Clerking is somewhat different. Students in their third year of law school (after spending the summer working in some capacity) apply to clerk in various judges' chambers. There are Federal or State clerkships and there is no limit to the number of judges that a person can apply to. Judges use a variety of factors to consider potential interviews: prestige of school, gpa, undergraduate gpa (they always ask for transcripts and resumes), anything interesting on your resume, and letters of recommendations. Judges can receive up to 1,000 applications for 1 spot, making competition rather fierce. Obviously the number of applicants varies depending on the prestige and location of the clerkship. Federal judges in Manhattan receive more applicants, for example, than State judges in Dover, Delaware. Applicants apply for clerkships a year in advance of their start date.
My boss is currently in the process of hiring his next clerk. Although he does all the interviews and makes all the decisions himself, my co-clerk and I do get a chance to review the resumes, cover letters, writing samples, transcripts, and letters of recommendation for all the applicants. He'll usually ask if anything jumps out at us as particularly interesting or even any red flags. This is why I decided to write this post. He has essentially narrowed his decision down to a final few candidates and I am always interested in what separates successful candidates from everyone else. I am really happy I got the opportunity to see so many different applications and my judge's corresponding reaction to them. Here is a more thorough clerkship checklist.
First of all, I hate writing cover letters. I never really thought they accomplished much and served more as a deterrent in keeping less serious applicants from applying. Essentially, in a cover letter you're supposed to say why you want the job. Why the hell do you think I want the job? Because I either 1) hate my current job and I want a new one, 2) I don't have a job and I need a new one, 3) the job sounds cool, or 4) the job pays a crap ton of money. What else do you need to know? So cover letters always annoyed me because it is so disingenuous to say things like, "I am really interested in the prospect of learning from an experienced litigator." Gag me, seriously. So I always write cover letters that are a little less "boiler plate." Well, I think the reason I like my judge so much is that our personalities are very similar. He doesn't want 3 paragraphs of bullshit. He wants someone to say something that isn't in their resume. For example, who do you know? Yes, knowing someone is huge. It doesn't have to be anyone important, and you don't have to know them all that well, but just an indication that you actually investigated the firm/judge by talking to someone can make all the difference. Or how the person settled on this court versus any other court. Stories or anecdotes from your last legal job may also be important.
There were a lot of cover letters that said people liked Hawaii when they went on family vacation and thought it would be cool to live here. Don't lead with that. While that may be true, all you're really saying is that you're making a career decision based on family vacation. Seriously? I took a family trip to Mexico and swam with Dolphins, but I'm not about to be a dolphin trainer. Shape up. But ultimately, what else can you say? You think clerking in Hawaii would be cool. Well, it's okay to include that, but not as the opener. I liked the cover letters that off-handedly referenced the fact that Hawaii (and its daily 85 degree weather) would be a great backdrop for whatever other crap was included in the cover letter about why they were applying.
Resumes/GPA - this is pretty standard. If you come from a tier 4 school with a shitty GPA, then good luck. A bad GPA at a great school still hurts. A GPA could be saved, though, by being interesting. I have extended conversations with my judge - about news, sports, cases, and different Hawaiian experiences - at least twice a day. A resume can indicate that you're an interesting person (but do yourself a favor, don't be THIS interesting). Did you play sports growing up or in college? Are you a 5'3'' girl who boxes? Did you work for NASA? Did you work before going to law school?
Personality - This should speak for itself, but sadly, there are some people who really blow it when you meet them. They're great on paper and then you meet them and you want to shoot yourself in the face within 5 minutes. The same can also be true of employers who are dreadfully boring. If an interviewer is awkward, it makes for a loooong interview. I wish we could implement the Lemon Law for job interviews! From the start of the interview, you have 5 minutes to declare lemon law so you don't have to waste the next 30 minutes to 3 hours (yes, some clerkship interviews will last 3 hours) when you know you're not going to get hired or accept the job. No hard feelings, good luck with the search.