Monday, July 27, 2009

Getting Your Clerkship Before Labor Day? It's Not Just for Graduates Anymore

The federal judges were created by man. They look and feel human. Some of them believe they are human. There are many copies (of the applications to be their clerks). And they have a plan.

Well, some of them do: The Federal Judges Law Clerk Hiring Plan, which says - essentially - that no federal judge may hire any rising 3L as a clerk before labor day - no matter whether he uses a paper or computerized application - and no 3L may apply, i.e. send his application materials, including his recommendation letters, before labor day.

A trusted source has informed us of 3Ls at UVA who have not only have applied early to clerkships but in fact already have already received clerkship offers. We have worked with the Virginia Law Weekly in investigating this matter, and here's what's going on.

Our understanding is that people in question got their offers from "off-plan" judges, and that the Federal Clerkship Hiring Plan - as adopted by UVA - is only actually binding on the judges who choose to participate in it (see below for our assessment of this). Since OSCAR won't send any 3L packets to any judges early, that leaves students two options with respect to Off Plan judges if they don't want to wait until Labor Day: They can have their school send the packets (i.e. CARS), or they can assemble them on their own with the help of faculty members.

We reached out to the Clerkship Director, Ruth Payne, who informed us that the Law School adheres to the hiring plan and that it will not send out any of the packets to federal judges early (incidentially, state courts are another matter entirely). Every year, however, students send out their packets early, without the Law School "bundling" them with letters of recommendations from faculty members.

How do they do this? One way: the faculty members agree to send out the recommendations early. It's unclear to us whether or not the school disproves of this practice officially or not, however, it is clear that a school will not bundle the application early for the student, so the student must get the letters from the faculty member and physically put together the application himself.

We talked to one of contacts who is applying for federal clerkships - speaking to us on the condition of anonymity - who assured us that this is, indeed, what happens:
Some professors will simply send out your letters early, ahead of when the Federal plan would allow it, to "Off-Plan" judges. Others won't send the actual letters until after Labor Day, but they will send allow to send a reference to the judge [and let them know that a recommendation is coming].
One tipster isn't so sure everything is on the up-and-up, however:
UVA's policy states that they have adopted the guidelines and that faculty "should not" send recommendation letters before 9/8. . . . A lot of people are very irritated by [what's going on], and the policy needs to be clarified.
Our take: the Federal Hiring Plan is somewhat ill-conceived. What is the point of having a plan that is binding only on those judges and schools who choose to participate, has no real means of enforcement, and completely ignores the ever-increasing force of alumni who are applying to be and being hired as federal judicial clerks weeks or even months before the official start date of the plan? It makes you wonder if they used the League of Nations charter as a template.

As for people applying and getting clerkship early - is it an injustice? Probably only if some faculty members will send out letters and others won't (or, worse, if faculty members are sending out early letters for some students and not for others). Otherwise, those are the breaks. As a great man once said, you can't knock the hustle, especially in this economy . . .

What do you think?

Summary of the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan


Anonymous said...

Congrats to the folks that already have clerkships lined up. If the frustration is from rising 3Ls who want to apply to off-plan judges, but cannot get their recommenders to release their letters, then that is understandable. You should probably try (1) asking them again, (2) asking if they will allow you to put them as a reference (so the judge could, for example, call them), (3) see if you can find someone else who would be willing to recommend you off-plan in their place (e.g., a partner at your firm or an alumn with a relationship to the judge).

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I know a ton of Duke kids that have already sent packets and have been interviewing over the summer. I don't really care about UVA endorsing or not endorsing the hiring plan, but am a little frustrated if UVA's policy puts us at a disadvantage compared to other schools.
That said, those of that would rather work for a by-the-book kind of judge ultimately won't be affected by this.

Anonymous said...

Three points. First, the major law schools have agreed under the Plan not to send out apps before the date. Thus, there should be no inequity leading to a competitive disadvantage in that regard.

Second, that agreement naturally does not preclude professors and students from sending out applications early on their own, and UVA really does not actively discourage the practice. While UVA does post the "professors should not" (note the optional language) note on the website, there really is no active discouragement going on. Most professors will just release the letter early, and the rare few who don't allow the judge to contract the prof. If there is specific intelligence of a judge that is hiring off plan and the student has some reason to believe they have a good shot at the clerkship, then very few UVA profs would refuse to release the letter early.

Third, I would just note that the off-plan judges tend to be among the most competitive clerkships, and in reality, most students aren't going to have much of a chance without a prof having an "in" with them anyway, and those profs are particularly likely to be willing to contact those judges off-plan regarding those students they are willing to recommend personally.

So while I agree that the spotty communication and lack of transparency in the process are quite frustrating, I think that the actual resulting prejudice, if any, is quite minimal.

Anonymous said...

I think the above poster is essentially right. Collective experience seems to suggest that off-plan judges are aware they might not receive an application in the same level of completeness as they would on-plan (e.g., they may just talk to professors on the phone rather than reading a letter). Also, most off-plan judges are not looking through unsolicited applications. Instead, they are considering only candidates whose applications (whether complete or not) have been presented to them by trusted factulty or other sources.

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