Clerkships: The YLS Advantage
I won’t mince words here: the clerkship process is unpleasant. It’s maddeningly opaque, it has many of the features of an insider’s game, it’s incredibly competitive, and in the last two years the hiring plan—the last bit of order to the process—has fallen apart. At the same time, clerkships remain plum jobs after graduation. Clerks get to read, research, and write about fascinating legal issues. They observe the judicial process firsthand and work closely with experienced and talented judges. Finally, clerkships are fantastic resume boosters in both the public and private sectors.
As the application process changes, the Yale name still goes a long way. Over one third of recent YLS graduates clerked after law school. Federal judges may receive hundreds, even thousands, of applications for each law clerk position. The easiest way to prune such a large pile of applications is to look at applicants’ schools and GPAs. A YLS degree, however, is no guarantee of a clerkship, especially in the most competitive markets—New York, California, and Washington D.C. Successful applicants don’t get an offer from every, or even most, judges. Instead they play the probabilities by boosting their credentials and aggressively seeking clerkships for which they have the best chance of an offer.
Thus, I would strongly advise incoming students to do two things. First, start thinking about clerkships early on. Most of the steps that help you obtain a clerkship have independent value. Getting good grades, publishing papers, working as a research assistant, and taking multiple classes with professors you like will help in any job hunt, clerkship or not. By taking these steps early on, you give yourself option value, holding open the possibility of a clerkship rather than foreclosing it through inaction. Because of how competitive the application process is, relationships with professors are especially important. Many judges base their hiring decisions, after the initial screening of applications, principally on the recommendations of trusted professors.
Second, work hard to inform yourself about the process, and keep that information up to date. Every class seems to have a few students who soak up knowledge through the grapevine about who is clerking and for which judges, when judges are hiring, and what different judges value. Befriend those students. And then do your own independent research. Read about judges in areas of the country where you will want to clerk. Read reviews from prior clerks and email current clerks if you are thinking about applying.