‘Admissible’ S2 E1: Judicial Clerkships With Ruth Payne ’02

Ruth Payne
January 20, 2023

Senior Director of Judicial Clerkships Ruth Payne ’02 offers insight into how UVA Law students and alumni continue to break records when it comes to securing judicial clerkships. Payne breaks down the application process, details the support and guidance provided by faculty and staff, and shares why keeping an open mind may be the key to landing one of these prestigious opportunities.


RUTH PAYNE: So I was on Jeopardy and then my husband was on the year after. I swear to God that the board before mine was like children's books, Shakespeare, things in the kitchen, things that moms do. And I was like this is my freaking board. I got up and it was like country music, but there's always a book category and books are my strength. And mine it was books about television shows. Books about television shows? That's a television category.

NATALIE BLAZER: This is admissible. I'm Natalie Blazer, Dean of admissions at UVA Law. We are officially in season two of the show, and I'm so excited to bring our listeners even more content that I is often at the forefront of prospective law students' minds. On today's show we're talking about judicial clerkships. If you don't what clerkships are, or why you should care about them, don't worry we're going to cover all of that and then some.

Applicants asked me questions about clerkships all the time. So I'm extremely excited to introduce our guest today, who is UVA law's resident expert when it comes to clerking at the most sought after courts. Senior director of judicial clerkships Ruth Payne graduated from Claremont McKenna College before going on to earn her law degree at UVA Law in 2002. While at UVA Law, Ruth was an articles editor for the Virginia Law Review.

Graduated order of the coif, and was awarded the Shannon award at graduation. Following graduation from UVA Law, Ruth clerked for Judge J Harvie Wilkinson the third, on the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. And completed a one year Bristow fellowship with the Office of the Solicitor General of the United States. Ruth returned to UVA Law in 2008, and has been advising our law students on clerkships ever since. Wow, welcome to the show Ruth.

RUTH PAYNE: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

NATALIE BLAZER: So for season two of admissible, I have decided I'm going to ask every guest the same sort of icebreaker question, which I ask a lot of people in my-- just personal life as well, because I find it fascinating. Ruth, what would be your last meal on Earth?

RUTH PAYNE: I love food. This is a very hard question. Off the top of my head, it would probably involve a lot of dairy. Like grilled cheese and ice cream would be probably right at the top of that list.

NATALIE BLAZER: So I want to start the show with your own journey to and throughout UVA Law. Since a lot of our listeners right now, it's January, they're going to be weighing their admissions decisions over the next couple of months. So can you tell us sort of your process how you decided to attend UVA for law school.

RUTH PAYNE: Sure. I always like to preface this by saying I'm not sure how instructive it is. Because unlike many, many of our students who come and do a ton of research and are very well prepared. I did not go into this process very informed. I don't come from a family of lawyers. And I really-- I was out working, I didn't come straight through from undergrad. And I basically applied to the handful of schools that my Undergraduate Faculty mentors, that they went to.

They were like, oh, you should apply to-- and I was very naive. I only applied to four schools initially. And then I got a brochure in the mail from UVA. And it looked beautiful. And it had some information about applying for a scholarship, which I did, and they offered to bring me out. And honestly, my thought process was, oh, free trip to Charlottesville. I've never been there, I'd like to see Monticello.

And I came out to visit. And I just fell in love. I had the opportunity to speak to a lot of faculty, they were just around. The weekend that they brought us here. And they were very invested. They really wanted to know what I was interested in. A couple people shared an interest in and they followed up with me. And connected me to resources. And it just really made me feel like, wow, this is a place where I'm going to have a great experience.

And that had actually been the first place I'd visited. And then I did the circuit of admitted schools for the other four schools. And I didn't fall in love with any of them. I felt like they were all really, I mean, highly ranked schools. The ones that you are probably. I am not to name, but I always tell students, probably the ones that everybody applies to. And when I went there, I just felt like I would ask students. Why did you come here?

And they would always say, well, I came here because it's--

NATALIE BLAZER: Ranked whatever. Yeah.

RUTH PAYNE: Number one school, it's number two school. And that didn't feel like a great answer to me it. It didn't feel like why I wanted to go to law school.

NATALIE BLAZER: Yeah. That's so important. Do you have a favorite memory from when you were in law school?

