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August 3, 2007

Innovative program helps UT Law students secure judicial clerkships

Photo of Judge Berrigan speaking before a group of students
Judges from around the country, representing the federal appellate, district, magistrate, and bankruptcy courts, as well as state supreme courts, visited UT Law to talk about what they and their clerks do. Chief Judge Helen G. Berrigan of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, discussed death penalty cases.

“Clerkships are a valuable part of the education of young lawyers; it enables them to be participants—not merely spectators—in the process of American adjudication.”
-Dean Lawrence Sager

Following her graduation, Liz McKee, ’06, left Texas for Kentucky to begin a prestigious judicial clerkship with Judge John M. Rogers of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. As a clerk, McKee said, her “primary job is preparing bench memos for Judge Rogers. [Such memos] provide an overview of each case and the issues on appeal. Another big part of our job is assisting in the drafting of opinions, attending oral arguments, and conferring with Judge Rogers to discuss pending cases.”

Now more than eight months into the clerkship, McKee has perspective on the value of clerking. “This job forces you to be a better, more succinct, writer, and Judge Rogers has been a great teacher in that regard. Also, being in a position to read and evaluate briefs and to watch oral arguments is extremely beneficial because it provides a unique opportunity to get a good sense of the difference between an effective brief and an ineffective brief, and provides an opportunity to see how good oral advocacy is done—and not-so-good oral advocacy. Finally, it’s been great to be able to work closely with Judge Rogers. He’s a great mentor and teacher to his clerks, and he takes a lot of time to ensure that we’re getting all we can from this experience.”

The creator of the judicial internship program at the University of Texas, Bea Ann Smith, ’75, a justice from 1991 through 2006 on the Texas Court of Appeals, Third District, knows what Elizabeth means. Speaking to students recently about clerking, she told them, “It matures you as a lawyer. You see how law is made. It improves your writing and analytical skills, and you gain composure—you see ‘the good, the bad, and the ugly’ with both advocacy and writing.”

Judge Royal Furgeson, ’67, U.S. District Judge for the Western District of Texas, believes clerks also benefit judges and the judicial system. “Judges can get isolated. This is especially true of federal judges, who are appointed not elected. While some isolation bestows the benefit of detachment, too much can hinder perspective. Law clerks are the best resource available to a federal judge to achieve the needed balance between detachment and perspective. In the quiet of chambers, all the issues of a case can be thrashed out between the judge and the law clerks. Just out of law school, taught in the most advanced research techniques, clerks are able to ensure that the judge does not miss the guiding precedents. The dialogue aided by scholarship allows every angle of a case to be examined, in strict confidence, so that the ultimate decision is enhanced to the fullest. The process makes the judge and the justice system better.”

Law firms also value the experience. “What better opportunity is there for a young trial attorney to learn the law and legal writing, theory, and process than from those who interpret the laws of our land?” asked Holt Foster III, ’95, the hiring partner at Thompson & Knight in Dallas. “Even a transactional attorney benefits from a clerkship as it provides him/her a unique opportunity to see the complicated manner in which business arrangements are attacked and unwound.”

David Oelman, ’90, hiring partner at Vinson & Elkins in Houston, said, “In hindsight, I wish I had considered a clerkship. I think the experience is incredibly valuable for a lawyer in whatever practice area he or she may ultimately choose. More than that, it is a way to contribute, using skills that law students uniquely have, as a citizen.”

With all of these good reasons to clerk, it is not surprising that the faculty clerkship advisors found a receptive audience for their renewed efforts to increase the number of UT students applying for clerkships. In 2007, about fifty UT Law graduates will clerk at the federal and state level in courts around the country, including twenty at the federal appellate level, a significant increase over previous years.

Photo of Judge Motz in a classroom
Judge Diana G. Motz of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit explained her opinion in the case concerning the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute.

Advisors Launch Innovative Clerkship Program

Last year, with the full support of Dean Sager and the Law School’s faculty and administration, Professors Emily Kadens, Tony Reese, and Ernie Young implemented a program to help UT Law students secure judicial clerkships. Working with the Law School’s Career Services Office and a designated clerkship administrator in the dean’s office, the team centralized the application process, streamlined the obtaining of faculty recommendation letters, met one-on-one with applicants, and organized a series of presentations by judges and current and former law clerks. These initiatives increased student awareness of and excitement about clerkships. In the words of Sean Flammer, a third-year student who will clerk after graduation for Judge Phyllis Kravitch on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, this institutional attention to judicial clerkships “helped to generate a buzz among the students that didn’t exist before.”

The process begins with an informational meeting for 1Ls in March, before they register for their 2L classes. Faculty advisors and guest judges and clerks explain what clerks do and how the students can best position themselves to be attractive candidates. In the fall semester, the advisors hold meetings for applying second- and third-year students, during which they address process-oriented questions, like obtaining recommendation letters and application deadlines. The group meeting is followed by interviews with Kadens, Young, and each student. In these meetings, the advisors discuss the student’s interests and advise them on those clerkships for which they are best positioned.

