Law school graduates are clerking for federal judges at a (mostly) steady rate

Today is the day after Labor Day, which, in an earlier era, was a kind of holiday for third-year law students, who would send materials to federal judges who were hiring under "The Plan." After that cartel failed, federal judges hire at their own pace--often, ever-earlier.

An ongoing question about this practice lingers: do judges prefer graduates, or do they prefer clerks with some work experience? Because graduates were not subject to The Plan, were they a more popular choice until The Plan died? Or has there been a trend toward hiring clerks with some work experience?

When I looked at the data two years ago, it looked like there was no significant trend over four years. With another two years' worth of data, I thought I'd check again. The following totals are from the ABA employment summary reports and include all full-time, long-term (which includes one-year positions) positions as federal judicial clerks. (Please note that "federal" is undefined in the ABA guidelines--it might include magistrate judges, Article I courts, and other miscellaneous positions).

There's been a small trend downward in the total graduates placed into federal clerkships, but only time will tell if it's a trend or just a little noise. One reason may be credentials--as there are fewer incoming law students, there are fewer graduates at elite schools, or fewer graduates who possess the credentials that a judge may want. If judges choose not to dip lower into a graduating class, those judges may be inclined to move toward clerks with work experience. On a percentage basis, 1188 clerks for the Class of 2015 is much higher than the 1259 for the Class of 2013 simply because the total number of graduates has shrunk significantly--from 46,116 in the Class of 2013 (2.73% employed as federal clerks) to 39,418 in the Class of 2015 (3.01% employed as federal clerks).

Finally, the data has far more potential noise than just the concerns listed above. If there is an increase in new judges, or judicial vacancies, that changes the demand for all clerks, across both new graduates and clerks with work experience.