RUTH PAYNE: So I was lucky enough to do a clinic my second year in law school. And I should preface this by saying I had been a social worker before I came to law school. I didn't come straight through, my background was working in the foster care system. And I worked on what was then called the child Advocacy Clinic. And right away, we got there, and I had no idea what a clinic really did.

But we got thrown into court to represent some kids. And it was really the first time that I remember thinking, wow, this is-- I can see what my impact is. Right, this is someplace where I can make a difference. Walking in without knowing anything but two pieces of law, I can make a difference in the life of these children. And that was very impactful for me.

NATALIE BLAZER: OK. So let's talk about clerking. First of all, what is a clerkship? What is clerking?

RUTH PAYNE: So a clerkship is basically a year that you spend as a go to person for a judge. You spend a year in a judge's chambers, which are typically very small. It will be the judge, maybe they have a judicial assistant, and they'll have somewhere between 1 and 4 clerks who do all the work of the judicial system. They usually work on drafting the opinions. They do the research on the law. They sit-in on trials. They interface with parties if they're at the trial level.

And so it's basically just a year in the court where you are the person.

NATALIE BLAZER: Yeah. And so why might a law student, or a recent law graduate be interested in pursuing a clerkship as part of their overall path.

RUTH PAYNE: First and foremost. The work is phenomenal. I talk to our students. I've been lucky enough to be doing this for so long that I have students come back 10, 15 years later and talk to me. And they'll tell me this was the best year of their career. And that's not to knock other types of work, which are phenomenal. But it's one of the few chances you have that early in your career to get something that substantive. Like are helping to write the opinions that shape the course of the law.

And so from just a academic perspective, the work is fantastic. Beyond that, you're working with a judge. And people don't become judges early in their career, typically. That's a pinnacle job. And so you have these amazing jurists who have seen everything, done everything. Often been on the bench for a long time, who are again, in this very small environment working with you on your writing.

So the ability to just learn things very quickly. How to think about the law. How to write succinctly. That's the reason that clerkships are valued so highly. And so this is just resumé wise, career impact wise, everybody loves a clerk. And it's because of that. Because the training is so intensive and you learn so much that you can't learn someplace else.

NATALIE BLAZER: Do firms still pay clerkship bonuses?

RUTH PAYNE: They do. And they are substantial.

NATALIE BLAZER: They are? When I was practicing at my firm, I remember a friend of mine that I was practicing with went away to clerk for a year. We were junior associates, very junior, like maybe second year. And when he came back, and he told me about his clerkship bonus, I was like, wait what? But it made sense, because of all the knowledge and experience that he was then bringing to the firm, not to mention, a close relationship with a judge, which who doesn't love that.

RUTH PAYNE: I was shocked. I mean, even 20 years ago when I was leaving my clerkship and fellowship. I had committed to government that was what I wanted. But there were firms courting me, and the bonuses that they were offering were significantly larger than my yearly salary.

NATALIE BLAZER: Oh, God. Good for you Ruth.

RUTH PAYNE: Maybe that's a check on my sanity, I'm not sure.

NATALIE BLAZER: Well, speaking of your own clerkship, I would love to hear a little bit more. I'm sure like listeners are like really want to what was your own experience. Like, why did you want to do it? How did you apply? What did you get out of it?

RUTH PAYNE: What I got out of clerking, I would say the number one thing was the writing experience. The judge that I clerked for is one of the most beautiful writers I've ever met. Just can boil down very difficult topics, and make them understandable to the parties who'll be reading them. But also beautiful to read. You can read his opinions like a book. And he really emphasized that you are writing for the people, and you need to write things that will be understandable.

But also, he taught us a precision of language. He was very invested in every word counting. In there being nothing in the law that should be somewhere accidentally. And that was such an important lesson to learn early in my career. How every piece matters, and how the words matter so much and what you're saying and trying to convey.

NATALIE BLAZER: I remember in legal research and writing, every word has a purpose. If you find a word that has no purpose, it's got to go. And I do want to highlight what you mentioned, just about what clerkships can unlock for you. I mean, firms were courting you, you obviously had an amazing government career after your clerkship. A lot of future law students, or current law students think of clerking as a launch pad for the rest of their career.

It's obviously an incredible one year experience in and of itself. But it does open doors, and it just gives you a great foundation for your career. So now, I want to talk about what your office here at UVA Law does specifically for our law students who are interested in clerking at some point in their legal career. So let's say someone has just gotten here, they're a one-l, what is their relationship with your office look like if they're interested in clerking?

