Guide to clerkship applications

The clerkship application process can be extremely nerve racking for law students. What if I miss out? Will I be able to get a job when I graduate? How can I improve my chances? These were the questions that raced around my mind during clerkship season.

I’m happy to admit this right now: this post isn’t going to change your world, and I don’t have any secrets to success or magic formulas to share (in fact, I don’t believe anyone does).

Guide to clerkships and clerkship applications
Life changing rainbows.

What you’ll find here is a common sense approach to clerkships. Hopefully it serves as a reminder that there’s a lot of work to do for applications, and if you prepare early, you can capitalise on all that extra time.

  • Part A – Background research
    • Step 1 – Basic legal industry knowledge
    • Step 2 – Clerkship key dates
    • Step 3 – Organise your research and applications
  • Part B – Your sales pitch
    • Step 4 – Update your resume
    • Step 5 – Write your cover letter
  • Part C – Meet the firm
    • Step 6 – Attend a careers fair
    • Step 7 – Attend firm events
    • Step 8 – Speak to junior lawyers
    • Step 9 – Speak to partners
  • Part D – Apply!

If you speak to anyone who has gone through this process, they will tell you that it is hard work, time consuming, and overall, a horrible and painful experience. Just like essays, you can have the best intentions to submit early, but unless you have a plan and actually follow it you’ll be working at 11.58pm on the due date. Don’t make this mistake for clerkship applications.

So what can you expect if you prepare early? To start with, you will:

  • make this a relatively pain free experience (always good!);
  • have enough time to research a range of different firms, so that you can comment on more than just what they have their webpage; and
  • submit far more applications than other students.

As long as you put in the required effort, this guide to clerkships and clerkship applications will help you improve your chances of winning a clerkship position!

The clerkship process is a long one
Treat the clerkship process as a long game; start preparing now.

Part A – Background research

In Part A, you will learn just enough about the legal industry to start focusing on key firms. You will also implement a simple method to keep track of what you find.

Step 1 – Basic legal industry knowledge

First of all, you need to know what types of firms you’re going to apply for.

This is super easy, and also really important. You need to have a general idea of what’s out there and what might interest you. All firms that you interview at will ask you why you want to work there. If you’ve done your basic research you will have a genuine answer to provide (I want to work here because I’m interested in employment law, and I also want the opportunity to appear in court).

I would recommend applying for all different types of firms, even if they don’t interest you right now. I never considered being a corporate lawyer when I started my degree – your interests might change too.

Take a quick read of this post to understand the differences between firms, and these posts to for some examples of different firms (mid tier and medium firms here, and top tiers here).

Just remember, websites are marketing tools and most firms say they are experts in all types of law. Confirm what a firm is good at by talking with an employee. More on this below.

Step 2 – Clerkship key dates

In many situations, the key to success is being prepared. It might seem pedantic to note down the application dates for all firms you’re interested in, especially when many have the same application dates, but this is to ensure you don’t miss the few with early deadlines.

While you are reading about how the legal industry is structured, if you see any firms that look interesting, note down their clerkship application dates.

This step feeds into, and requires, the document you will be creating in the next step.

Step 3 – Organise your research and applications

If you plan on applying to many different firms, you need to be organised.

Create a simple excel sheet, or word doc with a table, to keep track of key details. I would include:

  • firm name
  • Clerkship open date
  • Due date
  • Format (eg, cvmail or email application – if it’s email, note HR name and email address)
  • Other comments.

Note down anything else you learn about the firm along the way that could be used in your cover letter, or when talking to the firm at careers fairs. Keep it simple, for example, maybe you read on a firm’s Facebook account that all the graduates go on a boot camp.

Prepare your clerkship information
It doesn’t matter how you do it, but find a way to organise your research. A clerkship application table is a good start.

Part B – Your sales pitch

In Part B, you will focus on your own marketing. The most important part of your clerkship application is the first thing that the firms sees – your resume and cover letter.

Step 4- Update your resume

I won’t give you any tips on planning your resume for clerkship applications – there are plenty of other (much better) sites out there for that.

I just want to highlight two things::

  • You will be spending a lot of time perfecting your resume, so start this now and continue working on it while you move on to the later steps. This goes for first year law students too, even those who can’t apply for clerkships yet – get your resume up to date now. And who knows, you might need it for another reason on short notice.
  • Keep your resume concise, and keep it relevant. If you are applying for corporate law firms, emphasise corporate or business skills. If you are applying for plaintiff law firms, emphasise the fact that you are a real person with a beating heart (sorry, I don’t know anything about plaintiff firms, obviously)!

