Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Clerking for a Federal Judge: The Ultimate - Lifelong - Mentorship (Part I: Securing the Job)

In the fall of 1999, I enrolled as a 1L at the Appalachian School of Law ("ASL") in Grundy, Virginia.  In case you are wondering where Grundy is like I did, fear not, for you are not alone.  Grundy is more than 3 hours southwest of Roanoke, and wedged in a box canyon which separates Kentucky and West Virginia by just a few miles.  Grundy is a coal mining town where, until the law school opened in 1997, knew of no one who hadn't grow up in one of its hollowers or branches.  Grundy was more than six hours from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where I was from, and worlds apart in all other respects.  Despite my reservations, I packed up my Jeep Wrangler and embarked on what would become a very eventful and meaningful time in my life.

In those days, federal judges generally made their law clerk hiring decisions during the second semester of the 2L year, with the application process beginning in the fall of the 2L year.  I must admit, I knew that I wanted to go to law school, but I was otherwise ignorant to most of what attending law school meant.  Specifically, I had no idea what a federal clerkship was, much less how to go about applying for one.  During the early part of my 2L fall semester, folks began talking about a clerkship in nearby Abingdon, Virginia, for the Honorable Glen N. Williams, Senior District Judge for the United States District Court, Western District of Virginia (Abingdon and Big Stone Gap Divisions).  Initially, I paid no attention to the buzz, as there was no way a student in the third ever class at ASL was going to get a federal clerkship, at least that is what I thought at the time.

One day while visiting with the Director of Career Services, she asked me if I had applied for the federal clerkship with Judge Williams.  When I told her that I had not, she encouraged me to do so.  She told me about the extreme benefits of clerking for a federal judge, and that I needed to apply, so blindly I did.  As you may or may not know, federal judges received hundreds, if not thousands, of clerkship applications per year.  Once I found this out, I was certain that I would not get the job, and gave it no additional thought. 

A few months went by, and having heard nothing, I was confident in my suspicions that the job was awarded to some other candidate (Judge Williams had two law clerks per year, but the odds were still stacked against me).  Then one day, I received a call that Judge Williams had narrowed the field, and wanted to schedule me for an interview the following week.  That gave me exactly one week to figure out how I was going to win the job.  Having done some recon, I learned that Judge Williams was among other things, a huge Cincinnati Reds fan.  In fact, he would sit by designation for the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals once a year, and always when the Reds were in town (the 6th Circuit is located in Cincinnati).  I also knew that Judge Williams had a large Seersucker suit collection, which I too happened to have.  So, armed with all of my intel, and dressed in my Seersucker suit, I headed to Abingdon for my interview. 

There were a number of candidates in Abingdon for interviews that day, most of which were far more worthy of the clerkship than I was, at least I thought so.  What was I going to do when it was my turn to wow Judge Williams?  When the door to the judge's chambers opened, and I was invited in, I still had no idea what I was going to do to separate myself from the field.  Then, as I walked through the doors it came to me, before I could even take my seat, I looked at Judge Williams and said, "Judge, I have just one question for you.  If you are a Reds fan, and I'm a Mets fan, how are we going to work together?"  For the next hour and a half, Judge Williams and I talked about all things unrelated to the clerkship, and four weeks later I was awarded one of the two clerkship positions for 2002-2003.  I couldn't believe it, I was moving to Abingdon, Va., another hour and a half farther southwest!

The lessons here are three-fold.  First, always shoot for the moon.  Who knows, you might just land on it.  Second, Human relations matters. Any number of folks are qualified for most jobs, but those who demonstrate the ability to be human typically wind up with the job in the end.  Third, don't be afraid to think (explore) outside of the box.  It's a lot like the road less traveled. 


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