State Courts and Fed Courts and Specialty Courts, Oh My!

Today I had the honor of being a panelist for a Public Interest Scholars clerkship event. I will be clerking with Justice Mary I. Yu on the Washington Supreme Court during the 2019-2020 term. Other panelists included several current and former BU Public Interest Scholars. My friend and fellow 3L Kenneth Meador will clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims following our graduation in 2018. Recent graduate Matt Lawrence is currently clerking at the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, while Blair Komar (class of 2012) clerked at the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans, LA.

Several 1Ls attended and asked excellent questions, many of which I remember wondering myself not two years ago. Here are some of our answers:

How did you decide to apply to your respective courts?

Some important considerations include your preferred locations, jurisdictions, and areas of interest. While applying to a wide array of federal judges is probably the most common strategy, it’s important to think about how the clerkship will further your individual career goals. Your unique interests or objectives may take you in a totally different direction from your peers. For example, Kenny’s passion is connecting veterans with services after they return home from war, so his experience with an administrative law court that deals exclusively with veterans’ issues will serve his long-term career goals well.

There are a myriad of other specialty courts in Massachusetts and beyond—Family Court, Land Court, Drug Court, Juvenile Court, Veterans Appeals, etc. The list goes on and on! Being selective about your court gives you the opportunity to focus on issues you are truly excited about. I personally can’t wait to return to Washington State after law school, so I prioritized clerking within Washington’s state court system.

Another consideration is the duration of your clerkship. My clerkship is one year long, whereas many others are two years, particularly federal district court clerkships. Depending on your career goals or family situation, the length of the clerkship may factor into where you want to apply.

What is the application timeline?

This varies a lot! Look up the timeline for your particular court, and don’t trust blanket advice on application timing. While federal courts generally have the most predictable timelines, state courts have a much broader range of dates. There may even be significant variance between two judges on the same bench! I submitted my application during 2L fall, then interviewed and received an offer the following spring. As a rule of thumb, apply early unless other rules or customs apply. If you are applying to a state court, be mindful of any elections or judicial terms that may impact your judge.

What if my grades aren’t stellar?

 Apply anyway. Don’t disqualify yourself! Great 1L grades are certainly a plus, even a requirement for some chambers, but less stellar grades may not eliminate you from the running entirely. It is worth your time to research the type of clerks your judge typically employs. Do they prefer clerks who have practiced law or who arrive straight out of law school? Non-traditional clerks with interesting work experience? Clerks with connections to their jurisdiction? Clerks with connections to a particular school or the judge’s alma mater? Clerks who have specific career goals in mind in the public or private sector?

Is it possible to get a clerkship if I don’t do a journal? 

Yes—although be prepared to discuss why you chose a different path in law school. My decision to not do a journal was very deliberate; I did not even participate in the write-on competition. Because my goals centered on honing my brief writing and oral advocacy skills, I believed participating in BU’s Stone Moot Court and the national Judge John R. Brown Admiralty Moot Court Competition was a wiser use of my time.

As a 1L, what can I do now to set myself up for success?

In addition to studying hard, my foremost piece of advice is to develop strong relationships with your professors. Convey your intellectual curiosity by participating in class and attending office hours. Many professors will happily recommend a thoughtful student who happened to have a bad test day. Similarly, receiving an A grade does not necessarily guarantee a recommendation, particularly if the professor has trouble remembering your name.

Any final thoughts?

Don’t sell yourself short, put your best self forward (even if your best self is hopelessly terrible at law school exams), and apply to the chamber that is right for you! Good luck!

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