Career Services Office

Overview of Judicial Clerkships

Why Clerk?

1. Experience: A judicial clerkship provides an opportunity to gain extensive first-hand knowledge and experience in a wide range of substantive and procedural legal matters. Judicial clerks gain confidence in courtroom presence and protocol, and handle complex litigation and courtroom procedures.

2. Credentials: Because clerkships are highly sought after experiences, they are very competitive. Clerkships expose graduates to legal practice and procedure, provide excellent research and writing experience, and give insight into the inner workings of the courtroom. Often, clerks go on to work in the public and private sectors.

3. Public Service: A judicial clerkship is a wonderful way to gain experience in the public interest sector. The judicial law clerk has the opportunity to work on matters that may set precedent, or change the course of conduct for businesses or agencies, or require different standards for corporations and government. This work directly impacts and serves the public.

4. Value: Firms, corporations, academic institutions and government agencies alike place great value on the judicial clerkship experience when seeking candidates to fill employment opportunities. Some larger firms may offer signing bonuses for judicial clerks, while many firms of varying sizes typically give all or partial credit for the year or two spent as a judicial clerk. Although the salary for judicial clerks may be less than that available in other sectors, the potential earning power of judicial clerks is as good as, or better than, other second or third year associates.

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Types of Clerkships

Individuals can serve as judicial law clerks for judges at virtually every type of court — federal, state, local, international or specialty, and at every level of court — trial, appellate and court of last resort or supreme court. Individual judicial clerks are known as elbow clerks, for working closely “at the judge’s elbow”. These positions are granted either by term or on a permanent basis. The terms vary but generally are from one (1) to two (2) years, though a few may last as long as four (4) years. Some judges may offer indefinite (permanent) clerkships.

In addition, clerkship opportunities are also available with some courts as a whole rather than with an individual judge. Generally, these clerks, known as staff attorneys or court law clerks, are responsible for such matters as pro se appeals, appeals to be decided summarily, substantive motions, jurisdictional issues, and other matters on the non-argument calendar. These positions may also run one to two years or can be permanent.

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What does a Judicial Clerk do?

Regardless of the court, a clerk’s work depends chiefly upon the needs and practices of the judge. Some judges, but not all, discuss questions with their clerks before reaching a decision. Some judges prefer oral briefings; others prefer written memoranda. Some judges expect their clerks to compose draft opinions or jury instructions; others ask their clerks only to provide bench memoranda.

1. General Duties: Generally, a judicial law clerk is an attorney hired to assist a judge with his or her various responsibilities, including administrative work. There are no strictly defined duties, as the clerk carries out the judge’s instructions. The work varies from court to court and from judge to judge, but normally a clerk will perform the following tasks:

2. Administrative Duties: There may be a number of administrative functions that a judge also will assign to a clerk. Those functions include:

3. Terms of Employment: Most federal judges hire two to three law clerks per year, while most state judges hire one or two. Clerkships typically last one or two years, although some judges hire clerks to serve indefinite (permanent) terms.

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Availibility of Clerkships

In applying for a clerkship, it is important to consider which system, and at what level, you would like to clerk.

Federal Courts

Federal Appellate Courts: Each judge and senior judge on active status serving on each of the dozen federal circuit courts has two or three “elbow” clerks who work directly for the judge. In total, there are over 500 such clerkships nationwide. Federal appellate clerkships are the most difficult to obtain. Most, but not all, of the “feeder” judges who regularly send their clerks on to clerk for a second year at the U.S. Supreme Court work at the federal appellate level. In addition, every circuit has a central staff of court clerks or staff attorneys.

Federal Trial Courts: There are several hundred active district judges in the federal system. Most have two law clerks.

Other Federal Courts: Federal magistrates and bankruptcy judges frequently hire clerks to assist them in their work. Federal magistrates handle pretrial matters in major federal litigation and also have original jurisdiction in certain criminal matters. Bankruptcy judges adjudicate a wide variety of bankruptcy and general commercial law disputes. The U.S. Court of Federal Claims handles claims against the U.S., and the Tax Court handles disputes with the IRS. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the federal Circuit handles patent cases and often deals with intellectual property matters.

