Clerking Around the Clock: Q&A with Three-Time Clerk, Lena Hughes.
Lena Hughes is nothing short of a badass, making the nickname of her chosen firm “MoFo” all the more apt.
BY: ASHLEY FLECK
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re interested in applying for a clerkship. The burning question is: how do I get a clerkship? To kick-off its inaugural Judicial Clerkships series, the Columbia Law Women’s Association hosted CLS alumna Lena H. Hughes ‘12 to find out.
Life for Lena at Columbia Law School
At CLS Lena was an academic star. Upon graduation in 2012, she earned the distinguished Ruth Bader Ginsburg Prize, which is awarded annually to J.D. degree candidates who earn James Kent academic honors for outstanding academic achievement all three years. She also received the Wilfred Feinberg Prize, which honors one law student who does the best work in an area related to the federal courts. Lena was also an editor of the Columbia Law Review and a research assistant for Professors Bert Huang, Sarah Cleveland, and Lance Liebman.
Lena Hughes: Clerkship Connoisseur
Lena’s accomplishments didn’t stop after graduation. She went on to earn clerkships at all three levels of the federal court system and the prestigious Bristow Fellowship at the U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Solicitor General.
Lena clerked for Hon. Denise Cote ‘75 at the Southern District of New York and Hon. Gerard E. Lynch ‘75 on the Second Circuit before becoming the first CLS student to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. (To read about the second CLS alumna to clerk for Justice Kagan, tune in next week!)
Despite all of the unbelievable achievements Lena has already accomplished in what is sure to be an extraordinary career, the most impressive is her kindness in helping others achieve her same success. CLWA is grateful to Lena for taking the time to speak with current CLS women whose aspirations mirror her accomplishments.
So, how do I get a clerkship?
Reflecting on her own clerkship, Lena explains that there is no guaranteed path to earning a clerkship—she says, sometimes it all comes down to who you know or the luck of the draw. However, she provided three big insights on how to improve your chances:
- develop strong, substantive relationships with your professors;
- sharpen your writing skills; and
- “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
The clerkship application process is straightforward and includes a basic cover letter with your contact and law school information, a law school transcript, resume, writing sample, and letters of recommendation. Lena could not stress enough the importance of this last requirement: “Build substantive relationships with your professors.” Lena urged, “Do it. Go talk to your professors.”
While it helps to ask for recommendations from professors whose classes you’ve done well in, Lena says it’s more important that you ask a professor who knows you and can give a judge specific insight into who you are and what you bring to the table. Lena says she developed relationships with her CLS professor-recommenders through class participation, research, and serving as their teaching assistant.
(Demonstrating just how close she was with these professors, CLS fan-favorite, Bert Huang, tuned into the event to show his support and surprise Lena.)
Lena says that after recommendations, grades are the next most important aspect of your application as they are an easy way to indicate competency to a potential employer. Following recommendations and grades, she says, your writing sample, leadership positions, and other experiences also play a role in the process.
What’s it like to clerk?
According to Lena, each clerkship is drastically different, but the one thing that stays consistent is the importance of writing: “What really matters is how good your writing is. What stands out is excellent writing.” Why? “Because you’re going to do a ton of writing—it’s just so much writing.”
Lena says that clerking at each federal level has its pros and cons, but that each experience—writing, research, and otherwise—is invaluable for aspiring attorneys.
Clerking at a District Court
As a clerk for Judge Denise Cote on the Southern District of New York, Lena explained that she constantly conducted legal research and wrote draft legal opinions. She also learned to manage a large and varied docket, attend in-court appearances, handle motion hearings, interact with counsel, and assist with trials (although they occurred less frequently than at other levels).
Clerking at a Circuit Court
Lena’s experiences at the appellate level differed widely. Clerking for Judge Lynch on the Second Circuit, Lena continued to draft legal opinions and even began writing bench and inter-chamber memorandums (for majority, concurrence, or dissent opinions). While she saw more trials at the appellate level, Lena handled a smaller caseload, conducted more independent research, and prepped extensively for pre-oral argument conferences with Judge Lynch.
Despite the day-to-day differences between the two courts, there was one constant: writing, followed by more writing.
Clerking at the Supreme Court
As you may have guessed, the importance of writing was not lost at the Supreme Court. Lena says that with the exception of clerks for Justice Alito and Justice Gorsuch, Supreme Court clerks are responsible for writing “pool” memos that either summarize submitted cert petitions or the opposition to those petitions. For these Justices, it’s clerks who recommend whether or not they should grant certiorari.
In addition to these memos, Lena was responsible for writing bench and inter-chamber memos as well as drafting legal opinions. Lena says clerking at the Supreme Court was similar to the appellate level but for three key differences:
- an even smaller, more time-intensive case load;
- a more tight-knit team of clerks; and
- a greater need to respond to emergency applications (typically execution stays).
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
While Lena’s successes are undeniably impressive, they were not easy to accomplish. For instance, she applied to clerk at the Supreme Court three times.
Lena is not shy about sharing this experience. Lena admits that her first interview could not have gone “more terribly.” She explained to members how she forgot the name and key facts of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 case (Holt v. Hobbs) decided the previous term and referred to it as the “Prison Beard” case.
Reflecting on her second interview, Lena remembers it wasn’t as cut and dry. Lena suggests that sometimes it’s just luck. At that level, “everyone is qualified and it’s just so hit or miss. They decided to interview 16 clerks for one slot. Sometimes it’s just luck of the draw.”
For Lena, what aided her the most in this last application was her experience as the 2015 Bristow Fellow at the Office of the Solicitor General. Lena believes it was the relationships she developed during her fellowship that set her apart as Justice Kagan knew and respected the opinions of Lena’s new recommenders (Justin Kagan served as U.S. Solicitor General from 2009–2010, before she ascended to the Supreme Court bench). If this were the case, it just reinforces and extends her first insight: develop strong, substantive relationships not just with your professors, but with your supervisors as well.
These initial two rejections didn’t stop Lena from pursuing this opportunity, and she encourages aspiring CLS women to never stop aiming for something they want to accomplish!
Columbia’s Office of Judicial Clerkships
For its first Judicial Clerkships event, CLWA was joined by CLS Dean Andrea Saavedra. Of course, CLS’s clerkship opportunities and resources would not be available if not for Dean Saavedra and her outstanding team in the CLS Office of Judicial Clerkships.
While more information about the office and clerkships will become available to 1Ls next year, the office has already planned informational sessions for those first year students already dedicated to clerking. On Wednesday, October 28, the office will host Clerkships 101 for 1Ls, an event catered specifically to the needs and interests of first year students. For more information about this and other events, visit https://www.law.columbia.edu/careers/judicial-clerkships.
About the author:
Ashley Fleck is a 1L at Columbia Law School. At CLS, she is CLWA’s inaugural 1L Judiciary Events Representative, a 1L staffer on the Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, and a 1L Policy Representative for the Society of Immigrant and Refugee Rights. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Ashley attended the Georgia Institute of Technology where she majored in Biomedical Engineering and minored in both Pre-Med and Public Policy. Her experience interning for a local Superior Court Judge in McDonough, GA sparked her passion for law and the judicial system.