Judicial Clerkships: A Guide for African American Law Students


judicial clerkships

Credit: BigStock

From the moment you enter law school, you must begin planning your career. While today’s law students have a variety of career options, too few students consider clerking after law school. Some students don’t understand the benefits of clerking. Others know the benefits, but believe they are unqualified. This post will explain the benefits of judicial clerkships and why law students – particularly African American law students – should consider applying for them.

The Importance of Judicial Clerkships

Judges hand down hundreds of decisions each year, but they don’t do it alone. Nearly every local, state, and federal judge employs one or more law clerks. A law clerk is a recent law grad who works for the judge. A judge’s clerk reads the parties’ briefs, researches the law, and prepares the judge for hearings. Some judges even let the clerks draft their opinions. In short, the clerk provides the judge with vital legal assistance.

Clerks help judges, but the clerk also benefits from the relationship. First, judicial clerkships provide new lawyers with a deeper understanding of the law. For instance, thanks to subject matter and diversity jurisdiction, federal courts cover everything from contracts to constitutional law. After reading hundreds of briefs, law clerks become expert at civil procedure. Sitting through trials brings the rules of evidence into focus. Clerkships give new lawyers exposure to areas of the law they might not otherwise encounter.

Second, clerking gives young attorneys a solid professional network. Of course, having a judge in your network is a good thing. But clerking provides networking opportunities beyond chambers. Judges usually connect their new and former clerks. Judges are frequent guests at legal (and non-legal) networking events. Clerking is a wonderful way to build professional connections.

Finally, clerking gives you an advantage with employers. Employers value clerkships because law clerks must read, write, and research at a high level on a daily basis. When a firm hires a clerk, they know he can hit the ground running on his first day. This advantage lasts throughout your legal career. In fact, for some legal jobs – particularly academic positions – a clerkship is an unspoken requirement.

In short, clerking can only help your legal career.

Diversity and Judicial Clerkships

As this blog has often noted, the legal profession lacks diversity. Sadly, when it comes to judicial clerkships, the situation is no different. In 2000, NALP reported that 84.8% of clerkship applicants were white while just 4.7 percent were African American. Ten years later, NALP found that African Americans comprised less than five percent of all law clerks. From 2005 to 2018, only 20 African Americans clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court. (Over 450 clerks worked at the Court during that period.) Clearly, this is a sad state of affairs.

Despite the current lack of diversity, there is hope. NALP’s 2000 report also examined an applicant’s likelihood of success. NALP found that 68.9 percent of white clerkship applicants received offers. Judges extended offers to 66.7 percent of Black applicants. The numbers indicate that when Black students apply, they have a good chance of being hired.

Yes, You are Qualified to Clerk!

NALP found that the majority of students who chose not to apply for clerkships did so because they believed they were unqualified. While all law students feel this way at some point, racism and stereotype threat make African American law students particularly prone to doubt their abilities. However, students may be basing their beliefs on bad information.

It’s true that if you want a federal clerkship, you should be near the top of your class. But it’s also true that federal clerkships are not the only clerkships. State appellate court judges need clerks. State trial court judges need clerks. County and city judges need clerks. Moreover, many courts hire “pool” clerks to handle pro se matters, assist senior judges, or handle other matters. If you look beyond federal courts, you might find a clerkship that suits you.

Once you find your perfect clerkship, you’ll need to apply. if you are interested in applying, talk to your career services office. Later this year, The African American Attorney Network will provide guidance on how to apply for a clerkship and evaluate your offers. Follow the Network for more insight on clerkships and other issues affecting African American law students.