Your cover letter should be individually addressed to each of the judges to whom you are applying. It should be brief and to the point, stating that you are a student at the University of Wisconsin Law School and that you wish to apply for a clerkship for a specified term. (Note: judges tend to categorize their clerkship opportunities by terms corresponding to academic years. Thus, a one-year clerkship starting in September of 2012 and ending in August of 2013 would be considered as being for the "2012-2013 term." If you are interested in only a one-year clerkship, be sure to state that you are applying for the one-year defined term ["the 2012-2013 term," for example]. However, if you are interested in both one- and two-year clerkships, make sure you do not state that you are applying for the 2012-2013 term because judges with two-year clerkships may eliminate you from consideration. Instead, state that you are applying for a clerkship "beginning in 2012.")
Write your cover letter with an eye towards the work a judge will have you do, and emphasize your experience in those areas. A clerkship involves significant research, writing and analysis. Therefore, you should briefly discuss notable research and writing experience, such
as law review or journal membership, a research assistant position with a professor,
or significant writing projects completed through seminars and/or your summer employment.
Do not discuss any experience that is not relevant to a clerkship in
your cover letter. Significant client
counseling experience gained through a clinical program might be highly
relevant for certain positions. However, it is NOT relevant for a
You should state in your cover letter what you are including as enclosures (e.g., résumé, transcript(s), writing sample and letter(s) of recommendation). If you are enclosing a writing sample without an explanatory cover sheet, you should briefly state the context of the writing sample (e.g., a brief written as part of a moot court competition, a memo written for a partner at ABC firm, a seminar paper written in partial fulfillment of the requirements of XYZ course).
Generally, judges are turned off by overly persuasive/"hard sell" cover letters. However, certain information about your qualifications and experiences is helpful. If you have a high class rank and/or law review or journal experience (particularly senior board membership), mention this in your first paragraph. In addition, if your law review/journal article was selected for publication, you should mention this fact early in your cover letter.
Other types of things you might want to briefly explain in a cover letter:
- you are applying only to courts in a specific geographic area because you have a strong commitment to practicing in that area
- there is something specific about a judge's background that makes you particularly (and genuinely) interested in clerking for that judge (without appearing to be too obsequious!)
- you want to clerk at a particular court/court level due to your long-term career plans (e.g., you want to clerk in border states because of your interest in immigration or at a state court because you subsequently want to practice family law or criminal defense)
- you have post-graduate legal experience (for graduate applicants)
The sample cover letters should be used as templates only so that all letters from the Law School do not look alike. The first example is most appropriate for applications to the federal appellate level, at which judges tend to care less about geographic ties. The other two examples are more appropriate for applications to the federal district and state court judges because they refer to geographic ties (which tend to be more important at those levels). Aside from this substantive difference based on the type of court, each letter has slightly different wording for the basic elements of a clerkship cover letter.