RUTH PAYNE: The judicial clerkship office is part of the career development suite, which has these three parts. Private practice, public service, and then judicial clerkships. And as an office we all work together. Because the goal is we want students to get where they want to go. And so we can't do that if we're not all talking about student desires and their short term goals and their long term goals.

And so when they come in as 1Ls, they'll initially meet with the office that aligns most closely with their long term interests for that first appointment. But after that first appointment, they'll have access to all the offices. And so, I will work with 1Ls pretty early in the process if they actually want to work for a judge their first summer, which is not a clerkship, it's a judicial internship.

But is a great experience, a little bit like a mini clerkship. And then I always tell the students, if you have questions about clerkships this early, stop by, I'm happy to answer them. I really like to get ahead of whatever rumors are going to be hearing around the law school about what they can and can't do. And what this looks like. We start programming pretty early just to get the basic information out there. But for most students, the clerkship process really, the very earliest we would have a brass tacks talk would be there one spring.

NATALIE BLAZER: Can you walk us through the steps of applying for clerkships within the US?

RUTH PAYNE: Sure. So honestly, applying for clerkships at its heart, doesn't look that different from applying to everything else that you've probably applied to in your life. You're going to prepare a cover letter, and a resume, and a writing sample that you hope is appealing to the judges, and then in addition, you'll need 2 or three letters of recommendation. Either from faculty members who you well, or prior employers, or clinic supervisors.

But some number of people who can add some color to your application. And really convince a judge that you are somebody that they would enjoy having in their chambers. The actual how do I prepare my materials part is not that difficult. The complicated part is figuring out what application timeline works for each student, because it's not a uniform timeline. Different judges hire on different schedules, different students have different needs.

And I think really navigating when a clerkship works in your life, whether this is something that you want to do right away, or do a few years out, and whether there's other information that you need first, and figuring out when are the judges that I think would be a best fit for me, when are they hiring. And so a lot of what I'm doing is helping students navigate that piece of it. Not so much the can I write a cover letter.

Obviously, I will help them with their cover letters and their resumes, and interview prep, we do all of that. But the process itself I think can be a little overwhelming for students because it looks much less structured than some other job application processes. And the reason is judges are individuals. They are not organizations, they don't have a recruiting office, they don't have a lot of time in their schedule to be out there hosting receptions. And that it's just a different world. And so you are dealing with a lot of individual universes that you have to get your mind around.

NATALIE BLAZER: Are most law students that you're working with aiming to clerk immediately after they graduate? Or are they securing clerkships for like years down the line? Just this week, we see that class of 2021 grad Aaron Brown is clerking for Justice Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court. So that she's been out for two years. So I would love to hear a little bit more about how far in advance are they doing this now, how does that all work?

RUTH PAYNE: So the answer to your question of whether students do it right away or later on is both. There are opportunities to clerk at graduation. I think in the traditional model that existed when I was in law school and probably when you were in law school, most students clerked right at graduation. It was a little bit of an apprenticeship model. And that has definitely shifted. We see more judges who are really excited about hiring students who have some experience.

For all sorts of reasons. And so I would say our students themselves are split. Some are very invested in clerking at graduation, some think it would be great to get out and get a few years of experience behind them before they clerk. And some number have what they want, and it doesn't necessarily line up with when the judges are hiring in the market they're interested in.

And so we'll work with students on what does that look like if you really hope to clerk at graduation, but also hope to clerk in a big city where most of the judges are actually going to require a few years of work experience.

NATALIE BLAZER: Right, right. How does that work? Are you working with alumni who have been working for a couple of years to apply for a clerkship? Or are students just applying years in advance and they're going to go to a firm for a couple of years? If somebody is not clerking right after graduation, how does that work?

RUTH PAYNE: Yeah, we see both of those things happen. Some students will apply for clerkships a few years out while they're still in law school, because either the market, that's what they're demanding. Or because it's what they want. There are some great reasons to clerk a few years out. Some students really feel like they want to get their feet under them in their legal career, they want to make some money, they have obligations.

