To clerk or not to clerk? That's the first question Debra Strauss poses in Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships. If you're wavering about how to launch your career, this fantastic reference book will be helpful.
Strauss believes, as do most experts in the field, that clerking "is an optimum way to begin your legal career." Nevertheless, she suggests that the arbitrary and chaotic process of applying for clerkships discourages students from seizing the opportunity to work with a judge after law school. Behind the Bench remedies this by integrating clerkship advice, anecdotes, statistics, instructions, and resource lists into one location.
Strauss, an adjunct professor and director of the Federal Judicial Extern Honors Program at Pace University School of Law, brings to the book a longstanding clerkship prowess. She clerked with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, led the clerkship program at Yale, and directed the National Judicial Clerkship Study.
Strauss covers just about everything you need to know to get started on the path to a clerkship. From general questions such as what exactly is a law clerk, to specific ones such as how to address a judge in a cover letter and what to wear in your interview, you'll find explicit answers.
Strauss doesn't skimp on the harsh realities of the academic competitiveness inherent in applying for a judicial clerkship. At the same time, she warns against getting unduly put off by exaggerated claims that getting a clerkship is impossible without high grades or a prestigious school. Instead, she provides practical exercises to help readers determine what they're looking for in judge and job, and how to find it.
Strauss also describes the state courts and other less-considered clerkship opportunities such as magistrate and bankruptcy courts.
If you already have a clerkship, Behind the Bench can be useful, too. Peruse the chapters on clerkships and finances or learn about negotiating clerkship opportunities with your firm. And if you're gunning for the Supreme Court, you'll find 10 pages of advice, including a list of appellate "feeder judges" and instructions on how to apply.
1Ls and 2Ls should be advised that when the book was published,** the Law Clerk Hiring Plan (aka moratorium on federal clerkship hiring) was in its early stages. While Strauss discusses the plan and cautions readers that future changes are imminent, some of her advice directed at 2Ls applying for federal clerkships is outdated. So check with your career services office for the latest guidelines.
For all of its comprehensiveness, an unfortunate weakness of Behind the Bench is its treatment of clerkships and sexual orientation. Strauss dedicates a full chapter to issues relevant to minority and female applicants, but she includes only a few statistics relevant to gay applicants. Moreover, while she covers such things as revealing political ideologies, she doesn't anticipate the common concern of some applicants of whether or not to be upfront about their sexual orientation when applying to judges.
That said, the book is essential for anyone who wants the lowdown on clerkships. Shortly before a recent interview with the Southern District of New York, one of my students recently summed up the bottom line on Behind the Bench: "I wish I would have had this six months ago!"
*Julie Schell was the judicial clerkship program coordinator at Columbia Law School at the time this review was written. This book review originally appeared in the Recess section of Student Lawyer, Vol. 32, No. 1, p. 14 (American Bar Association Publishing, September 2003) here. See ABA Student Lawyer.
**NOTE: This review was written about the original first edition of the book (2002) before the new updated editions of the book were published.
Strauss, Debra M., Behind the Bench: The Guide to Judicial Clerkships, Second edition (West Academic Publishing 2017).
Third edition (West Academic Publishing 2023)