Ever since David Lat LAW ’99, founder and managing editor of the legal blog Above the Law, clerked for the United States Court of Appeals for the ninth circuit, he thought the colorful personalities and sprawling court he encountered would lend themselves well to a novel. Over a decade later, while writing his first book “Supreme Ambitions,” Lat finally got the chance to put his own fictional spin on one of the United States’ biggest federal circuits.
For Yalies, the book hits close to home. But it also delves into a topic that both drives and haunts many students at Yale Law School and beyond — judicial clerkships, which are full-time, post-graduate positions that advise judges on cases at the district, state or federal level.
A PROCESS IN FLUX
The timeline for acquiring clerkships has changed considerably over the last several years, according to Columbia Law School Director of Academic Counseling and Judicial Programming Anne Green. This shift in the timeline has forced younger law students to start thinking about clerkships sooner. In Lat’s novel, Audrey does not apply for a judicial clerkship until her third and final year of law school. But Green said today’s law students often interview for these positions during the summer after their first year of law school, even though they will not fill them for two more years.
These changes are in part due to the elimination of the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan early last year, which regulated the clerkship application process, according to the United States Courts website.
At the same time, Green noted, more judges are hiring graduates with a few years of work experience, leading some students to choose to wait until near the end of their law school career, applying for a clerkship after they have obtained a job at which they can work for one or two years after graduation. Alternatively, others even postpone applications until they are already working.
But Harvard Law School Director of Judicial Clerkships Kirsten Solberg said that the increase in applications from older law students has made it more competitive for law students who want to begin their clerkships immediately after law school.
Solberg said that 10 years ago, 95 percent of HLS graduates entered clerkships right after graduating, while only five percent took time between law school and clerking. Now, she said, that ratio has drastically changed, with the number of Harvard Law alums clerking split at about 50–50 between these two groups.
But Solberg said this added competition has not discouraged Harvard students from applying for clerkships. In fact, more are doing so because the judiciary has not seen the same shrinkage in positions that law firms have in recent years.
Yale Law School Career Development Office Director Kelly Voight cautioned that this new trend of students applying for clerkships earlier in their law school careers is not unsurprising given long-term patterns in the clerkship hiring process.
“Clerkship hiring has proven to be cyclical,” she said. “Over the past 30 years, we’ve gone through periods with a regular schedule, hiring later in the student’s academic career and periods of non-regulation like [what] exists today.”
A RITE OF INITIATION
Voight said around 35 to 40 percent of Yale Law School graduates clerk immediately after graduating, a number that has remained fairly constant over the last several years.
Despite this relative stability, some Yale Law students said the clerkship hiring process is itself inherently flawed.
A YLS student who would only speak under anonymity said YLS’s process of attaining a clerkship lacks transparency. The student added that attaining a clerkship often depends on getting good grades in classes taught by professors who have strong connections to judges, creating competition in and out of the classroom to outperform peers.
Elizabeth Willis LAW ’17 said Yale does a good job of working within the confines of that challenging structure. Akunna Cook LAW ’16, however, said there is a major flaw with applying for clerkships from Yale Law School: unequal access to information. Some people are privileged and receive lots of information, she said, and others are instead kept in the dark and ultimately harmed in the application process.
But Alex Schultz LAW ’17 said he thinks that generally the information his classmates have is the same as his, and that this is indicative of a fair process.
Greg Cui LAW ’17 said he has found input from professors and peers, along with informational panels organized by Yale Law School, helpful in navigating the beginnings of the clerkship process. Law School professor Akhil Amar said he views this advising process as critical to his role as a law professor.
“If a student does good work for a professor, I think the professor needs to stand by the student and let the world know that that student did good work,” he said. “That’s kind of the social contract, especially at a school like Yale.”
April Hu LAW ’17 said many students try to get a clerkship after graduating because there is a common assumption that this will open many doors in the professional field. Many people entertain the idea of a clerkship, she added, without really knowing the precise reason.
Lat said that given his experience with clerkships, he thinks the process of obtaining them can sometimes be political. Certain judges, though not all, use personal politics as a key factor in deciding about a particular applicant, depending on how much disagreement and diversity of perspective they want in their court. Yale Law School professor Owen Fiss said he hopes politics do not play a role in clerkship hiring. He added that when students apply for a clerkship, it is important for them to choose wisely which judge to clerk for.
“I think the law clerk’s highest duty is to be a critic of the judge,” he said. “The best person to work for the judge is [someone who] would give him or her the best opportunity to work in the law and not one that serves some political interest.”