For many, the judicial clerkship application process is, to quote Sir Winston Churchill, a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It is a frenzied “Pamplona-like” atmosphere that begins on Labor Day +1 and continues unabated for several weeks. The initial week is the make or break point in the application review process because it is then that the judge starts to read each application and makes a “yes” or “no” evaluation. If his vote is a “no,” then no further action is taken. If it is a “yes,” the application passes to the law clerks, who then begin their evaluation. Our experience reviewing these applications has led us to the unanimous conclusion that many applicants select their list of judges and put together their packets with little or no thought of strategy as to how to get their applications past this initial phase and into the “yes” pile. We would like to guide the judicial clerkship applicant through the application process by discussing how our chambers conducts the interview and selection process. Specifically, we hope to dispel rumors of what goes on behind the curtain, and ultimately shed some light on how a clerkship applicant could improve his or her chances of receiving an offer.
Although this article reflects the viewpoint of only one chambers, our collective experience is broad. Judge Ruggero J. Aldisert has been receiving law clerk applications, interviewing candidates and selecting clerks since 1961. From the standpoint of sheer experience in the law clerk selection process, Judge Aldisert must be near the top of the list of current federal appellate judges. His two present law clerks, Ryan Kirkpatrick and James Stevens, each wear two battle stars for action in the application process. Kirkpatrick and Stevens earned their first star in 2004 when they survived the initial post-Labor Day “running of the bulls,” a term which appropriately describes the federal judiciary’s present hiring plan. The two clerks earned their second star a year later when they closely examined each of the 200 applicants in the 2005 “stampede” and ultimately helped to select the two best candidates to go on to future honors.
The authors are fully aware that there is a vast amount of literature discussing the clerkship application process. Most of the literature is couched in somber academic tomes, one of which was serious enough to require 334 footnotes. Our treatment of the subject is far less scholarly. We will not be discussing the role of game theory or the use of the “medical-matching model” in law clerk selection. Our purpose is simply to provide an insider’s perspective into the clerkship application process and, in doing so, defend the following theses:
- Unless you are the Editor-in-Chief of your school’s main law review or one of the top five or ten students in your class, you need to set yourself apart from the competition.
- Your road to success is through the face-to-face interview with the Judge. In making this point, we depart from the truism in the decision-making process that writing a good brief is more important than oral argument. In your written applications you may have sterling academic records, stunning extracurricular activities, and superb references, but whether you get the job offer depends on how you perform at the personal interview.
Ruggero J. Aldisert, Ryan C. Kirkpatrick & James R. Stevens III,
Rat Race: Insider Advice on Landing Judicial Clerkships,
Dick. L. Rev.
Available at: https://ideas.dickinsonlaw.psu.edu/dlr/vol122/iss1/13