The term "judicial clerkship" refers to a number of post-graduation positions within the federal and state court systems. Judicial clerkships are generally limited to a term of one or two years, but some judges hire “permanent” law clerks. In a traditional clerkship, the clerk is hired by and works directly with a single judge; the working relationship in such a clerkship is so close that the clerk is often referred to as an "elbow clerk." Some courts employ “staff attorneys” or a pool of law clerks who serve the court as a whole or a number of judges in a given jurisdiction for term of one or more years. For most judicial clerks, the clerkship will be their first full-time legal job. Others may have practiced as attorneys for a year or more before clerking.
Judicial clerks’ core responsibility is to help judges decide particular issues of law. When a party moves to dismiss, moves for summary judgment, moves to exclude evidence from trial, or appeals a lower court judgment, for example, the law clerk will read and may also listen to the arguments raised by the parties, research the issues, and write a memo summarizing the facts, issues, arguments, and possible resolutions. The judge may want to discuss the disputed issues with her clerks before and after oral argument. The judge may ask the clerk to prepare a tentative opinion to hand to the parties before oral argument or to draft the opinion and order after oral argument.
Judicial clerks may have other duties as well. Some clerks are asked to help research, write, and edit their judge’s speeches and scholarly publications. Other clerks are asked to help with administrative tasks such as docketing, keeping the files in order, and maintaining the library. These additional duties vary from judge to judge.
Many consider a judicial clerkship one of the most interesting or rewarding legal jobs in their legal career, free from the pressures of advocacy and billable hours, and therefore the experience itself makes a clerkship worthwhile regardless of what they may do in the future. Others see a clerkship as an extension of their legal education, an opportunity to spend a year or two viewing the legal world from a judge’s perspective and learning the difference between good and bad advocacy. Most seek a clerkship because it is a great credential that often opens doors for their legal career. Employers recognize that a judicial clerk spends a year or two doing rigorous legal research and writing under the supervision of a judge and that person would be in a better position to make informed judgments about how judges would rule on certain issues, or respond to different methods of advocacy than someone without that experience.
Of course the value of clerkships to potential employers varies, depending on the clerkship, the type of practice and location. For some legal jobs a clerkship is almost a requirement, such as tenure-track positions at highly selective law schools or highly competitive fellowships (e.g., a fellowship in the Office of the Solicitor General). If you plan to work in a small family law firm, a clerkship with a federal specialty court (such as the Court of Federal Claims) may offer benefits only on the process side; developing legal research and writing skills, observing how a judge operates, and seeing effective and ineffective legal arguments made by advocates.
The decision about whether to pursue a clerkship rests on many factors, and we recommend that you talk to former and current law clerks to help you make your decision. Start by talking to the many Iowa faculty/staff who have held judicial clerkships.
Judicial clerkships are competitive, some more than others. Once you determine you are interested in seeking a judicial clerkship, contact the Judicial Clerkship Coordinator for assistance. Many state and federal judges/courts begin hiring 12-18 months in advance of a clerkship start date, so students generally start applying for these positions as early as the spring of their second year, with most applications submitted during the fall of their third year. Some judges/courts hire within months of the clerkship start date, so limited opportunities may still be available during the spring of the third year.
If you are a 2L or 3L interested in applying for a post-graduation judicial clerkship and you are interested in subscribing to the law school's judicial clerkship listserv, please complete the registration form available on the judicial clerkship bulletin board in the hallway; you may also request the form via e-mail. The listserv is used as the main or only avenue for communicating certain information to interested students due to the nature of the messages and number of interested students. (Alumni are welcome to join the listserv as well.)
- Federal Judges Law Clerk Hiring Plan (Explanation of hiring plan followed by most federal judges)
- OSCAR (Online System for Clerkship Application Review)
- Federal Courts Web Sites (Contact information for US Courts)
- Federal Judicial Center (Education and Research Agency for the Federal Courts)
- Senate Judiciary Committee (Information on Judicial Nominations and Confirmation Hearings)
- US DOJ's Office of Legal Policy - Judicial Nominations
- Yale Law Library - Judicial Nominations
- College of Law Job Bulletin [pdf]
- The Third Branch (Newsletter of the Federal Courts
- Clerkship Guide (Information and Advice on Clerkships)
- State Judicial Clerkship Procedures Guide (Contact CSO for password)
- Clerkship Notification Blog (Information about Clerkship Applications and Vacancies)