By Jay S. Edited by Lemon Law School
A judicial internship is a great opportunity to work with a judge and learn about the actual process of judicial review from within chambers. It is unique in that you get to work under the direct supervision of a judge and his/her clerks. The learning opportunity here cannot be overstated, and it can frequently be a great capstone for your 1L year.
Broadly speaking, judicial internships/externships are short-duration, unpaid employment with a judicial body. These can generally be state or federal in jurisdiction, but some international adjudicative bodies like the International Court of Justice also take interns. The difference between an internship and an externship is only that an externship may confer class credit – the actual legal experience is identical.
The most common judicial internships are state and federal internships that hire 1Ls for the summer or during the 2L academic term. Judges generally view these programs as a way they can give back to the community and get more involved in the law schools in their jurisdiction, so they hire on a repeat basis, usually from the same schools. For students, the experience can be an invaluable learning opportunity, as well as a low-risk way to determine whether you would enjoy working for a judge in a post-graduate clerkship.
As you will know from your law school classes, there are many different types of courts across the hierarchy in both the state and federal system. From the state side, generally trial courts, appeals courts, and supreme courts hire on a regular basis. On the federal side, district courts seem to take more interns than courts of appeal. Specialty courts like bankruptcy and immigration courts also may take interns.
What is it like to intern in a court?
I found working in my judge’s chambers to be absolutely fascinating and eye-opening. Judges are almost by definition some of the most successful people in the legal field, and they have deep experience in their fields. Likewise, the clerks (essentially associates) they hire are ambitious and knowledgeable graduates who are closer to your age. Both are great mentors that have given me insight into my legal career. My experience may differ from other judicial interns because these programs are completely variable depending on your judge. Some judge’s work very closely with their interns while others prefer to leave the interns primarily to the clerks.
I worked for a bankruptcy judge in an urban jurisdiction with a fairly busy docket during my 1L summer. On a day-to-day basis, 3 other interns and I would work on writing research memos using LexisNexis and WestLaw.
Generally, the clerks would assign us several cases with hearings scheduled in the coming week and we would be tasked with writing a recommendation with research backing it up. The writing itself was not unlike an assignment from my legal writing class, but unlike law school, there was a time crunch and real world consequences from my recommendations and research.
On days when there were hearings, we would prepare the documents and organize the court so that the judge would be fully prepared to hear the petitioners and respondents. We would also sit in the spectator area to observe the hearings and take notes on anything that might change our analysis.
We became very familiar with court proceedings and the procedure of the court. It was also very interesting to see the work of community members and business owners seeking relief through the courts. Over time, it became clear that the bankruptcy court had a real impact on the business community and provided a valuable public service. On the other hand, the judge also had to contend with fraudsters and repeat players seeking to take advantage of the bankruptcy court for prohibited purposes.
It wasn’t all work, as our judge would frequently take us out on team lunches and talk about his life experience and the way he was thinking about different cases. These were by far the most interesting because I got the opportunity to learn about the judge’s analysis in a way that was much more in-depth than reading his opinions.
I also learned that there were multiple intangible skills that my judge exhibited that made him an excellent adjudicator like his ability to mediate and exhibit command of the courtroom when necessary. More than anything else, learning about his journey in the law inspired me to think more critically about what I wanted in my own career.
As a whole, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of being a judicial intern. Although I slowly came to understand that much of my exhaustive research was already obvious to the judge and clerks and many of the cases I was researching were fairly straightforward, the experience of writing everyday in an objective and detailed way was a great training experience.
There is also a sense of fulfillment from serving the community that simply isn’t the same in the private sector. Most of all, as the first lawyer in my family, I found the mentoring I received from my judge and clerks to be invaluable.
Which court should I intern with?
First, you should consider your legal interests based on your experience in law school. If you gravitated towards civil procedure, a district court would be an ideal experience to observe the rules of civil procedure in practice.
Likewise, if you were interested in contracts and transactions, a bankruptcy court may be of interest to you. Try to remain open-minded in this regard because a new experience can frequently inspire a new interest. As someone who opted to work in a bankruptcy court with absolutely no relevant background, I found the experience fascinating and informative.
Another consideration is whether you think you are likely to practice in the state. If you intend on practicing in Florida, a state trial court internship would be an effective way of getting acquainted with the court system. In that scenario, it would make very little sense to find a NY state internship since the state laws differ dramatically.
Lastly, think about pursuing a federal court internship. District court and the rarer court of appeals internships are perceived as prestigious and valuable experiences, which stems from the immense influence that federal court judges have in their jurisdiction. Federal court internships are known to be very competitive and more candidates from a broader range of geographies will compete for these jobs.
For the future litigator, a district court internship might be seen as an exceptional opportunity to see more cases since district court judges see both criminal and civil trials. From a hiring perspective, It is also noteworthy that BigLaw employers tend to look highly upon this type of experience.
How to apply and find these opportunities?
Realistically speaking, your judicial internship options will vary based on your law school or location. Courts are most likely to hire within their jurisdiction and they usually only hire a handful of interns. What that means is that you are in competition with many of the law students in your geography, let alone your school. Therefore, the task is to apply broadly and early on.
That being said, many of the judges who are looking to hire in your region have probably already hired someone from your school in the past. It is likely that they will be interested in hiring from your school again. Your school’s career counseling office should be tracking these relationships and should be able to provide you with the information and contacts you need. That and your school career website should be your first source of opportunities. This is how my co-interns and I got the job.
The second option you can pursue is to contact judges directly. It is not uncommon to send a resume and cover letter to their office directly and some judges expressly prefer receiving physical copies over email. For the more ambitious types, you can cold call and inquire into whether or not they are hiring. While this might take more work on your part, fewer applicants use this method so your competition is significantly lower.
In terms of timing for 1L summer internships, applications generally open on December 1st and judges tend to interview on a rolling basis so applying at or near that date will likely be advantageous. Again, confirm with your career services offices to see if they have guidance on this.
Lastly, you can apply to ABA’s JIOP: the Judicial Internship Opportunity Program which focuses on giving opportunities to traditionally underrepresented students in the legal profession. JIOP is similar to the college common application in that it will send your application to multiple participating judges in your geography of choice. I knew several people who were able to successfully land an internship using this program.
Notes on Accepting Offers
One of the unspoken rules about judicial internships is that turning down an offer from a judge is frowned upon. Since your law school and the judge likely has an ongoing relationship, rejecting an offer is seen to damage that relationship and could create difficulties for future students.
The up-shot of all this is that many schools require that you accept an offer from a judge. Once you accept the offer, you must immediately send an update to your other ongoing applications to withdraw your candidacy.
For many (myself included), this seems fairly antiquated and it is certainly disadvantageous to the student who may want to weigh different offers. I know in some rare cases students will disregard this unspoken rule and turn down offers regardless, but you should be careful of what your school policy is before making a move.
In general, my recommendation is that you only send applications to judges with whom you would readily accept an offer at any given moment.