CARS, Clerkship Process Changes Yield Big Returns

September 3, 2004
Trujillo in the application-sorting room.
Trujillo in the application-sorting room.

The Withers-Brown classroom has been well-tread by students, professors, and extracurricular activities, but it hasn't seen anything quite like this: boxes upon boxes of clerkship applications — about 5,500 from 99 members of the class of 2005 and several alumni. A confluence of events has conspired to boost the clerkship process from an individual application system to one in which the Law School processes everything centrally, making for better tracking of applications, better counseling of applicants, and better statistical tools for analyzing what makes a clerkship applicant successful.

"What made the process difficult this year was the requirement that everything go out the day after Labor Day (which is not different from last year), and the judges' 'suggestion' that everything be bundled," said Jason Wu Trujillo, Director of Public Service and Career Counselor at the Law School.

Last year students sent out application materials — resume, transcripts, writing samples, and cover letters — themselves, while having their three letters of recommendation from professors mailed separately. "The effect of that system is that a judge would have up to four pieces of mail per applicant for the judge's staff to put together," Trujillo said, adding that the problem was exacerbated by the fact that all applications were mailed the Tuesday after Labor Day. This year the Law School is sending one envelope per student and bundling those applications by judge. Students supply their applications in envelopes, and the Law School is inserting the recommendation letters. With 1,500 unique addresses to mail to, Trujillo hopes to send only one box per judge via overnight mail, saving the expense of sending each application overnight individually. "Almost all of our peer schools are over-nighting materials," he said. "Almost all of our peer schools are bundling as well, although a number of our peer schools are charging the students fees. If we didn't bundle by judge the cost would become astronomical. I'm pretty conservative about how we spend money."

The clerkships team
Clerkship applications were a team effort this year. Bottom row, L-R: David Holsapple, Phyllis Harris, Bryan Branch, Jason Wu Trujillo; Middle row, L-R: UPS Account Executive Travis Mader, Diane Cronk, Delores Clatterbuck, Karen Spradlin, Susan Simches, Cindy Derrick, Pam Messina, Helen Harris; Top row, L-R: Shelly Gibson, Kathy Wood, Susan Pott, Dianne Johnson, Donna Ganoe, Gail Branch, Darlene Branch, Sheila Pritchette.

To help meet the new challenges facing the application process, Trujillo worked with Law ITC in creating CARS, the online Clerkship Application and Recommendation System. CARS includes a database downloaded from the Administrative Office of United States Courts, allowing students to select the federal judges they want to apply to and select professors to write recommendations for those applications. Students can add information for state court clerkships they want to apply to. Because of its online tracking system, CARS allows Trujillo to see what strategies students are using — whether they are applying for clerkships across the country, or whether they are concentrating on one or two cities, for example. With a few clicks of the mouse, Trujillo can tell you, "Judge Ripple of the Seventh Circuit will receive six applications." Most importantly, in about one month's time, Trujillo will be able to analyze what made students successful or unsuccessful in securing a clerkship — valuable knowledge for counseling next year's class.

With the judges' information readily available via CARS, students could easily choose to apply to numerous judges. "We set a ceiling of 75 judges, and there were quite a few people who hit that number," Trujillo said. The most popular judge proved to be Leonie M. Brinkema of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, with 37 students submitting an application to her. Based in Alexandria, her location is a hotspot for applicants looking to settle near Washington, D.C.

Helen Harris sorts envelopes
Helen Harris sorted clerkship applications last Friday in WB152.

Third-year law student Greg Henning called the clerkship process "virtually painless" and praised Trujillo for making it so. "He has organized a system that simplifies the process while virtually eliminating the tremendous cost that clerkship applications used to present to interested students," Henning said. "He has worked closely with Dean Jeffries, the faculty, and the support staff at the Law School on behalf of all of us.

"The decision by the Law School to cover the cost of mailing the applications was a huge change from previous years, and one that is much appreciated from my perspective," Henning added. "I think the school's decision to accept the burden of mailing costs might have increased the number of applications for students."

Participating students averaged 50 applications each, although the number of judges students applied to varied, with one student only applying to one judge. About 15 alums are applying for clerkships as well. The Law School offers to bundle their application materials if they use at least one faculty recommendation. Many alumni use professional recommendations from colleagues.

Faculty secretaries processed more than 15,000 letters of recommendation in the past few weeks. "The secretaries and ITC, especially Glenn Taylor and Marina Heiss, definitely did a lot of work on this project," Trujillo said. Trujillo, whose wife Lauren joined him in working on sorting the applications all weekend, noted that mailroom staff Scott Lawson and Bryan Branch have also put in an incredible amount of overtime. Trujillo hired a temp worker, Helen Harris ("she's fantastic"), to help sort applications as well. He said other staff members have volunteered their time, including admissions and business office staff. Notably, Kathy Wood of the National Security Law and Oceans Law & Policy centers stuffed well over 1,000 envelopes for faculty secretary Phyllis Harris.

Harris processed more than 3,000 recommendation letters this year for 66 students, the most of any secretary, compared to her total last year of 2,822. "I've historically had more because all of my professors teach first-year courses," she said, noting that Prof. Mimi Riley topped the list of faculty recommenders. "After you get used to the process, I thought it was a pretty neat experience," she said, but added, "I miss the student contact."

Many secretaries stayed late and took 15-minute lunches to get the applications done in time. Harris said she heard some professors had their own marathons-signing letters while watching the Olympics.

Trujillo hopes the massive effort will yield more clerkships for U.Va. students. In the Class of 2004, 50 students received clerkships — "I would expect to be well above that this year," he said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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