How a Judicial Externship Can Help Your Legal Career

Working for a judge is a great to gain legal work experience

Portrait of a judge with gavel

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As a law student, you’ll have a number of opportunities for career-enhancing off-campus activities. One fantastic opportunity is a judicial externship, i.e. working for a judge, either during the semester or over the summer. If your school is located near any chambers, this is definitely an opportunity to investigate. 

What You Will Do As a Judicial Extern

When you work as a judicial extern, you’ll typically do work similar to that done by the judge’s clerks.

(One note, don’t call yourself a “judicial clerk” or “law clerk” when you’re a judicial extern. This terminology is typically reserved for the judge’s full-time clerks who’ve graduated from law school.) 

On an average day, you might work on a memo on a particular issue of law that the parties briefed in advance. You might do research on evidentiary rules if you’re in a trial court. You’ll probably also have the opportunity to observe court proceedings, including trials, jury selection, and motion hearings. You’ll likely help draft opinions that the judge will issue.

How Being a Judicial Extern Can Help Your Legal Career

Working as a judicial extern can be very interesting and exciting, and is highly beneficial to your development as a lawyer.

As you read briefs and motions, you’ll learn more about how to construct a winning legal argument (and what not to do). You’ll see what’s compelling at oral argument and in briefs, and you’ll get a chance to peek behind the scenes and see how judges actually decide cases. Of course, you’ll improve your own research and writing skills! And, you’ll (hopefully) gain a mentor and advocate for the rest of your legal career.

When Judges Hire Their Own Externs As Law Clerks

Potential externs often wonder how working for a judge as an extern might impact their later application for judicial clerkships. The answer is, “It depends.” Some judges have a policy of never hiring their own externs as clerks, and are typically upfront about this policy when you apply to extern. The logic behind this is that extern and law clerk slots are limited, and it’s not fair to let one person have both. 

Other judges, however, do openly hire their own externs, and essentially use the externship as an extended interview. If the question doesn’t come up in your initial externship interview, it’s probably safe to assume the judge doesn’t have a strong policy one way or the other, but it’s worth asking about if this is a judge you’d really like to clerk for (as a full law clerk).

Even if you extern for a judge who won’t hire externs as clerks, all is not lost. Assuming you do a good job and the judge likes you, there’s a high likelihood they’ll put in a good word for you with their judge friends, drastically improving your chances of securing a full clerkship when the time comes. 

How You Can Get a Judicial Externship

Each school is different, but to apply for a judicial externship, you’ll typically have to submit a resume, cover letter, and writing sample. Some judges might also require references, so it’s worth getting to know your professors early on (office hours are a great way to build these relationships). Ask around and you’ll find out the details. Be sure to check with students who previously worked with the judges you’re considering. Most are nice, but some judges are notoriously hard to work for, and perhaps are best avoided! 

Existing Options

The range of judicial externship options will depend on what’s close to your school, or where you can live (for the summer). The possibilities are vast! Most state courts, federal courts, specialized local courts, trial courts, and appellate courts have options. Chose one that suits your career plans, and a judicial externship can set you on the way to legal career success!