Judge Pamela Pepper had to bite her tongue when she read in the cover letter for a clerkship position that the applicant was excited about working in “Seattle, one of my favorite cities.”
“I resisted the urge to somehow respond and say, ‘I liked it too, the one time I visited there several years ago,’” said Pepper, chief judge of the Eastern District of Wisconsin Bankruptcy Court.
The candidate, Pepper said, clearly had done a mass mailing. Those letters, she said, read something like: “Dear Judge [name]: I’d really love to come work with you in [city]. I find [type of court] very interesting.”
Wisconsin’s federal jurists each receive about 300 clerkship applications per year. Some federal judges, typically those on the coasts, receive as many as 900 per year, said Judge Lynn Adelman, of the Eastern District of Wisconsin.
“Hiring law clerks is extremely competitive,” he said. “It’s extremely competitive among the law students who are the applicants, and it’s extremely competitive among the judges.”
Senior Judge Barbara Crabb, of the Western District of Wisconsin, said she typically interviews four applicants when she needs a clerk. And it’s difficult, she said, narrowing the list down to the top candidate.
“It’s rare to meet anybody and think, ‘I would never want to work with this person,’” Crabb said. “It’s much more usual to think, ‘Oh, can I hire all of you?’”
But judges cannot hire every applicant, and that makes it even more important to find the best ways to make the right choices.
OSCAR stands for “Online System for Clerkship Application and Review,” a program that connects judges and prospective clerks.
Pepper and Adelman said they use it when they know they will have openings, and they like the convenience of electronic applications.
A few years ago, a law clerk hiring system was set up for OSCAR users. Adelman said the program established a process and timeframe for hiring.
But he said he stopped following the program because he found that some judges did not play by the rules regarding the timing of hiring. Interested judges, for instance, were supposed to wait until a particular date to start scheduling interviews. But when Adelman made a few calls to candidates, many already had been hired.
The system also prohibits applications from students who have completed only their first year of law school, he said, and that can be too limiting.
OSCAR itself is a useful database, Adelman said, but it is not perfect.
Making the grade
Crabb said she places a premium on high GPAs and prefers candidates who rank in the top 10 percent of their classes.
But not everyone shares her view.
“I am less grade-focused, perhaps, than some other people,” Pepper said. “In part, it’s because I wasn’t a straight-A person in law school, and I hoped that someone would look at me and see something that wasn’t necessarily reflected entirely in my grades.”
Strong writing skills are crucial, Crabb said.
“The job is research and writing,” she said, “and the ability of a person to get across complicated legal issues in clear, understandable English is the main thing they need to be able to do.”
It’s even better, she said, if writing samples convey some proficiency with scientific or technical subjects because then she knows the candidate would not be baffled by, for instance, patent law cases.
Interests outside of the office
Pepper and Crabb said it catches their attention when candidates make it clear they have interests outside of the office.
“I interview all these terrific people,” Crabb said. “Then I see someone who’s really been involved in very important kinds of community-building service, and I think to myself, ‘That’s somebody I’d really like to know.’
“Or, if they’ve done something very unusual — we live in very hermetic quarters here, so to have someone with different experiences and a different outlook is fun.”
Still, Crabb said, it is important for candidates to set priorities.
“If it’s something you’ve devoted enormous amounts of time to,” she said, “you want to make sure the judge also knows that no matter how important that is to you, it doesn’t come first. You really want to be a law clerk, first and foremost.”
Pepper said she fits four people in her small office, and finding compatible personalities is a priority.
“I look for a team spirit and the ability to get along with everybody, particularly since we’re a trial-level court and there’s a lot of interaction with the public and lawyers,” she said.
She said she appreciates law clerks who accept constructive criticism, rather than taking offense.
Pepper and Adelman said they occasionally contact law schools to see whether there are any outstanding students who are interested in a clerkship.
So the goal, for new law students especially, Pepper said, is to impress professors as early as possible because their opinions matter.
And students who catch the attention of their professors should make sure that any recommendation letters include details, Crabb said. So, she said, when forming relationships with professors or others who might write recommendations, students should make sure the relationships are close enough so the letters can include anecdotes and specific descriptions of strengths.