Some people will do a job that they only want to do for a few years. And a clerkship can be a great pivot point. This can be a great way to enter a new market, or pivot into public service if they've been in private practice. Some students don't think they want to clerk, and then they get out to their job, and I'll get phone calls that look like I didn't think I needed to clerk, and now that I'm here with this employer, all of the people I really respect actually clerked.

And I feel like it would be really helpful for me this is an experience I want to have. How do I get started I've never done it before? So to answer your immediate question, I absolutely work with our alums, it's probably about half of my caseload. I think that's a pretty unique feature of our law school career office is particularly on the clerkship side. I will work with alums no matter where they are in their career.

I've had the oldest alum I've ever had come into the clerkship process graduated in the 1970s. I've had a few from the 1990s. But it's not uncommon for a student who's five or 6 or 7 years out to reach out and be looking for help.

NATALIE BLAZER: That's incredible. I had no idea. Can we talk a little bit about jurisdictions for a second? So of course, everyone wants to clerk at the DC district or whatever. I mean DC, like Southern District of New York. I'm sure those are always very popular Eastern District of Virginia.

If you're a UV law student. I'm curious, because I think it would be fascinating to just clerk in a completely different part of the country where you're learning about, I don't know just things that you haven't been exposed to necessarily. So can you tell us a little bit about just how you help students like maybe broaden their horizons when they're thinking about where they want to go, like some pros cons things like that?

RUTH PAYNE: Yeah, I think the pros cons is the big piece of that, right. We will typically start with, what is your priority. Because if they come and say my priority is I have to clerk at graduation, because I have family obligations, because we're going to buy a house. Because I'm planning to go someplace for my career where I don't have the option of deferring for a year. And coming back, then we're going to start with OK so who actually might be hiring for at graduation.

What I tell students is can control absolutely one thing. And then everything else you have to follow along with what will fit in that box. And if you're lucky, multiple things that you're looking for will line up. But I think that a lot of our students just to the nature of students who come to a top ranked law school, and have for their entire lives had a lot of success and there's always been a brass ring.

They come into law school and want to what is the best. And I tell the students that the first session, and they probably hate this. Please don't ever say that to me. I really don't think that there's a best. There's a best for you, but some clerkships I think are considered to be shinier because there are fewer of them. Right, of course, this is going to be more competitive because there's only nine judges of this type, or 200 judges of this type.

That doesn't mean that it's better for your career, because actually, if what you want to do is state legal aid, you should be in a state trial court. And if what you want to do is academia, you maybe want to be in a state Supreme Court, and if you want to try cases, you want to be in a trial court and not an appellate court. And so I like to have them start there, with what are you looking to get out of this experience. And then really think about where can I get that.

NATALIE BLAZER: Yeah, wow. That is so helpful. I don't even think I really thought in my head, broke it down like state level, federal, what and where you go from there. I think the takeaway is that you can have an incredible experience at all different courts.

RUTH PAYNE: Absolutely.

NATALIE BLAZER: And not everyone can clerk on the Supreme Court. I think that's also a major takeaway.

RUTH PAYNE: Yes to that.

NATALIE BLAZER: But speaking of the prestige element, I think I'm burying the lead a little bit here, but I do want to highlight some impressive statistics about our clerkship program. For those of you out there who don't know, UVA is currently number five in the country in placing clerks on the US Supreme Court. So while not everyone can clerk on the US Supreme Court, you UVA Law grads are pretty much up there in getting those clerkships.

We're number 4 in the country in placing clerks on federal judicial courts. In the 2022 term, UVA Law had 2 clerks on the Supreme Court, 36 on US Courts of Appeal, 52 on US district courts and other federal courts, and 14 on state courts. And this is now the fourth year in a row that we've had more than 100 alumni clerking. That is unreal. Those numbers are unreal. Especially, as we've talked about that this is such a valuable experience. Such a competitive process.

Like obviously, I'm going to say that our students are the best of the best, and they're impressive in their own right. They're working hard. They're going for it when it comes to their career. But of course, a lot of those numbers reflect like everything you're doing. And the support and the guidance that they get, and I know that you not going to toot your own horn in terms of the judicial clerkship office, I already that.

But can you just tell us, based on your experience, you've been in the office almost 15 years now, what accounts for are like massive success? Especially, in recent years in securing those record numbers of clerkships.

