Judicial clerkships are among the most prestigious and competitive employment opportunities available to recent graduates. Usually lasting one to two years, a judicial clerkship is an excellent way to bridge the gap between law school and the practice of law. Clerks at all court levels obtain unparalleled access to and knowledge about the judicial process. Additionally, a judicial clerk is exposed to a wide array of legal issues and is able to make a hands-on contribution to the judicial decision-making process. A judicial clerkship can provide a significant edge in the legal job market not only because of increased knowledge of the law and court system, but because of the valuable contacts and personal relationships developed during the clerkship experience.
A law clerk or a judicial clerk is a person who provides assistance to a judge in researching issues before the court and in writing opinions. Law clerks are however not court clerks or courtroom deputies, who are administrative staff for the court.
Most law clerks are recent law school graduates who performed at or near the top of their class. Various studies have shown clerks to be influential in the formation of case law through their influence on judges’ decisions. Moreover, working as a law clerk generally opens up career opportunities.
There is no concise job description for a judicial clerk. The specific responsibilities of a clerk depend on the type of court at which the clerk serves and on the specific preferences of the judge. The judicial clerk is a full-time assistant to the judge and usually performs a wide range of tasks including, legal research, drafting of memoranda and court opinions, proofreading and cite checking. A judicial clerk is often responsible for various administrative tasks such as maintenance of the docket and library, assembling documents or other administrative tasks necessary to meet the many obligations of the judge.
Job duties vary by clerkship and by judge, but generally judicial clerks research legal issues and write memorandums and court documents. Clerks may also observe trials, oral arguments, and other judiciary proceedings.
Trial court clerks generally are responsible for a wider range of functions than appellate court clerks. This is primarily because a trial court is a fact-finding court, which deals directly with litigants and with the everyday details of the litigation process. As such, the trial court clerk is often responsible for assisting with discovery disputes, settlement conferences and trials. Trial court clerks draft trial briefs and opinions both short and long and maintain correspondence and contact with attorneys and witnesses. Students interested in litigation find a clerkship in a trial court particularly helpful in their understanding of the litigation process.
Appellate court clerks are more likely to spend most of their time researching and writing. An appellate court reviews cases for error from the trial court and does not have contact with the litigants apart from the oral argument. The primary tasks of an appellate judicial clerk are to review the record from the trial court, review the parties’ briefs to the court, research the applicable law and draft either a memorandum of law or a draft opinion for the judge.
Some courts serve only specialized areas of the law such as the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, the U.S. Tax Court, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the U.S. Court of International Trade. Judicial clerks serving these courts generally perform duties similar to judicial clerks at the trial level.
The clerkship positions at the United States Supreme Court are obviously the most competitive. In fact, U.S. Supreme Court clerks are not hired while the clerk is in law school. In order to be considered for a clerkship with the U.S. Supreme Court, applicants must almost always have completed a clerkship at the federal Court of Appeals level. Certain courts, such as the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit are considered most likely to lead to a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship. The credentials of individuals selected for such positions are almost always extraordinary.
In order to become a federal judicial clerk, an applicant must have completed his or her J.D. degree and be a U.S. citizen. A non-citizen of the United States may be employed by the federal judiciary to work for courts located in Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and Hawaii.