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March 18, 2013

Judicial Clerkship Program Aims to Expand Diversity in the Profession

“In a year of clerking, you see more about the practice of law than you see in 10 years of practice,” said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. But law students of diverse backgrounds are less likely to apply for clerkships than other law students.

Enter the ABA’s Judicial Clerkship Program, a joint effort of the ABA Council for Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Educational Pipeline and the ABA Judicial Division, with LexisNexis providing computers and Lexis access. The JCP has been a highlight of the ABA Midyear Meeting since the 2001 Midyear in San Diego, which featured 30 students from six law schools. The program allows judges, law students and former clerks to develop close personal working relationships, and improves students’ analytical, legal, research and writing skills. It also enhances a future lawyer’s career opportunities and permits a future lawyer to participate in the shaping of the law.

“I came from a family of nonlawyers and went through law school oblivious to clerkships,” said Indiana law professor Frank Sullivan Jr. “When I graduated and saw former law clerks at my firm, I asked myself, ‘How did I miss this?’ So the Judicial Clerkship Program really makes sense to me … Many law students don’t think of applying for clerkships unless they’re at a law school that beats the bushes promoting them.”

Judges work with law students of diverse backgrounds (including LGBT and those with disabilities) through structured networking activities. In various sessions over three days, the program allows up to 100 diverse law students from around the country to interact with participating judges. Students are active in panel discussions, research and writing exercises, and informal social events. This year, a three-judge panel of the Texas Court of Appeals, Fifth District held actual oral arguments at the Hilton Anatole during the ABA Midyear Meeting for the students to observe (a tradition begun at the 2005 Midyear in Salt Lake City). The sessions introduce and reinforce the reasons to pursue a judicial clerkship. Interactions continue after Midyear, via Listservs and “e-mentoring,” which provides students with email access to lawyers of diverse backgrounds who are former judicial law clerks.

This year in Dallas, there were 89 students and 50 judges. Those taking part worked in teams of at least two judges and four to six students. To ensure the desired ratio between participating judges and students, the JCP accommodates a limited number of law schools sending students to the program.

Membership requires participating law schools to pay a $3,000 annual fee for three years, underwrite the costs of four to six students to attend the ABA Midyear Meeting and develop criteria for selecting participating students, emphasizing diversity. The 18 participating law schools in 2013 were the California Western School of Law, Charleston School of Law, Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, the John Marshall School of Law, Thomas Jefferson School of Law, the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, the University of Missouri School of Law, and the law schools at Hofstra, Michigan State, North Carolina Central, Northeastern, St. Louis, Southern, Syracuse, Texas Wesleyan and Valparaiso universities.

Participating judges agree to try to hire at least two minority clerks in the next five years. The judges “replicate to the maximum extent possible the kind of judge-clerk interaction characteristic of judicial clerkships,” including using “the meetings to discuss topics in addition to the research exercise itself.” Alabama bankruptcy judge Jamie Sledge (now retired), chair of the Judicial Division in 2003, insisted on the JCP including all kinds of judges; previously the program was limited to appellate judges.

Sullivan singled out Judge Ramona See of Los Angeles and Michigan Judge William Kaprathe (now retired), the most recent JCP chairs, for being “the strongest of leaders for this program and holding it to the highest levels of quality. Their devotion is first and foremost to the students, and I admire them greatly.”

For more on the ABA Judicial Clerkship program, see the video, “ABA’s Judicial Clerkship Program Aims to Expand Diversity in the Profession,” from the 2013 Midyear Meeting in Dallas.