Assisting the Apprentice: Becoming a judicial clerk in India’s High Courts

Assisting the Apprentice
Assisting the ApprenticePhoto by Jamie Street on Unsplash

The “Assisting the Apprentice” (ATA) series is a series of columns where we look at popular qualifications, career paths and/or examinations that the law student of today is interested in. Through interviews and feedback from those who have already trodden down these paths, we try to help the lawyers and law graduates of tomorrow.

In this edition, we discuss the institution of judicial clerks in the country's High Courts.

In a 2014, a research paper for Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession examined the relatively recent institution of judicial clerkships in the Indian Supreme Court.

The author, Abhinav Chandrachud, while examining the relationship between clerkships and US LLM applications, provided some fascinating insights into the world of Supreme Court clerkships.

Some of these findings hold true to this day, not only for the Supreme Court, but for the High Courts of India as well.

Which is what the topic of this edition of ATA is – clerking in one of India’s High Courts. In this edition, we discuss why you should clerk in a High Court, the application process, the kind of work a judicial clerk does, and some of the benefits of clerking in the High Court.

Let us get started right away.

Why clerk?

For Saisha Singh, former judicial clerk to Justice Satish Kumar Sharma of the Rajasthan High Court, the experience taught her what it meant to “think like a judge.” In other words, the ability to parse through oral arguments as well as written submissions before arriving at a decision. She also says that the clerkship changed the way she approached her work. “I feel that you work hard in law school, but not necessarily work smarter”.

Shiv Siddharth, who clerked with Justice Ashwani Kumar Singh of the Patna High Court, opines that a clerkship should be taken by any law graduate who is even considering litigation.

“It gives you a competitive advantage; a clerkship helps you learn about professional etiquette.” Shiv also notes that the clerkship taught him how to work on multiple matters at the same time, and manage a demanding workload.

There are some more practical benefits to clerking as well.

For example, the stipend – Rajasthan High Court now offers a monthly stipend of fifty thousand rupees; a substantial sum considering that the salaries for fresh law graduates is often a fraction of this. For those interested in litigation, the stipend can act as a valuable savings source.

Even for those who are interested in a career in the judiciary, a clerkship can be of immense value. “It gives you some idea of how the judiciary works” says Saisha; judges who have been elevated from the Bench can also provide some practical advice on the judiciary exams.

Another benefit, and one which has been extensively written about in the 2014 paper by Abhinav Chandarchud, relates to LLM admissions in foreign law schools. Given that clerkships in the US are usually awarded to top-ranked law students, a clerkship in India is perceived to be an accomplishment by US law school admission committees.

Hence, a clerkship is attractive in the sense that it boosts one’s chances of admissions.

Some disagree.

Subornadeep Bhattacharjee, who clerked with both, Dipankar Datta J. and Shekhar B. Saraf J., of the Calcutta High Court, says that this is a “myopic” way of looking at things, and that a clerkship can, and does, offer much more than a recommendation letter.

This is reiterated by Eklavya Vasudev who clerked with Justice Muralidhar at the Delhi High Court. “I was always looking at the next step....where will this [clerkship] get me,” he says, “soon, I realised that in doing this you lose a part of what you can get from the clerkship. Sometimes it is better not to know.”

Which High Court to clerk at?

With a number of High Courts offering clerkships, choosing where to apply can potentially become tricky.

For those interested in litigation, clerking at one’s “parent” High Court can prove to be immensely beneficial. For instance, as a clerk, one gets to study and analyse the lawyers who appear before your judge, allowing you to narrow down on the chambers who you may eventually join.

Furthermore, this is not restricted to oral arguments alone; you also have the opportunity to go through each lawyer's written submissions. And if your judge's roster changes midway, you are likely to hear an even broader set of matters and lawyers.

There may also be specific judges whom you wish to clerk under, as was the case with Eklavya. “I was looking for a mentor whose values I could model myself on,” says Eklavya, “I ended up at Justice Muralidhar’s chambers simply because of the person he was.”

At the end of the day, one needs to identify what aspect of the clerkship is most crucial, and apply accordingly.

How do I apply for a clerkship?

A number of High Courts come out with notifications in this regard, although the terms of recruitment may differ. Hence, the first place to begin would be to monitor the websites of the High Court(s) you are interested in clerking at.

Tanvi Nigam, a former Law Researcher with Hima Kohli J who was then at the Delhi High Court, says that the process for appointments can vary and may also include a probation period.

Broadly speaking, in addition to the documentary requirements, applicants may be asked to complete a written examination, or sit through an interview or both.

