According to Kimm Alayne Walton, J.D., who wrote the national best-seller Guerilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams, Debra Strauss “is without question America’s judicial clerkship maven.” This is a title she truly deserves. In her book, Behind the Bench, the Guide to Judicial Clerkships (325 pages, The BarBri Group, $21.95), Ms. Strauss shares her knowledge on clerkships with both students and graduates seeking to further their careers.
Ms. Strauss was obviously smitten by her experience clerking for a federal judge after completing Yale Law School. She has developed a network of former clerks who shared her enthusiasm for the clerkship experience. She served as the Project Director of the National Judicial Clerkship Study and has also participated in initiatives that seek to open up clerkship opportunities to diverse law students and people of color.
Appendix E to Ms. Strauss’ book provides data from the National Judicial Clerkship Study showing that judicial clerkships have been prestigious and valuable career experiences historically enjoyed by very few Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and African Americans. During the five-year period under study (1994-1998), the demographics of the judicial clerk population did not significantly change, and did not seem to differ whether one considered federal, state or local court clerks. Less than 15% of clerkships were filled by diverse lawyers.
Perhaps more diverse lawyers would fill these positions if they were taught the importance of judicial clerkships and how to acquire them. According to Ms. Strauss, the keys to a successful clerkship application are the same as the keys to success in finding other legal jobs – grades and class ranking, law review or journal membership, work experience, legal research and writing skills, and references. Of course, not all law students will rank in the top 10% of their class. Ms. Strauss sends a message to those who do not have the highest class rankings – don’t despair of finding a valuable and fairly prestigious clerkship opportunity. Many clerkships at the state, local, and agency level are not highly prized by the law review members, but nonetheless offer the benefits of clerkship to those would “build” a winning resume for clerkship.
Key to building a successful clerkship application, a process which, contrary to popular belief, should begin as soon as a student enters the law school doors (not during the third year of law school when the applications are due) – particularly for students who do not lead in class ranking – is garnering recommendations from law professors and legal practitioners of all types. In fact, winning a clerkship virtually requires that you spend the two summers during law school working in legal-related jobs that will yield recommendations. If a would-be clerk is not able to secure a paying summer internship, then he or she must search for the best legal position possible, albeit unpaid or with very low pay. Clerking for the public defender or serving as a legal professor’s research assistant, for example, may not be as attractive a way to spend the summer as clerking for a fancy law firm, but it will definitely provide an important building block to a successful clerkship application – a recommendation from a legal employer or scholar as to the quality of your legal scholarship and the strength of your work ethic.
Ms. Strauss also gives practical advice on the typical clerkship application process. She helps you prepare for interviewing with judges – from the original legwork, like reading some of the judge’s published opinions, to dressing and grooming for the interview, to preparing answers to typical questions judges may ask in the interview, and finally to sending an appropriate thank-you letter to the judge following the interview.
While Ms. Strauss’ book can point you to a wealth of information on the web, she cannot produce what does not seem to exist at this time – a comprehensive source of information on all clerkships available throughout America. She cautions those who may not qualify for the highly sought clerkships that there are a wealth of organizations seeking clerks, where a young lawyer can develop prized skills and contacts. Clerking for federal agencies, for example, can open up a specialty to an enterprising and interested young lawyer, which can be exploited for many years to come. A law student serious about having a clerkship opportunity needs to spend time researching all of the possibilities. Perhaps that research should start with a careful reading of Ms. Strauss’ book. Purchase Book Here.
*This book review originally appeared on the web site, IMDiversity.com at -- http://imdcontentnew.searchease.com/Villages/Legal/judicial/bench503.asp.
Strauss, Debra M., Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships, Second edition (West Academic Publishing 2017).
Third edition (West Academic Publishing 2023)