Black Berkeley Law students, alumni secured more federal clerkships than ever before

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After his first year at the UC Berkeley School of Law, Luke Apfeld never thought he’d qualify for a federal clerkship, let alone two.

But Apfeld is one of 11 Black Berkeley Law students and alumni who secured federal judicial clerkships this year, the highest known number of clerkships obtained by the school’s Black students and graduates in a single application cycle, according to Eric Stern, director of operations at the Career Development Office. This development is a result of a push from Berkeley Law to encourage all students and alumni to apply to clerkships.

“It’s definitely been an all hands on deck team effort from the beginning,” Stern said. “It’s been an initiative that we’ve been working on for years and years.”

Professor and former interim dean Melissa Murray said very few Berkeley Law students were seeking postgraduate opportunities to work for federal judges, so the administrators and faculty worked together to encourage students and alumni to apply, guiding them through the application process.

Stern manages all aspects of Berkeley Law’s Judicial Clerkship Program and described clerkships as “an achievement that has a lot of learning and opens a lot of doors.”

Judicial clerkships begin post-graduation, so students can focus on school once they secure a clerkship. Murray added that even though students take a pay cut by clerking compared to working at a law firm, they gain a significant learning experience from working with judges. Murray herself clerked for now-Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

“I remember being the only African American clerk on the second circuit and I remember thinking ‘Wow, I’m learning so much,’ ” Murray said.

Apfeld, who is entering his third year, will clerk in the U.S. District Court in 2018 and in the U.S. Court of Appeals in 2019. Apfeld, second-year student Djenab Conde and third-year Kristoff Williams cited Stern and other professors as sources of support and guidance during the application process. Williams said that he initially found the application process daunting, but he found Berkeley Law professors to be very proactive in their support, which eased his worries.

Both Murray and Stern stated that the law school supported the students in various ways, but most notably through inviting judges to speak to and interact with students on campus. According to Stern, for the upcoming 2017 term, 89 Berkeley Law graduates will clerk in 23 different states and the Hague in the Netherlands — two of whom are clerking for Supreme court justices, Justice Clarence Thomas and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

“Obviously we are incredibly encouraged,” Murray said. “But this does not exhaust our goals of continuing to make these opportunities available to a broad range of students.”

Despite the recent increase in clerkships, Murray and Stern said they will continue the effort and encourage more students to apply to clerkships. They said they plan to continue inviting judges to speak with students and encouraging students to apply to clerkships.

Williams said in order to further increase the number Black students and graduates who are hired for clerkships, the school should admit more students of color in the first place. He added that because he is one of few Black male students in his class, the number of Black students hired as clerks will naturally be low.

Apfeld said as a clerk, he hopes to encourage other minorities to apply to clerkships as well and increase representation in judicial system.

“Our legal system in general — it’s very white male dominated, which isn’t a surprise. … You can’t say anything at the table if you don’t have a seat at the table right?” Apfeld said. “As a clerk, I’m not going to be making this mass change, but I have to start somewhere.”

Contact Malini Ramaiyer at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @malinisramaiyer.