Becoming a Clerk

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Mirah Horowitz ’00, a former clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and previously a clerk for Judge Kim Wardlaw of the Ninth Circuit, returned to Duke Law School on March 27 to offer advice to students interested in becoming clerks.

Mirah Horowitz
Mirah Horowitz '00 gives Duke Law students advice on seeking clerkships

She began her talk with a comment on some of the highs and lows students might face in various clerkships: The jobs can require seven-day weeks with extremely long hours, and some judges expect clerks to regularly work late into the night. But clerkships also can prove to be some of the most rewarding and varied work a young law graduate can find. Further, the bond that develops between judges and clerks can lead to a lifelong mentorship or friendship with many benefits.

“It’s like being thrown into the deep end,” Horowitz said. “But I wouldn’t change my experience for anything.”

Horowitz said students can take a number of steps to position themselves to become clerks at various levels and succeed in those jobs. Among those steps:

  • Seek out professors who might be helpful in the process, such as those who have personal or professional connections to judges.
  • Establish the strongest ties possible with partners and other lawyers when working at law firms. Those are the people who can best comment on the work of a law student and serve as knowledgeable references. Also, seek the advice and aid of partners who know judges.
  • Take classes that help build experience in practicing the law. Horowitz repeatedly mentioned that her experience with Duke Law’s Death Penalty Clinic helped her considerably.
  • Choose judges carefully and include reasons for applying to them specifically in application cover letters for clerkships. That will have a greater success rate than a shotgun approach with generic cover letters. “Make a reference in the cover letter to why you picked that judge,” Horowitz said. “That’s what’s going to get your letter out of that stack.”

Horowitz also suggested that students speak with current clerks when applying to work for a judge. That’s the best way to learn whether a clerkship will lean more toward substantial legal work or administrative chores such as answering phones and filing. It also will provide some insight into the judge’s expectations and demands for clerks.

Often the most rewarding experience will come from working with a judge who has a roughly similar outlook on the law, she added. Clerks regularly help draft opinions, and that task is made much easier if the opinion is in line with the clerk’s own beliefs.
“You really put yourself in to drafting an opinion,” said Horowitz, who is now considering the next step of her career. “I would definitely think about that. It’s hard to write an opinion you strongly disagree with.”

She noted that choosing a particular region in which to work can have significant consequences for clerks as well. For example, working in Alaska will mean extensive travel and coping with severe cold weather. Other regions come with their own benefits and challenges. “Stay away from Texas if you don’t like the death penalty,” she quipped.

Horowitz also told the audience of several dozen students to try a second time if their first application for a clerkship fails. “If you don’t make it the first time, you definitely can try again,” she said. “Don’t be discouraged.”