This is where High Courts tend to differ; some interviews are conducted by the particular judge who is seeking a clerk, in some instances these interviews are conducted by a panel of judges and a High Court Registrar. The Patna High Court also requires a recommendation letter from either the head of the applicant’s university, or a designated senior advocate.

The questions asked in the interview also differ quite widely; they can be generic in nature or specific to what is mentioned in the applicant’s resume. For Shiv, the interview lasted less than ten minutes, as was the case with the rest of his co-applicants.

Subornadeep says that it helps to be cognisant of the manner in which you address the judges during the interview. “Use terms that they are familiar with, that show you have some understanding of the legal profession.”

It should also be noted that there is another route to clerkships – applying directly to the judge concerned. This works particularly well if one has already interned with the judge in question as was the case with Eklavya.

Alternatively you can either write to the judge directly or through the judge’s court master. For some High Courts, such as the Calcutta High Court, one can write to the Registrar General who then forwards the application to judge(s) who are on the lookout for a clerk.

How are clerks assigned?

Once again, there is no uniform practices adopted across High Courts though it would appear that clerks are assigned on the basis of the requirements of a particular judge as well as the applicant’s performance in the interview and written examination.

In the Patna High Court, for instance, three senior judges chose not to accept any clerk at all recounts Shiv.

In the Calcutta High Court, explains Subarnodeep, once the interview rounds were completed, the successful candidates were placed in a common pool. Judges, based on their inter se seniority, then chose from this pool, and not necessarily as per the ranks attained.

For example, the then Acting Chief Justice called candidates who were ranked two, seven and nine; he then ended up choosing the one ranked ninth. The other two were then once again added to the common pool of applicants.

What are clerks expected to do?

For Saisha, a large part of the work involved in summarising case files as well as compiling judgements for the state, and district, legal services authorities as her judge was associated with Rajasthan’s legal aid services.

Another common role assigned to clerks is assistance with preparing speeches for various talks given, and research on legal issues related to the matters that are being heard in court. Eklavya for instance, recounts that Justice Muralidhar would often hand out research topics based on the interests of the clerk.

Subornadeep for instance, had to be present in court during hearings, laptop at hand. “Any query made by the judge, I had to answer in real time.”

It was an exhilarating but challenging task.

“I felt I was quite slow with my research initially and Sir was quite accommodating; it took some time before I grew into this position.”

He also has a warning for prospective clerks – “Forget that you have a personal life. Judges work around the clock, and you are expected to assist them.”

How can one be an effective judicial clerk?

Saisha says the most important, and difficult, part of her work was to keep an open mind. This meant examining a particular fact situation from different angles, and trying to ensure answers to any potential queries her judge may have.

Another piece of advice she has is to give the clerkship the importance it deserves. “At the end of the day, you play a role in a judicial decision. You have to take this seriously.”

Shiv reiterates this line of thought. “You are working on very sensitive issues,” he says, “you need to be sincere in your work.”

Apart from the judge under whom you are clerking, there are also a number of support staff that you are expected to work with. These individuals can go a long way in making the clerkship a positive experience.

Shares Saisha, “The support staff certainly help you feel less isolated, and this is important for any work place.”

Benefits of clerking

As discussed in the first part of this article, there are some intangible and tangible benefits of clerking. A chief amongst these would be recommendation letters for higher studies abroad.

But that is not all.

For some, the clerkship allowed them to develop professional habits that have held them in great stead. Saisha, for instance, learnt the true importance of paying attention to detail. For Tanvi, the stint at law researcher allowed her to "develop analytical, written and oral legal skills while working in close quarters with legal luminaries."

For others, the clerkship allows for greater recognition in the legal fraternity, often becoming associated with those fields of law that a particular judge is known for. Subarnodeep, who is currently pursuing an LLM at SOAS, has seen this first hand in interactions with members of the Calcutta Bar.

For some, it could simply be the chance to find a mentor. Says Eklavya, who is currently pursuing a doctorate degree, “I think [Justice Muralidhar] also helped me deal with my failures – when I realised litigation was not for me, he showed me how I could change things through legal academia.”

Here is a list of some of the notifications issued by different High Courts in the country along with the year of notification:

  • Bombay High Court (2019) pdf

  • Calcutta HC (2018) pdf

  • Patna High Court (2017) pdf

  • Madras High Court (2021) pdf

  • Rajasthan High Court (2021) pdf

  • Telangana High Court (2022) pdf

(Anuj A is a co-founder at Amicus Partners)

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