Changing the Clerkship Narrative

Berkeley Law sends a diverse group of alums into judicial chambers nationwide
Devin Oliver ’22, who landed two clerkships for judges in Nevada, celebrates graduating from Berkeley Law
ON HIS WAY: Devin Oliver ’22, who landed two clerkships for judges in Nevada, celebrates graduating from Berkeley Law. Photo by Tony Oliver
Before enrolling at Berkeley Law, Devin Oliver ’22 had no idea what judicial clerks did. “I honestly thought they were more like court administrators or stenographers, which now sounds ridiculous,” he says.

Soon after finding out, he also learned that Black people held just 4% of federal clerkships among 2019 law school graduates, while whites held 79%. In this 2022-23 term, of Berkeley Law’s 87 clerks working across 30 states and territories, roughly a quarter are people of color and over half are women.

“We’re proud of that diversity,” says Director of Judicial Clerkships Anna Han. “Representation in the legal profession — and especially in the judiciary and among judicial staff — is critical to eliminating bias and improving access to justice.”

Oliver just began a two-year federal clerkship for Chief Judge Miranda Du ’94 at the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada, and will then clerk for Nevada Supreme Court Justice Lidia Stiglich.

Now a resource for other underrepresented law students pursuing clerkships, Oliver says that while many judges still use rigid hiring standards that don’t necessarily predict one’s ability to succeed as a clerk, a growing number are adopting a more holistic process.

“They’re seeing many students like me — diverse, non-traditional, and not in the top 5%, 10%, or even 20% of their class — are able to thrive,” he says. “Work experience, quality of professional relationships, public service, and lived experiences are more telling of one’s ability in that role than timed exams on an artificially forced curve. I decided to grow my legal skills through internships grounded in active litigation.”

Oliver came to Berkeley to become an environmental justice lawyer. But as his interests and goals evolved during his 2L year, he fell in love with litigation, particularly legal research and writing. He now wants to become an appellate attorney and then eventually teach as a law professor.

“Learning to research effectively, write well, and write efficiently — all key skills that are developed as a judicial law clerk — would allow me to hit the ground running as a practicing attorney,” he says. “What better way to learn how to litigate than seeing firsthand how the litigation ‘sausage’ is made and learning what judges consider strong advocacy?”

Oliver targeted Nevada for its unique docket, which includes many environmental, public lands, and natural resources disputes. He was also drawn to Du’s sterling reputation and the fact that former clerks he talked with enjoyed working with her. “And on a more personal level, she stood out as a powerful role model: a first-generation woman of color and Berkeley Law alum who has excelled as both a lawyer and federal judge,” he says.

Felix Mendez-Burgos ’21 is clerking for Judge Maria Cenzon on the Guam Superior Court

NEW ADVENTURE: Felix Mendez-Burgos ’21 is clerking for Judge Maria Cenzon on the Guam Superior Court.

Felix Mendez-Burgos ’21, clerking for Judge Maria Cenzon on the Guam Superior Court, became interested after a good friend clerked for her.

“He’d constantly text me about how it was the most amazing experience,” Mendez-Burgos says. “It was hard to shut him up about the scuba diving he was doing on the weekends, the hike adventures, the friends he was making, and the lasting relationships he was building at the courthouse with judges and other law clerks.”

While a litigation associate in Florida, Mendez-Burgos began viewing persuasive writing and oral advocacy as an “art form” he wanted to improve and thought, “What could beat being in chambers seeing how judges think and how the courthouse operates?”

Born in Colombia and raised in Tampa, Mendez-Burgos studied abroad in Italy and the United Kingdom. He also worked in Spain, spent the summer after 1L year in Tokyo as an associate at Japan’s largest law firm, and worked in Geneva as a student legal advisor at the United Nations Human Rights Council. So as the idea of clerking gained momentum, so did the hope of adding another exciting location.

“Guam came calling and it was perfect,” Mendez-Burgos says. “Fortunately, I’ve loved clerking and plan to do one more clerkship in the continental U.S. before settling down in Florida and growing my practice.”

He and Oliver both credit Han and her Career Development Office colleagues for demystifying clerkships and deftly navigating students through the application process.

“When I first got the itch to try my hand at clerking, Anna and I created an action plan. She was extremely helpful, especially when drafting cover letters,” Mendez-Burgos says. “The overall support that I received was just incredible.” — Andrew Cohen