a reflection of these definitions by their schools.

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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