RUTH PAYNE: Yeah, I think hit the nail on the head. When you said the support we give the program. And there's a few aspects of that. I mean, what I do, sure. But some of it's what the school has allowed me to do. They put their support behind having a full time judicial clerkships office. And so I have been doing this for almost 15 years. And it's the only thing I do. This is what I focus on. I eat, sleep, and breathe judges.

But more than that, I think. The second and probably largest pillar is the faculty support. Our faculty are amazing. They make so many phone calls to judges. They write thousands and thousands of letters. And as an aside, I feel so much like the work that they do for clerkships is just an extension of the work that they do. The thing that I love the most about the UVA community is how invested our faculty is. How everybody is. Our faculty and our administrators in the students.

I had a little bit thought when I got here, the open doors that I found when I came and visited were like a good show. And that wasn't true. The faculty really is that generous with their time. And then the third big pillar is our alums. We have such a loyal alumni base. And I mean, just take your breath away loyal alumni. And I mean, first off, they go off and like said, they're fantastic. They do solid work, we have a reputation as a school of producing good clerks.

People who work hard, who come in with knowledge, who know the good questions to ask, who are pleasant in chambers. And then beyond that, they're loyal. And so they're trying to pull other UVA alums in behind them. Talking to judges, helping them find good fits for them. So the program just grows on itself.

NATALIE BLAZER: Gosh, I got chills. Our alumni are the best. I'm not just saying that because you and I are both alumni. So I think you've shared a lot of actually great advice already. But if someone's out there who's considering first of all, they're deciding among law schools maybe. And everything that they've heard about clerkships is making them even more excited about clerking one day. What advice would you give to someone who's about to enter law school and who really wants to do a clerkship?

RUTH PAYNE: I think-- so all of those pieces of advice that how do you choose your law school? And then how do you maximize your chances when you're in law school? And what should you be focusing on? I just think it's really important, the fit is really important, right. And so this piece, where when you're choosing a school, you should be choosing someplace that feels like the place that cares about as a person, that's going to nurture you, going to help you grow into the lawyer that you want to be.

And clerkships is a piece of this. But I think it really is just a small piece of this, right. When students tell me I want to come to UVA because of the strength of the clerkship program. I always say, well, thank you. That's very sweet. But also please don't make that be the thing that you choose on, because there are so many amazing things here. And I want to make sure that this is the right fit for you. It's really important.

And I get so many questions about how to maximize clerkship chances. But this is probably the mom in me. I talk to a lot of judges about the types of candidates they're looking for. And I have 15 years of data about who gets hired. And who gets hired are people who are passionate about something. Who come to law school and get involved. And develop themselves as good lawyers. Not who check boxes, I have to do certain activities to get to a clerkship.

I'm developing myself into the lawyer that I want to be. I'm investing in my community. I'm following my passions. And if you do those, the clerkship success will follow.

NATALIE BLAZER: That I think, echoes a lot of the advice that I give for prospective law students. I'm never going to try to convince somebody to come to UVA Law, you have to feel it, the fit, the visit is so important. All that support, everything we've talked about. I love that. So is there anything about clerkships we did not cover that you really want people to know?

RUTH PAYNE: This is my soapbox piece, because I feel like the hardest part of my job is running up against the things that people hear that are so entrenched in not just UVA Law School culture, but just law school culture. Myths about who can and can't clerk, and you what you need to be successful. And I really try to get out in front of the students and as far back as our admitted students as soon as possible to say, there is not a person who can come to UVA Law who can't clerk.

And so please don't count yourself out because you don't know about clerking, or because your grades don't turn out as well as you think they are, or any other reason, you don't feel like have what it takes, because will help you get there, and if it's something you want, we'll work with you until you get it.

NATALIE BLAZER: Well, Ruth. Thank you so much for being here. This has been a ton of fun. And I learned a lot, so I our listeners are going to benefit immensely from all the information you shared. Thank you so much for being here.

RUTH PAYNE: Thank you for having me.

NATALIE BLAZER: This has been Admissible, with me, Dean Natalie Blazer at the University of Virginia School of Law. My guest today was senior director of judicial clerkships Ruth Payne. For more information about judicial clerkships at UVA Law, please visit law.virginia.edu and click on the careers tab. The next episode of admissible will be out Friday, February 3. In the meantime, you can follow the show on Instagram at @admissible podcast. Thanks so much for listening and please remember to rate the show wherever you listen to podcasts.