Judges Focus on Diversity in Clerkship, Internship Hiring

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Federal judges are working to make highly sought-after law clerkships and judicial internships more accessible to a diverse pool of law students.

Among the hiring tools are a digital hiring platform, partnerships with legal organizations, and outreach events for potential applicants.

“Diversity on the bench and among our courtroom and chambers staff is critical to serving a diverse population,” said Judge Raymond A. Jackson, of the Eastern District of Virginia. “It’s important that the court is reflective of the community it serves.”

Judiciary clerkships and internships are highly coveted positions in which law school students and recent graduates gain valuable career experience and directly assist judges in legal work, such as drafting memoranda, orders, and opinions.

“Taking steps to broaden the range of applicants that we receive for clerkships helps make the process more equitable for people of different backgrounds and gives more people a pathway into a career in the legal field that may not otherwise be available to them,” said Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain, of the Southern District of New York.

New York Southern District Chief Judge Laura Taylor Swain attends a virtual meeting with several participants

“My clerkship with Judge Constance Baker Motley, the first African American woman to serve on the federal bench, shaped my understanding of the intersection of law and life, and of how service to the federal Judiciary as a law clerk can open doors to professional opportunities for people from all backgrounds,” she said. 

Many judges are using the recently updated Online System for Clerkship Application and Review (OSCAR), an online database that enables candidates to upload applications and send them to all judges with open clerkship positions. OSCAR’s improved user-friendly interface makes the application and selection process easier than ever for judges and prospective clerks.

“OSCAR makes the hiring process more accessible and transparent, giving judges the opportunity to view applicants of all backgrounds from law schools across the country,” Swain said. “The service effectively broadens the applicant pool beyond a posting to the court’s website or through word of mouth, making it more likely to attract a diverse group of highly qualified candidates.” 

Chief Judge Juan R. Sánchez, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, is mindful not to limit his clerkship hiring criteria to certain law schools, class rankings, or general experiences.

“There are many qualifications that make a great law clerk, and by keeping an open mind, I am able to find talented law clerks with a variety of different backgrounds and experiences,” Sánchez said. “I’ve been able to select for these interviews bright people with excellent academic records, compelling personal stories, and unique experiences from a broad spectrum of candidates. The key is to invest the time to look through all of the applications. I choose not to overlook candidates, and because of this, I’ve been successful in hiring law clerks who reflect the many communities the Judiciary serves.”

To make the judicial clerkship hiring process more transparent and uniform, some judges are also participating in the Judiciary’s Federal Law Clerk Hiring Pilot Plan. The voluntary plan, extended through June 2022, ensures that all judges receive applications on the same day and gives them a 24-hour window to review applications before they can begin the interview process. The plan also delays the hiring of students for clerkships until after their second year of law school.

“Law school deans have told me that the plan has led to a more diverse pool of applicants and has helped level the playing field, especially as to those law students who enter law school without any background in the law and really shine in their second year of law school,” said Judge Robert A. Katzmann, of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, who sits on the Ad Hoc Committee on Law Clerk Hiring, which works to make the hiring process more transparent and uniform.

Remote interviewing prompted by the pandemic helped eliminate travel costs of in-person interviewing, and many judges look to continue the option beyond the pandemic to help alleviate the financial burdens that travel may impose on applicants.

Judges also regularly attend events geared to getting people interested in the law, often partnering with law schools, local bar associations, and pipeline organizations to generate a pool of qualified applicants from different backgrounds.

“Exposing students to the law early on through outreach, internships, and collaboration with bar associations and pipeline organizations is key to building a more diverse Judiciary and diverse group of legal professionals,” said Bankruptcy Judge Frank J. Bailey, of the District of Massachusetts. “I enjoy participating in these events and showing young people that a career in the law or as a judge is attainable. I like to tell students that ‘judges put their pants on one leg at a time too.’”

Pipeline organizations, like Just the Beginning (JTB), encourage students from underrepresented groups to pursue careers and leadership opportunities in the law. For the past 10 years, the Judiciary has partnered with JTB to expand the pool of qualified applicants for judges to consider for judicial internships. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the 92 students selected for internships last summer were transitioned to virtual work with judges across the country.

Some judges also participate in JTB’s Share the Wealth Clerkship Program, which acts as a selection and referral program to help judges attract diverse candidates for clerkships. Judge Jackson, who has worked with JTB for the last 15 years, currently serves as the clerkship program coordinator helping to arrange interviews for candidates with interested judges.

“Having people from different cultural backgrounds working alongside you changes perceptions and broadens your understanding of the world around you,” Bailey said. “The National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges has had an excellent experience partnering with groups like Just the Beginning to help us diversify the pipeline of applicants applying for opportunities in the courts.”

Some judges say that a more diverse workplace makes them better judges in the long run.

“Each of us are shaped by our own unique life experiences, and those life experiences shape our decision-making,” Jackson said. “Working with people of different life experiences better shapes our understanding of the unique circumstances facing the many different people that appear before the court.”

Related Topics: Judges & Judgeships

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