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Upon graduating from law school, many students are eager to capitalize on all their hard work, and the immediate payoff of a lucrative job offer can be tempting. But greater long-term rewards may be realized through a more patient path: a judicial clerkship.
Usually lasting a year or two, judicial clerkships allow law school graduates to continue their education, learning in a real-world setting from some of the brightest and most experienced minds in the justice system.
“These are prestigious positions in which a person works really closely with the judge, helping the judge render decisions,” said Kaipo Matsumura, an associate professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University who clerked for Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena, California. “Clerkships provide incomparable learning experiences that build on the education one receives in law school and set one’s career on a higher arc. If you look at the people who are appointed to be judges and Supreme Court justices in Arizona, many of them have done clerkships.”
Matsumura is a member of ASU Law’s clerkship committee, along with fellow professors Betsy Grey, Amy Langenfeld, and Erin Scharff. The committee works with students, encouraging them to seek clerkships. Assistance is offered in the form of information sessions, individual counseling, and receptions with state and federal judges.
And clerkship opportunities are abundant in downtown Phoenix, the home of ASU Law’s Beus Center for Law and Society. The largest state capital in the country, Phoenix is home to city, county, state and federal courts.
Racheal White Hawk, a 2016 ASU Law graduate, decided to pursue a clerkship because she knew the experience would ultimately make her a better lawyer. In particular, she wanted to clerk in the federal court system, because she plans to practice federal Indian law. She is currently on her second clerkship, with Ninth Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder, after clerking for Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales.
“You learn a great deal from your judge, who is typically a seasoned attorney and can teach you how to identify strong or weak legal arguments and can help you understand complex legal issues that you may not have encountered in law school,” White Hawk said. “Clerks often watch oral arguments as well, which is helpful in learning techniques for oral advocacy.”
For students on the fence about whether to pursue a clerkship, what do judges advise?
“There really is not a downside to it,” said U.S. District Judge John Tuchi. “I suppose the only downside is if for some reason, maybe to deal with student loans or other pressing financial issues, you need to get out and make as much money as you possibly can, and obviously private practice — in a big firm, anyway — pays more than a clerkship. But the clerkship is only going to be for a year or two, and the tradeoff, to me — it’s a no-brainer.”
Tuchi serves in Phoenix, in the District of Arizona, where his legal roots were established. After graduating from ASU Law in 1994, he clerked for Ninth Circuit Judge William Canby — one of the founding faculty members of ASU Law. What he learned from Canby profoundly shaped not only his career, but his life.
“I got to see how somebody who had been invested with a huge amount of authority by our government reacted to that responsibility and that authority,” Tuchi said. “And I happened to work for one of the most decent human beings in the world. So it was a very positive example for me to take forward as to what kind of a lawyer I wanted to be, what kind of a person I wanted to be, and what kind of a public servant I wanted to be.”
Sitting alongside Canby in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is Judge Andrew Hurwitz, who also teaches at ASU Law. Hurwitz had a pair of clerkships under his belt — with Judge Jon Newman of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut, and Judge John Joseph Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit — before landing a third with Associate Justice Potter Stewart of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.
Hurwitz agrees with Tuchi that judicial clerks must make a short-term sacrifice. “You’ve got to be ready to postpone the beginning of your earning career a little bit.” But the value of a clerkship is not quantified by salary.
“I think it is just a great opportunity, in the right setting, to have a year or two of post-graduate education without the worries about making money or gaining status,” he said. “You get to sit back and work with an experienced lawyer and try to figure out how the system works from a perspective that you don’t see when you’re in law school.”
And while clerks are learning, they are also building a network that can enhance their future career opportunities.
“They get an opportunity to forge a current relationship with not only the judge that they clerk for, but a decent swath of the rest of the court, because it’s a small community, and we’re together a lot,” Tuchi said. “I think those relationships and those insights are really, really valuable.”
Joshua Sellers, who joined ASU Law as an associate professor in 2017, clerked for Judge Rosemary Barkett of the Eleventh Circuit in Miami. He said the clerkship was an immensely valuable experience that improved his skills and expanded his job opportunities.
“It provided context for what I'd learned in law school, expanded my legal knowledge, improved my writing, and gave me a greater appreciation and understanding of the legal system,” Sellers said. “I was fortunate to work with outstanding co-clerks, with whom I'm still friends. And I believe it was indispensable in obtaining a job offer from my law firm of choice. I would strongly encourage students to consider a clerkship at either the federal or state level.”
Scharff, an associate professor who joined ASU Law in 2014, clerked for Judge William Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco — a man she refers to as an amazing mentor, incredible judge and brilliant scholar.