David Mader, a third-year law student who will clerk in the coming term for U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III of the Eastern District of Virginia, had this to say: “Professors Young and Kadens are able to guide students toward a judge whom [the student] might not have considered, but who may turn out to be a great fit.”

Over the summer, the students prepare their applications, submitting their preliminary list of judges to the faculty advisors and to their recommenders for review. Before school starts at the end of August, the clerkship team organizes a huge “Centralized Mail Out,” to which students bring their applications so that they can be bundled and sent out to judges as a group. The following week, the advisors and visiting clerks present a program on how to prepare for interviews.

Then the waiting begins. As students receive phone calls from judges requesting interviews, anticipation builds. “The day the federal judges could first contact students for interviews, Ernie Young and I were pacing our offices waiting for news,” said Kadens. Meanwhile, the students were clustered in journal offices and elsewhere anxiously waiting for their cell phones to ring. As the number of interviews, and then offers, mounted, the students, advisors, Career Services, and faculty all joined in the excitement. “We were thrilled by our success last year,” said Dean Sager, “and I hope and expect that it will continue in the future. Clerkships are a valuable part of the education of young lawyers; it enables them to be participants—not merely spectators—in the process of American adjudication.”

To help prepare students who receive clerkships for their new jobs, the Law School created two new courses, one that focuses on district courts and the other on appellate courts. Students use actual case material—briefs, motions, and records—to learn to draft orders, bench memos, opinions, etc. And while developing writing skills is an important goal, it isn’t the only one. “There are two objectives,” said Betsy Chestney, ’02, who teaches a course called Preparation for a Federal District Clerkship. “Students need experience writing the types of things trial court clerks write. But they also need to be familiar with the specific issues and key areas of the law that often come up in these courts. So we talk about federal procedure and spend some time on issues like immunities that apply to government defendants, patent claim construction, criminal sentencing, and habeas and death penalty cases. The ultimate goal is to give them confidence going in.”

Judicial Clerkship Workshop

To continue to generate enthusiasm about clerking, and to let students learn what judges are like, Kadens and Young organize a number of events that put students in direct contact with sitting judges and former judicial clerks. This year, for instance, Justice Smith came to speak about clerkships with the Texas courts of appeals, and Judge Susan Braden came to speak about her court, the Court of Federal Claims. The largest such event is the annual two-day Judicial Clerkship Workshop. In April, fourteen judges from around the country, representing the federal appellate, district, magistrate, and bankruptcy courts, as well as state supreme courts, came to discuss what they and their clerks do.

The Workshop began with a panel of recent UT Law graduates who clerked following graduation. The panelists discussed what day-to-day clerking was like for them and answered questions about the application process. Four judicial panels followed—a panel of U.S. bankruptcy and magistrate judges, a panel of state supreme court judges, another of federal district court judges, and, finally, a panel of federal appellate judges. Many of the judges also led discussion sessions about opinion writing. They discussed in detail the work of their respective courts, the work of clerks in their chambers, and the application and interviewing process—including application strategies.

Photo of Judge Carnes speaking
Judge Ed Carnes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit spoke about judicial writing style.

“The competitive stress and tension that surrounds the hiring of law clerks is my least favorite part of the job,” said Judge Ed Carnes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, one of the Workshop participants. “So anything that makes that process easier is a blessing. There is real competition among judges for the best students, and programs like this increase the pool of well qualified applicants. Everybody benefits from that. UT Law has the most impressive clerkship program that I’ve seen—I don’t know of any other school that is doing anything even approaching it.”

The workshop was also widely praised by participating students. “It offered us an excellent opportunity to meet with judges from all levels. The judges were very open and honest in the sessions about some of the frustrations of their courts, as well as what made them enjoy their life as a judge,” said Jared Hubbard, a second-year law student. “We also had opportunities to talk with the judges in a more casual setting. It was great to have the chance to meet and get to know these judges as people and not as the oracles of the law that we might imagine in class.”

“The Judicial Clerkship Workshop was extraordinarily beneficial,” said Samantha Porphy, a second-year law student. “The program provided opportunities to interact with the judges in several different contexts. The small-group discussions, in particular, provided valuable insights into the judicial decision making process. Additionally, the panelists were frank about what clerks in their chambers work on.”

Come autumn, UT graduates will begin clerkships all over the country. One will head to California to clerk for Judge Alex Kozinski on the Ninth Circuit, another to New York City to clerk for Judge John Walker on the Second Circuit. Some will stay closer to home, clerking for the justices of the Texas Supreme Court, the judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and many Fifth Circuit appellate, district, bankruptcy, and magistrate judges. One student will travel across the globe to serve as the American law clerk for Justice Johann van der Westhuizen of the South African Constitutional Court. At the same time, the rising 3Ls will submit their applications and the process will begin again.