The Law Clerk Hiring Process – An Interview with Federal Judge Thomas Ambro
Thomas Ambro is a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and sits in Wilmington, Delaware. He was confirmed by the Senate by a 96-2 vote and has served on the Third Circuit since 2000. Judge Ambro received both his undergraduate and law degrees from Georgetown University. He was a law clerk for former Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Herrmann (1975-1976). Thereafter, Judge Ambro was with the firm of Richards, Layton & Finger in Wilmington, Delaware, where he was known nationally in two areas—legal opinions in commercial transactions and bankruptcy. Judge Ambro is a former Chair of the Business Law Section of the ABA. He is also a member of the American Law Institute and the National Bankruptcy Conference.
Question: How many law clerks do you have, and how long are their terms?
Answer: I have four law clerks per term. Generally those who clerk with me serve only one term. Because of the timing of exceptional post-clerking job opportunities, a few clerks have served less than a full-year term. For scheduling reasons, some have served up to a few months longer.
Question: Tell us a little bit how the clerkship application process works. For example, when do you first start accepting applications and up to what point do you stop considering them?
Answer: When the hiring protocols were in effect, I would receive applications from putative clerks via OSCAR (Online System for Clerkship Application and Review) when those applications were released. All applications would be from persons who had completed at least their 2L year in law school. Because the hiring plan for federal law clerks has been discontinued, applications now come in randomly, and they are often from applicants in their 2L years.
I stop considering applications when the four law clerk positions for a term have been filled. Thereafter, the judicial assistant in our chambers alerts OSCAR of this fact.
I review the applications sent to me, whether online or in the mail. If I am interested in a particular application, I either wait for the letters for recommendation to come in (if they do not accompany the application) or begin calling the recommenders. Often an application is preceded by one or two recommenders alerting me of an applicant and inquiring whether I have a position available for the term to which the applicant is applying. In any event, if I remain interested, I call the applicant to set up a time to meet. For the four spots in a given term, it is uncommon that I would have more than a half dozen interviews with potential applicants. In addition, the interviews with me and with my clerks are lengthy. Thus, it is rare if I do more than one interview of an applicant in a day.
Question: How much do you rely on OSCAR?
Answer: With the demise of the hiring plan, many applications come by mail. Thus, in a technical sense, I rely on OSCAR less than I did when the hiring plan was in effect. Nonetheless, I find OSCAR very helpful in every respect I can think. In addition to saving reams of paper, it is both easy to use, highly efficient, and much appreciated.
Question: How far in advance do you select your clerks? Some federal judges are now hiring two years in advance? What is your current practice?
Answer: Right now (March 2014) I have all positions filled for the 2014-’15 and the 2015-’16 terms. I also have two clerks committed for the 2016-’17 term. My typical lead time for a clerk is two years. That may mean that a clerk will be at least a year removed from law school when she or he begins working in my chambers. That time is usually spent in another clerkship (almost always a District Court clerkship, though on two occasions it has been another Circuit Court clerkship), with a law firm, or sometimes both another clerkship and work in a law firm.
Number of applicants & the screening process
Question: About how many applications do you receive for a given court term?
Answer: Because I hire significantly in advance, students typically know via OSCAR if I am hired up for a particular term. When the hiring plan was in effect and used widely, I received over 800 applications per term.
Question: Can you explain the process to us? For example, who screens the applications when and wherever they are first examined? After that first cut, what happens next? Assuming that you do not do all the screening yourself, at what point do you get involved in the selection process?
Answer: Part of the answer to this question has been noted above. When the hiring protocols were in effect, my current clerks and I typically looked at applications and then conferred. With the demise of the hiring protocols, almost always I am the only one who screens applications. After that, I may ask one or more of my current clerks to review an application and give me her/his thoughts.
Question: Professor Aaron Nielson has stated that the law clerk “hiring process is chaotic.” And Catherine Rampell, writing in the New York Times (9-23-11), was far less diplomatic: “The judges compete aggressively each year to recruit the best law students to work for them as clerks, prestigious positions that involve research, counsel and ghostwriting. But the process has become a frenzied free-for-all, with the arbiters of justice undermining each other at every turn to snatch up the best talent.” Do you agree? What is your sense of this?
Answer: I agree with Professor Nielson and with much of what Ms. Rampell wrote (I disagree that, under the then-extant hiring plan, judges “undermine[ed] each other at every turn . . . .”). The best a marketing person can say today is that the hiring process is now unstructured. This makes it especially difficult for applicants and their law schools. Of the three constituencies involved in the hiring process —applicants, law schools, and judges—the “bottom line” for judges is that “we have met the enemy, and they are us (particularly appellate judges).” Interestingly enough, the bad behavior of appellate judges appears less so with the demise of the hiring protocols than it was when they were in place. That is in large part, I surmise, because hiring under the protocols was telescoped into a very short period (and judges often refused to play by those rules), whereas now it is far more leisurely.
Question: You must receive a lot of form letters. Given that, how important are the cover letters?
Answer: Cover letters can be helpful if they tell me something specific as to why the applicant wishes to clerk for me. An example would be that the applicant is from my area, has a significant other in my area, or has been recommended by a particular professor or prior clerk to apply to me. For the most part, however, cover letters are benign with one exception—when they contain typos or grammatical mistakes. That is an indication that the applicant is not careful.
The high-profile recommender & the feigned interest problems
Question: What do you look for in a letter of recommendation? How important are they?
