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If each time you enter a courtroom, you look with envy at the judicial law clerks, realize that it is not too late to become a clerk. Each year finds an increase in the number of judicial clerkship openings being filled by experienced lawyers. The traditional model for hiring law clerks has been for applicants to apply while in their second year of law school. Judges are gradually beginning to adjust this model, and many now hold open at least one position for an experienced lawyer. They have found that having an experienced lawyer as a clerk is helpful in both reducing training time and adding a professional maturity to chambers. Attorneys who decide to apply for these positions find that clerkships provide a unique opportunity to enhance their legal skills and perhaps to find a life-long mentor. The reasons that experienced attorneys give for applying for a clerkship are varied. Some are encouraged by their firms to gain an experience that will be helpful to the firm’s litigation department. Others use a clerkship opportunity as a transition in making a career change. PROS AND CONS Pros: Many former clerks describe a clerkship as a unique opportunityto learn about judicial decision-making, enhance career opportunities and expand geographic mobility; it also provides the setting in which to absorb a great deal of law in a very short time and to see how the law is applied in a generic way. Cons: Clerking is not for everyone. It means leaving a position with an employer that will, for a time, interrupt a career path and in many cases derail partner options for the short term. It may mean that while waiting for a clerkship to begin, assigned work may not be the most interesting or complex; the decision to clerk may be seen as a means to leave the job and might appear disloyal to colleagues or to indicate a lack of commitment to the firm. STRATEGIES Once the decision is made to apply for a clerkship, it is important to determine the firm’s policy on clerkships. If the firm, like most, values the experience that a clerkship provides, it will be supportive of an associate’s interest in applying. But firms differ in their attitude, and it can often be difficult to determine how the news will be responded to by both partners and associates. The best approach is to select a supportive partner and have a discussion about an interest in clerking. This partner would most likely be the same person who will be asked to serve as a reference. Request that the inquiry be kept confidential until the clerkship application has been either accepted or rejected by judges. This partner may also be able to assist with the selection of judges for application purposes. Realize that the clerkship market is very competitive and no applicant is guaranteed a position. (Most judges receive hundreds of applications and often interview only 10 to 12 candidates.) Once others learn that an application is pending or a clerkship has been accepted, the most complex, long-term matters, and thus the most challenging projects, may not be made available. If there is a feeling that departure is imminent, whether immediately or within a year, colleagues may begin to withdraw from shared professional interaction assuming a lack of commitment to the common goals of the associate class. Advice as to when to publicize the application will vary. Some firms want to be informed immediately, while others will assume that they will be told once an offer is received. The partner should be able to provide guidance as to the best approach to take. Be prepared to answer the basic questions that will be asked including when the clerkship would begin, and whether there is an intent to return to the firm after the clerkship. Also, factor in the realization that once you interview and obtain an offer, judges will not wait for an answer. During the past few years, the “exploding offer” has appeared. This refers to the practice of a small number of judges who make an offer at the conclusion of the interview. They will withdraw that offer if it is not accepted either immediately or within the next 24 hours. At best, most judges will expect an answer within a few days of the offer. They are concerned about losing candidates to other judges while they wait for a response. This means that the plan as to how and when to inform the firm must be made before interviewing begins. Another aspect of this process that will be difficult for experienced attorneys is the conflicts issue. This needs to and most likely will be addressed early in the application process. If applications are being sent to judges in a jurisdiction where attorneys from the firm or one of its branch offices appear, there will be some concern. Judges will ask for and expect full disclosure. This is another reason why it is important that a partner know about and provide guidance regarding the application before an interview takes place. CALENDAR There are basically two timetables that can be followed in deciding when to apply for a clerkship. One approach is to decide to fill an existing opening. The other is to apply during the traditional student application process. If the decision is made to fill an existing opening, it will be important to identify those judges having vacancies. Vacancies can exist when a clerk leaves unexpectedly or a clerkship is created by a newly confirmed judge. There are a few existing openings every year and they are often posted at the Career Services Office closest to the judge’s office or at the school from which the judge graduated. They can also be found with increasing frequency on the Administrative Office of the Federal Courts Web site. One positive aspect of filling an existing opening is that it is usually available immediately or shortly after it is posted. The second method of finding a clerkship is to apply under the same calendar that students use. This means competing directly with them for clerkship opportunities. While this method will provide access to a wide array of openings nationwide, the term will not begin until the fall a year from the date of the application. Most of the more than 2000 judges in the federal judiciary, plus the state court judges, have annual vacancies. (Be sure to check application requirements. Some judges appoint two-year clerks, rotating one position each year in order to provide continuity in their chambers). Realize that these positions are being applied for in the fall (mid-September or early October) of a student’s second year. In order to be considered for any of these vacancies, applications will have to be filed in compliance with this timetable. APPLICATION PROCESS The application package for an experienced lawyer applicant is not much different from that of a student. A cover letter, resume, writing sample, two letters of reference, and a law school transcript are required by most judges. The cover letter should be short and should include information as to why there is an interest in a judicial clerkship. It should also, especially if the application is being sent to an out-of-state judge, indicate any possible connection to the jurisdiction or general geographic area. If one’s current employer has not been informed of the intent to apply, it is important to include a request for confidentiality. The resume should include a description of current job responsibilities emphasizing research and writing experience as well as analytical skills and abilities. The writing sample should consist of eight to 10 pages of excellent work. If the writing sample was created at a place of employment, remember to ask permission to use the material and always redact client names and any other identifying information. Some applicants use a paper or note written in law school and edit it to reflect a more mature written product. References can be the most difficult part of the application. If contact has been maintained with one’s law school faculty, it is advisable to request a reference from someone there. If it is more than two years since the applicant’s law school graduation or there has been no recent contact with a faculty member, it is best to ask an attorney who has seen and can evaluate the applicant’s recent work product. Choose someone who can not only evaluate the work but can also be asked to keep the application confidential as the clerkship market is explored. As to the transcript, a copy of an official transcript will do for an initial application. The judge will expect an official copy at some point during the process. SALARY Salaries are always a consideration when moving from the private to the public sector. With associate salary increases during the past few years, differences have widened substantially. A judicial clerkship salary is determined by a standard U.S. government pay scale. A range is used to determine the starting salary for an experienced lawyer being hired as a judicial law clerk. Salaries can range from $54,000 to $71,000 (plus government benefits) after one year out of law school, depending upon the individual’s level of experience and previous salary. (New law school graduates start at $45,000). The intent is to be more competitive with the salary that the clerk was making before the clerkship. LEAVING THE FIRM Once a clerkship offer has been accepted, be sure not to burn any bridges with a present employer when giving notice. Provide as much time as possible and be prepared to discuss post-clerkship options, including your intention to return to the firm at the conclusion of the clerkship. Be aware of work assignments that need to be completed. It is in everyone’s best interest to make the transition a smooth one for the firm, the court and the individual involved. Firms want to maintain good relations with judges and certainly with former clerks, and associates want to be able to return to the firm or to have references for the next career move. Ellen Wayne is dean of career services at Columbia Law School.

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