Your resume won’t really need to change when applying to different types firms, however, there could be some small changes. For example:

  • For some firms, you might be interviewing with a partner with a particular specialisation. Here, it might be worth emphasising something relevant (ie moving it to a more prominent spot) so that they will remember to discuss it.
  • Many people wonder whether or not to include random extracurriculars, hobbies, and achievements. The potential advantage with these is that it will make you stand out – the potential disadvantage is that it will make for awkward conversation. Just remember that most of the time, no one will criticise you for who you are or what you do, but they will criticise you for poor judgment. Enjoy playing some obscure form of dungeons and dragons on the weekend and want to put that down? That’s fine, but if an interviewer asks a question, make sure you can explain it in a way that’s interesting for someone who doesn’t know anything about it. If you can’t say anything that will help an interviewer relate, then that was a bad call on your part for including it.
  • If you are applying to certain firms, you might want to consider leaving political affiliations off. Use your common sense (but unfortunately, this is a great unknown, and you will never really know how the interviewer will think about these types of things)

Step 5 – The cover letter

The legal profession uses cover letters, so start preparing one now. Like resumes, they take a lot of work, and you want them ready as soon as possible.

Again, there are a lot of resources out there to help with you cover letter, so I’ll just highlight a few things that I’ve picked up along the way.

Feedback

The more feedback the better! You don’t need to take on board every suggestion for change, but it will be helpful to understand how other people perceive you cover letter (and resume).

Your uni will have a careers centre that will look over your resume and coverletter and provide some feedback. Use them as a starting point to get everything up to scratch (though they can sometimes be a bit hit and miss). Ask your friends and family next – they might also be able to help identify some of your good traits to include.

Once it is in a better position, ask any lawyers you know from work or through volunteering. This can be particularly important for some firms, as the lawyers will know what will be good to include, and what to take off. It’s also a good excuse to do some networking, and to catch up with a lawyer or two for a coffee! (Lawyers have pretty healthy egos, so we will be more that happy to lend a hand.)

Name dropping

So you know someone who works at the firms your applying for, and you want to know whether you should name drop in your cover letter? Absolutely! The only trick is doing it in a way that doesn’t sound totally douchey.

Here are some rules and tips to follow to make it work:

  • (Rule) Ask the person first, to make sure they are happy to have their name used.
  • (Rule) HR will go and speak to this person, so don’t overstate your relationship. If you have only caught up with them for coffee a few times, then just say that. Don’t say you have known each other for a long time. Don’t say you are friends. Just say you “have spoken to Tom a few times over coffee, and he has explained how amazing and wonderful your firm is”. (OK don’t say this either, but you get the drift…)
  • (Rule) It’s a bit of a balancing act with the above rule, but don’t use names of someone you don’t really know. Just talking at a careers fair isn’t enough to name someone, but if you use that initial chat to organise a few follow up coffees (over a few ️months, or even a year), then definitely do it.
  • (Tip) Try to use their name as part of a normal sentence, and tell them why you are using it.  For example, instead of “I know Ella who works in the disputes team, please speak to her because she’ll vouch for me”, say, “I spoke to Simon over a coffee, who told me about his work in the corporate team. As I mentioned, I just [love everything about corporate transactions] and [I’m also amazing because of all these reasons].” You’ll have to insert your own words into the square brackets.  In both sentences, the HR team knows that they have the option to speak to Ella and Simon, but they will be more inclined to speak to Simon.
  • (Tip) When you cover letter is almost complete, email the lawyer to ask for a little help. They will almost certainly be nice enough to oblige, and then you can offer to buy them a coffee as thanks. This is a great way to say thank you in person, and will also help build your relationship with them.

Part C – Meet the firm

In Part C, you will find various ways to meet the firm. In particular, you will be looking to create networking opportunities for yourself.

Step 6 – Attend a careers fair

I didn’t make the most of careers fairs when I was studying law. I always felt a little bit nervous and stupid, especially thinking about all of the completely contrived conversations that I would have.

Realistically, you won’t get much out of these events while you are there. Pretty much everything you could want to know will be on their website, and the lawyers are all is on their best behavior, so you won’t find out what a firm is really like anyway.

But don’t let this stop you!

Go to careers fairs to visit law firm representatives
Careers fairs are usually this busy, but everyone wears suits and are also far less cool.

If I did everything over, I would set a target of finding (say) 5 people who you managed to have a decent, flowing and non awkward conversation with. Get their names, write it down just after you say bye, and then email them later for a coffee.

If their email is not on the firm website, just email HR and say they were very helpful at explaining their work in the firm, and that you would like their email to speak to them further. (Don’t feel stupid about this – HR will like it because they are getting paid to make these events successful for their firm, it will make the lawyer sound good, and you will end up in the mind of the HR team).

