PUBLISHED:December 15, 2016

Clerkship connections: Duke Law students seeking post-graduate clerkships find guidance and support among faculty, staff, and alumni

Before Christopher Bryant ’14 came to Duke Law, the idea of a judicial clerkship had not entered his mind.

“I had no idea what a judicial clerkship was before starting law school,” said Bryant. “But over the course of several conversations with professors, practicing attorneys, and second- and third-year Duke Law students, it became clear that clerking was something I really wanted to do.” He is now in his second year of clerking for a judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina, having previously clerked for Judge James A. Wynn Jr. on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Between 20 to 25 percent of Duke Law graduates work for a sitting judge or justice in federal or state clerkships in the early years of their career. This term, there are 73 Duke Law graduates clerking at the state or federal level, including one on the United States Supreme Court. Many of these are members of the Class of 2016, while others are clerking after working at a law firm or in a previous clerkship.

“You learn more in a year of clerking than in any other job,” said Sara Emley ’93, Duke Law’s director of judicial clerkships.

Emley, who clerked for Judge Stephanie Seymour on U. S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit following her graduation from Duke Law, meets with every student who is interested in pursuing a clerkship. This begins with group information sessions for first-year students and one-on-one meetings in the fall of the student’s second year.

“Duke Law faculty and staff were immensely helpful in helping me secure my first clerkship,” said Bryant, who extended his one-year District Court clerkship in order to work on a high-profile case. “I can honestly say that neither of us would have been on each other’s radars were it not for faculty and staff making connections near the end of my second year.” 

Emley’s office helps to shepherd the clerkship application process, from helping students decide which judges to apply to, submitting the formal application and recommendations, and more.

“I ended up getting both of my clerkships through my participation in moot court,” said Chantalle Carles ’16, who is clerking for Judge Robert Lewis Hinkle on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida and will clerk next year for Judge Barbara Milano Keenan on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

As a first-year finalist in the Hardt Cup Tournament, Carles met Judge Hinkle, one of the final round judges.

“I sat next to him at dinner after the competition and talked to him informally. From there the process kind of unfolded on its own,” she said. She met Judge Keenan at a moot court breakfast the following year.

“The application process was definitely far from transparent so I was really glad I had [the clerkships director], Professor Joseph Blocher, Professor Marin Levy, and my other recommenders to hold my hand along the way,” Carles said. “They were able to squash any issues of self-doubt or self-consciousness I was feeling and just keep me encouraged. I think that’s true of Duke Law generally — the professors are there for your professional but also emotional support.”

Blocher, who clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Judge Rosemary Barkett of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit early in his career, has mentored many students on their way to judicial clerkships.

“I learned more during my time clerking than I can possibly say, and there’s nothing more rewarding than helping Duke students get that same experience,” he said. “The clerkship office and faculty clerkship committee are here to make sure that all students have the help they need to navigate the application process and secure a clerkship.”

Blocher also advised Jyoti Jindal ’16, who said  she received help and mentorship from numerous faculty members.

“I can’t give my professors enough credit. I really wouldn’t have my clerkships without them,” said Jindal, who is clerking on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia before moving to an appellate clerkship on the Eleventh Circuit.

“They really fought for me, made phone calls on my behalf, actively spent time thinking about how to help me succeed, always had their doors open to talk about how the process was working for me,” she said. “I can't thank them enough.”

The Law School’s network of support extends far beyond Duke’s campus.

Supreme Court of Texas Justice Don Willett JD ’92 MJS ’16 has hired seven Duke Law graduates as clerks since joining the bench in 2005. This term, three of the 18 law clerks on the court are from Duke Law, including one clerking for Willett.

“I prize my law clerks and stay in close touch with all of them,” Justice Willett said. He aims to optimize their clerkship experience by inviting them to attend and to sometimes even participate in the justices’ conference.

“It's an unmatched bird's-eye view into judicial decision making, a front row seat to observe what resonates and penetrates on a court with discretionary review,” he said. “It's a remarkable vantage point, and most clerks says it's far and away the best feature of their clerkship.”

Duke Law alumni also serve as mentors to students applying for clerkships with judges for whom they clerked.

“We connect the student with former alumni clerks so they can help them further prepare for their interview,” Emley said. “Our alumni are great. You get help when you’re a student and then you help others as an alumnus.”

Daniel Rice ’15, who clerked on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia prior to his current clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, was able to get this advice from Professor Lisa Kern Griffin, who clerked with Rice’s current judge.

Rice, who hopes to follow Griffin’s path to academia, said his clerkships have helped him hone his skillset as an attorney.

“I had always heard that clerkships are a terrific supplement to a formal legal education,” he said. “Now partway through my second year, I can confirm that the virtues of clerking are as real as advertised. As an aspiring law professor, I'm particularly pleased to have ventured down this path, and I feel well prepared for whatever comes next.”

Bryant, who will join Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles following his current clerkship agreed, noting that he’s learned far more than writing, researching, and advocacy — “the expected things” — from his judges.  

“I have yet to enter the world of the practicing attorney, but I can honestly say that I will enter much more prepared than I would have straight out of law school,” he said. “The things I did not expect to learn about — diplomacy, tact, kindness, time-management, organization, and the importance of being over-prepared — will likely have longer-lasting effects on my legal career and life in general.”