Answer: Of all the items taken into account when considering an applicant, by far the most important for me are the letters of recommendation. I look for something significantly beyond the typical letter stating that Sally Smith has taken a course or courses from this professor, she has done superbly, and she interacts well with her classmates. What I wish to know, among other things, are whether the recommender truly knows this applicant well, what makes the applicant stand out, particular difficulties or impediments the applicant has had to overcome, whether the applicant likes and is adept at writing and research, and how well she or he interacts with others and has good character traits. If I am intrigued by a letter of recommendation or if the recommendation tells me little but I am still interested in the applicant, I often call the recommender.
One of the misconceptions applicants often have is that they need to have a well-known person make the recommendation even if that person does not know the applicant well. That can be counterproductive, as a form letter from a high-profile recommender is of little to no help in making an applicant interesting. It is also important for applicants to be aware (to the extent they can) of which recommenders have a knack for writing, and are willing to write, comprehensive letters of recommendation that tell me about the applicant. Instead, what I often get are letters that tell me more about what the recommender (almost always a professor) is doing in a class or on a project rather then why the applicant is recommended.
In addition to letters of recommendation, I welcome calls from recommenders. That tells me that the recommender is willing to put her or his reputation on the line for the applicant, something I value highly. It is also a great shortcut to my becoming aware of good applicants.
Question: Apart from typos or grammatical errors, what is the most common mistake that applicants make?
Answer: In addition to believing that a high-profile recommender is preferable to one who knows you better, the most common mistake I observe is when an applicant feigns interest in a particular judge. When the hiring plan was in place, you could discover that very quickly. If calls or emails by judges to an applicant were not to be made before a set time on a particular day and I got my calls or emails sent out timely, I could tell who was interested by how quickly they responded. If an applicant got back to me within half an hour, she or he was interested. If that person got back to me hours later, I was “low on their totem pole.” Now that the hiring protocols are discontinued, it becomes harder to know who is interested. That is yet another reason why I try to get as much information as I can from persons who recommend applicants.
Question: About how many applicants do you call for an interview and how long do those interviews last?
Answer: As noted above, I typically do not have more than six interviews for four positions. This is because, with the significant amount of background checking I do before I call an applicant, I usually have a good profile on hand before I meet that person. As also noted above, interviews with each applicant (with me one-on-one and with my clerks as a group) are lengthy (in the aggregate often lasting for two hours). I then often take the applicant to lunch and at times show her/him around the Delaware area. The goal is to give as much information as I can about a clerkship in my chambers, including how my chambers works and what exists in the local area that may not otherwise be known.
Question: When you make an offer, do you do it by phone (do you leave a message if there is no answer?), or e-mail, or both? And how much time do you allow for an acceptance? What do you think of “exploding offers”?
Answer: I always make an offer to a putative clerk either in person or on the phone. I do not make “exploding offers,” as I am quite opposed to them. With the system as it exists now (hiring clerks approximately two years in advance in my case), I have given some offerees a significant lead time that may extend to months. (For example, if I make an offer to an applicant in the fall and this would be the first person to accept for a particular term over two years away, I may tell that offeree to get back to me up to several months later.) Typically, however, I give an applicant a week or two to respond to an offer.
Question: I see that as of February 13, 2014, the Administrative Office of the Courts has discontinued the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan. How do you feel about that?
Answer: I wish that there would be a plan in place. The hiring plan that was in place had many flaws, including making hiring season a frenetic chase for information and significant gaming of the system. That said, there was at least some organization. I wish judges would be willing to consider something akin to the match system that exists for those in the medical profession. There would be a period for interviewing applicants (preferably after the 2L grades are out), both the judges and the applicants would prioritize their preferences and submit them to a central place, and those preferences would be dealt with by an algorithm in a computer program. No doubt that system could be “gamed” as well—for example, by having a recommender or other school official gauge a judge’s interest in an applicant, and vice versa, before the preference picks are submitted. That is not bad, however, as it is a good way to determine which applicants are truly interested in clerking for me.
Question: Some appellate judges – both at the federal and state levels – are now seeking law clerks who either have clerked for a trial court judge or who have had some experience as a practicing attorney. What do you think of that and is it something you either are now doing or plan to do?
Answer: Experience, whether as a clerk for another judge or in practice, is a good thing. It gives a clerk added information, a “feel” for a post-law school culture, and an opportunity to get acclimated to my geographical area if that person clerks and/or practices in that area before clerking for me. In any event, I try to have at least one or two clerks who previously have clerked on a District Court, as this helps for, among other things, sentencing issues.
Question: Once one gets a clerkship from you, what do you think is the greatest challenge facing them at the outset?
Answer: Among the greatest challenges facing an incoming clerk are, I perceive, two: (1) acclimating to the pace of work during the first month of a clerk term, as my clerks normally start on September 1 and there is a full sitting that I have in the latter part of that month; and (2) becoming acquainted with and able to write in the style I use.
Thank you so much, Judge Ambro, for sharing your thoughts on the law clerk application process with us.
RC, note: Go here for “Useful Links and Resources” (Columbia Univ. Law School). See also Christopher Avery, Christine Jolls, Richard Posner & Alvin E. Roth, “The New Market for Federal Judicial Law Clerks” (2007), and Danielle Citron, “Zelinsky on the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Crisis,” Concurring Opinions, Feb. 1, 2013.