“I feel so lucky to have had the chance to learn from him,” she said. “As a clerk, I often joked that he had us around as a favor to us because we were all pretty convinced he could easily have done the job by himself. But what a favor to us. Not only did we get to chat with the judge every day about the law over lunch, but it is a real privilege to watch your written work be edited by a great legal writer and see exactly what clear legal writing should look like.”
Clerkships can lead to new and better career opportunities in just about any sector of the legal world, whether in academia, private practice or public service.
“It opened a lot of doors for me,” Tuchi said. “To have a federal clerkship, I think, makes you marketable to a lot more employers than if you don’t have it, and I think that’s true across the board. It certainly has been true for a long time if you’re planning on going into private practice. Big firms, I wouldn’t say require it, but they look very, very favorably on it. And it’s also become much more of a door-opener even for government practice.”
Indeed, the legal community is a relatively small world, as White Hawk can attest.
“Last year, Chief Justice Bales swore me and my co-clerk in as new attorneys to the State Bar of Arizona in a private ceremony,” she said. “It was special for me that he was the one to swear me in as a new attorney, because I had really enjoyed having him as a boss and learning from him over the course of my clerkship. It was also a special occasion because he had never sworn in his two clerks at the same time. The ceremony to me was the culmination of a really great year in which I learned a lot and formed many new friendships that have continued on after the clerkship has ended.”
Scharff and Sellers both agree that good grades and a strong resume are critical for anybody interested in a judicial clerkship.
“Students with an interest in clerking should focus on high academic performance, earning law review membership, developing relationships with professors and employers who might serve as references, and networking with judges and current clerks whenever possible,” Sellers said.
But a few bad grades, especially early in law school, should not discourage students.
“Grades do matter for clerkships,” Scharff said. “But just because you are unhappy with your grades after your first year doesn't mean you should give up on clerking. There are many wonderful clerkship opportunities available for students whose grades improve.”
Hurwitz, who gets top-flight applicants from all over the country, knows firsthand how difficult the competition can be for premium clerkships. So he advises anybody seeking a clerkship to cast a wide net.
“There’s often too much of a focus on the federal system, because those tend to be the clerkships that the professors came from,” he said. “And they’re wonderful clerkships — I mean, I’m in the federal system, so I love having all of my applicants come to me. But, it may well be that there’s a better opportunity and a better experience available to you in the state system. We have a great state Supreme Court, and they are less likely to get applications from all over the country, the way I do.”
In addition to looking at state-level courts, Hurwitz also recommends looking at other states.
“Most people from ASU, of course, want to stay in Phoenix, and they’re looking at the judges here, and that’s a great thing, because it gives us that resource,” he said. “But if you have the flexibility to go work in Bozeman, Montana, and you can get a clerkship with (Ninth Circuit) Chief Judge (Sidney) Thomas, that’s a terrific thing.”
One of ASU Law’s hallmarks is its legal writing program, which is ranked sixth in the country by U.S. News & World Report. Tuchi says it’s an essential skill for a successful clerkship.
“I think there has to be a developed writing ability, because that is the vehicle through which we do all of our work, is written orders,” he said. “At the District Court level, we don’t refer to them as opinions — they’re all orders. And some of them are short and they just move things along. But some of them explain in detail what the issue is, what we decided, and why, based on the law. And that has to be accurate, number one, it has to be succinct, and it has to be well-organized.”
Along with excellent writing skills, Tuchi said, successful clerks must have strong analytical abilities.
“Some of our cases, they’re fact-intensive,” he said. “And the law clerks, just like the judge, have to be able to figure out what’s important and what the actual legal issues are. Much like in a law school exam, they need to sharpen up on what law applies to those issues, and then pull out from all of the written materials we have and oral arguments, which facts apply to those elements of each of those tests. And that’s not easy. There’s a lot involved in that.”
Like Scharff and Sellers, Hurwitz says good grades carry immense value — but so do strong references.
“If you’re not at the very top of a class, then you need to have a good explanation of why,” he said. “Why it is that you would be a good law clerk. And that might be an explanation from a very respected professor. Or from somebody in private practice who you’ve worked with as well. Obviously, the students at the very top of the class are going to get their applications noticed. But if you’re not, then you need to do something else to get yourself noticed. Even if you’re at the very top of the class, it seems to me that you need to be talking to professors at the law school who may have contacts. And to whom people like me look to for recommendations.”
And there’s one surefire way for ASU Law students to get judges’ attention: taking their classes.
“Because I teach, I often see some of the best students in my class, and I get to know them over the course of a year, and I’ve hired a bunch of people who I taught,” Hurwitz said. “And there are other judges who teach at the law school — if you’re interested in clerking for them, maybe that’s a good way to get to know them. It’s not a promise, because I have 30-something people in my class; I’m not going to hire all of them – or maybe not even any of them. But if somebody does a very good job in my class, I’ll take a close look at them when they apply.”