Seventh Circuit judges share advice, insights on clerkships

Author: Kevin Allen

ClerkshippanelFrom left, Judge Michael S. Kanne, Judge Kenneth F. Ripple, and Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit speak to students on February 3, 2020. Professor Roger Alford is at the podium. Photo by Alicia Sachau/Notre Dame Law School.

Notre Dame Law students received valuable advice about clerkships on Monday from some very reliable sources.

Judge Kenneth F. Ripple, Judge Michael S. Kanne, and Judge Amy Coney Barrett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit spoke to students during a lunchtime panel discussion. The three judges shared insights from their own clerkships as well as their experiences hiring and supervising clerks.

While introducing the panel of judges, Professor Roger Alford urged students to apply for clerkships and not self-select themselves out of the process. Notre Dame Law School graduates have historically been successful in landing clerkships, typically with around 15% of students from each class securing state or federal clerkships.

The judges started by talking about the value of serving in a clerkship.

Judge Ripple, who has been a member of the Notre Dame Law School faculty since 1976 and served on the Seventh Circuit since 1985, described a clerkship as a prestigious residency. It allows a new lawyer to see the huge variety of problems that come into the courts for resolution, and to work next to a judge as the judge wrestles those problems to the ground.

“A clerkship is a grind — it’s awful hard work — but it’s an awfully big dedication to the United States to be able to make such a contribution at such an early stage in your professional development. That’s the first reason you should do it,” Ripple said.

“The second reason you should do it is because it will make you a seasoned lawyer,” he added. “The third reason you should do it is it will make you a monsignor in the legal profession. ... In the bar, when a former law clerk talks, people listen. They listen to you because you donated your services to the United States when you first got out of law school, you’ve been to headquarters, you’ve seen how judges decide cases. You are a very valuable person in the bar.”

Judge Barrett, who has been a Notre Dame Law School faculty member since 2002 and served on the Seventh Circuit since 2017, said a clerkship could also be analogized to a post-doc.

“It’s a more intense and more one-on-one opportunity to work closely with someone who has a great deal of experience in the law,” she said. “Not only will you learn a lot from the judge by virtue of working closely with the judge for the year, but then that judge also becomes your advocate for life. The judges for whom I clerked became my mentors. They went to bat for me when I was looking for jobs, and they gave me advice about jobs.”

Barrett said the network of fellow lawyers who have clerked for the same judge — most judges call it their “clerk family” — also becomes a resource for job referrals and client referrals throughout a lawyer’s career.

“A clerkship is not just a feather in your cap,” she said. “There’s a lot of practical value to you in seeing the way the courts work. You’re seeing the inside of how the courts function. When you return to the outside, and you’re practicing in front of the courts, you have a sense of what’s going on in that decision-making process.”

Different judges have different processes for selecting clerks.

“We get a substantial number of applications. It ranges depending on the circuit, but anywhere from 300 applications down to 150 applications per judge per year,” said Judge Kanne, who was appointed to the Seventh Circuit in 1987.

“In my chambers, my law clerks take a substantial hand in selecting their following law clerks. They do all the initial screening. What I usually get is about 20 to 15 applications that I’ll screen myself and then determine to interview maybe eight to 10 of those finalists,” he said. “One of the things I look for is compatibility among the law clerks.”

Although every judge has different criteria, there are some universal rules that applicants for clerkships need to follow.

For example, students should cultivate meaningful references. Students can do this by maintaining relationships with law professors and making good impressions on attorneys they work with during summer internships. Judges want to be confident that a clerk is going to work well and get along with others; personal references are key to demonstrating these qualities.

On the other hand, students should not decide whether to apply for a clerkship based on the political party that was in power when a judge was appointed to the bench. Furthermore, students should not try to game the application system by creating Democrat and Republican versions of their resume — the judges will catch on to that and will not react favorably.

Barrett said it is worthwhile for students to try to find out how a judge prefers to run his or her chambers and the types of responsibility clerks have in those chambers. Some judges prefer to write the first drafts of their opinions, for example, while other judges assign clerks to write first drafts.

"In a way, it’s hard to generalize, because it’s almost like judges each have their own law firm," she said. "Each judge can run their chambers very differently."

Ripple also reiterated Professor Alford’s point that students should apply for clerkships and not self-select themselves out of the application process. The judge emphasized that there is a wide variety of clerkships in different courts. If a student wants to specialize in tax law, for example, that student may want to clerk in a tax court.

“Don’t take yourself out of the running,” Ripple said. “There are a lot of clerkships.”

Notre Dame Law students and prospective students who are interested in clerkship opportunities should contact Chris Kozelichki in the Law School’s Career Development Office.