The list below sets forth courts with federal clerkship opportunities:

State courts

State Appellate Courts: Every state has a court of last resort. Many have one or more intermediate appellate courts. And some — like New York and California — have highly developed intermediate appellate systems. Most state Supreme Court justices and many intermediate appellate court judges have one or more clerks. Other intermediate appellate courts depend on a central legal staff to handle cases for all judges. Still other courts rely on both central staff clerks and “elbow” clerks. In Illinois, clerkships vary from district-to-district; for specific information, please read the CSO’s “A Guide to Illinois Appellate Court Judicial Clerkship Programs”.

State Trial Courts: Many states provide clerks to their trial court judges. In Illinois, again, the availability of state trial courts varies across districts.

The list below more specifically identifies courts with state clerkship opportunities (court names may vary from state to state):

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Qualifications for Clerkships

Judges look at a wide range of criteria when selecting clerks. While academic credentials are obviously a factor, judges consider the whole person, including involvement in various law school activities, prior careers and geographic ties. strong writers are often preferred and personality can be an important factor as well.


Current appropriations law prohibits the use of appropriated funds to pay the compensation of any employee of the U.S. federal government where the duty location is in the continental U.S. unless such person:

  1. is a U.S. citizen;
  2. is a person who owes allegiance to the U.S. (i.e., nationals of American Samoa, Swains Island, and the Northern Mariana Islands, and nationals who meet other requirements described in 8 U.S.C. 1408);
  3. is a person admitted as a refugee or granted asylum who has filed a declaration of intention to become a lawful permanent resident and then a citizen when eligible; or
  4. is a lawful permanent resident who is seeking citizenship as outlined in 8 U.S.C. 1324b(a)(3)(B).

To comply with requirement No. 4 above, an individual must be a lawful permanent resident (have a green card) and apply for citizenship within a short time of first becoming eligible to do so. An individual is not eligible to apply for citizenship until he or she has been a permanent resident for at least five years (three years if seeking naturalization as a spouse of a citizen). When that occurs, he or she must apply for citizenship within six months of becoming eligible and must complete the process within two years of applying (unless there is a delay caused by the processors of the application).

NOTE: A lawful permanent resident who is not yet eligible to apply for citizenship at the start of judicial employment may lawfully be employed by the judiciary, provided that he or she submits an affidavit indicating the intent to apply for citizenship when eligible to do so. A sample form of this affidavit has been provided to the courts.The appropriations law requirements apply to anyone appointed into a paid position within the judiciary in the continental U.S.

The appropriations law requirements do not apply to employees with a duty station in Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam, or the Northern Mariana Islands, nor do the requirements apply to unpaid volunteers.

Judiciary offices must obtain concurrence from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Office of General Counsel, to appoint an individual who is not a U.S. citizen.

In addition to the above appropriations law, The United States Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), mandates all federal government agencies in the continental U.S. comply with the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) which states that federal government agencies must hire only U.S. citizens and aliens who are authorized to work in the United States. All individuals appointed by a judiciary office must complete the Employment Eligibility Verification Form (Form I-9) certifying their eligibility to work in the U.S.

*According to the OSCAR (Online System for Clerkship Application Review)

Academic Qualifications

Any student or graduate may apply for a judicial clerkship. These positions, however, are highly competitive, and in general, the higher the court, the more selective the judge. Judges often consider a wide variety of credentials in evaluating candidates, in addition to intellectual ability and strong writing skills. As such, students should assess their qualifications in light of the following factors:

Background and Credentials

Judges give considerable weight to academic records and to evidence of an applicant’s writing ability. As such, membership on law review can be a great advantage and, for some judges, it is virtually indispensable. If you are not on law review, you should seek other opportunities to develop and display your writing skills, including courses that require papers or briefs, or a position as a research assistant. It is also useful to publish an article in a law journal.

While the applicant’s academic record is a significant consideration, especially for a federal clerkship application, a transcript filled with all “A”s is not required except by a few competitive courts. Every year graduates with average academic records are successful in obtaining clerkships. Many judges pay particular attention to the character of their applicants, searching for candidates with maturity, integrity and judgment. Evidence of character can come from a range of sources including prior work experience, law school activities, advanced degrees, and/or a demonstrated commitment to social issues or public interest work. Many judges affirmatively encourage applications from women and minority candidates. Some judges, particularly those who sit on courts away from the major East and West Coast legal centers, look for candidates who are from the geographic area and/or interested in practicing in the community where the judge sits.

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