And by the way, I have now attended these events as a graduate and lawyer – I was just as nervous about law students coming up to me as I was approaching lawyers when I was a student!

Step 7 – Attend firm events

Similar to the above, attend any firm events that you can. These will provide more insight to the firm than a careers fair.

Consider it a good sign if there is a strong turnout of senior lawyers and partners. These types of events are not mandatory, and attending them simply adds time to the end of everyone’s day, so if you get a good turnout then you will know that the senior lawyers actually care about you. (For the junior lawyers, it can be more about getting some free drinks at the end of the day before heading home).

You might actually get a bit more out of the junior lawyers, because everyone feels a little more comfortable within the walls of their own firm (particularly after a few drinks!).

The obvious rule here is don’t get drunk. Don’t even get to the overly chatty tipsy/drunk stage. It’s easy to do, and it looks really bad. There are no hidden cameras recording everything you do, and it’s pretty unlikely that anyone is going to say anything to HR, but it’s just not worth risking it.

Like with careers fairs, use this as an opportunity to find a few people to get a coffee with.

Step 8 – Speak to some junior lawyers

If you have decided to follow the advice in the above sections, you should have the names of a few junior lawyers to email.

It’s totally fine to send a short email and ask for a coffee. Junior lawyers won’t be getting many of these emails, and almost all of them will have 30 minutes to spend chatting to you. In regards to availability, give them an option of a few different days, and then do your best to accommodate whenever they choose.

This is a much better way to figure out what their work is like (it won’t be as contrived as a careers fair or firm event). Ask them what rotations they did during their graduate year, what they liked and disliked about each particular area, and what made them decide on their current practice group.

You will definitely find enough to talk about for half an hour. Make sure you also tell them about yourself. For example, which subjects you like and dislike, areas of law that you are currently thinking bout moving into, any internships you did and what you liked about it. Remember that we are just as interested in hearing what you are doing, as you are interested in what we are doing.

If you get along well with the person (some people you just wont click with), write that down and get in touch again in 3 or 4 months. When you email again, simply say it would be great to catch up again and to see how they are going. More often than not, they will be happy to catch up.

When you catch up again, one final thing to do is to ask if they could suggest a senior associate or partner from their team to talk to. Be careful how you approach this, because you don’t want to make them feel like you are only speaking to them for this reason. Ask them if there is anyone else in their team that they think you should talk to.

This gives you a great intro for when you email that person (possibly a senior associate or partner). You can say: “Sarah suggested I contact you to about [reason]. I’m in my [third] year at uni, and I’m thinking about a career in [a litigious team]. I’m sure you’re busy, but it would be great to speak to you about [your work/ clerkships/ graduate positions/ life at your firm]. Would you have a moment to talk over coffee? I’m happy to meet whenever would suit.”

Step 9: Speak to a partner

Junior lawyers are great to get info from, and to get a feel about a firm, but partners are the ones who can push your name into the clerkship interview pile.

There is no particular advice that I can give here. Like any other situation, your chat will depend on both of your personalities, and whether you get along easily or not.

You should treat it like an interview. Look at the firm website, the partner’s LinkedIn profile, and doing a  little bit of reading around what they do.

For example, if someone is a insolvency lawyer, you should definitely know that insolvency is an area of law that is typically involved with distressed companies. This includes both “front end” work, such as restructuring advice, and “back end” work, which is the litigation. It would be a very bad look to turn up without knowing these simple facts.

As a student, you don’t need to know everything. For example, insolvency teams also advise the corporate transaction teams on insolvency  provisions in the the contracts they draft. If you have never worked in a law firm before you probably won’t know this, but if you ask enough general questions (so how does your team fit into the other teams at your firm? Do you ever get to work with other teams?), then you might be able to draw things like this out.

As above, if you think you get along well, don’t be afraid to get back in touch after a few months and ask for another short coffee. If you’ve come this far, you should try to build a relationship with the partner. They could be the person who tells HR to include you in a clerkship interview process, and might even push to get you into the clerkship role.

Step D – Apply!

All that’s left is to apply, and to wait for your offers to come in! Good luck!

Waiting for clerkship offers
Every law student on offer day.

As I said at the start of this post, there is really no secret to clerkships or clerkship applications. You just need to think about the long game, and what you can be doing now to prepare. Obviously networkiong plays a vital role (in my opinion).

So start early, get your cards in order, and spend time talking to people and applying to a wide range of firms. When other students are cramming their applications into the 2 weeks before the due date, you can sit by knowing that you have done everything you can to land a few clerkships in your penultimate year!

If you found this helpful, please share it around!

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