You never know…If you do not try, you will never know. Sometimes, you just throw the ball and say a prayer. Thirty-five years ago, in what will seem unimportant, my aim finishing law school was to “clerk” for a conservative federal judge. Odds were long, but idea strong. No connections, I resolved to try.
For context, you must know this is like deciding tomorrow you will sign up for the judicial Olympics, or write a best seller, or invent some meaningful thing. America has roughly 200 law schools. In 1987, more than 40,000 students signed up annually and graduated from law schools.
America had just 870 Article III federal judges. When I graduated in 1987, President Ronald Reagan had been able to get confirmed only 71 judges to US Courts of Appeals, only 233 federal district judges. While not all law students wanted to clerk and not all judges appointed by non-conservative presidents were non-conservative, my chances of getting a clerkship with a Reagan-appointed judge were roughly 304 in 40,000, or one in 132, less than one percent.
Of course, kids do not think about things that way, and I was just an overgrown kid – an already conservative, never-say-never, pie-eyed, overgrown kid. In general terms, there were more annual UFO sightings, meteorites hitting the earth, and lightning strikes of farm animals than Reagan judges.
Still, none of that bothered me. If you do not try, you will never know. Right? My strategy was simple. Let the prospective judge know you are conservative, place no geographic restrictions, personalize each letter, accept the rejections.
To appreciate the longshot, recall that in 1987 our computers were just word processors. We had no email, text, social media, cell phones, or digital communication. We used paper, envelope, one stamp, which we licked. On the envelope, we scrawled an address, then found a mailbox.
All this is to say, never give up, never give in, never stop dreaming, never let someone else’s laughter dissuade you from chasing your dream. I had not been on law review, another strike against me. I did like writing, had published a bit, but that was it.
Merrily, I went on my way, an industrial strength applicant for a make-believe clerkship. I carefully drafted 300 letters, personalizing each after studying the judge’s opinions, found in a library book. I put each of 300 letters in an envelope, addressed it, licked and applied the stamp, found a mailbox.
Gradually, responses trickled back. First slowly, then more quickly, rejection letters. They tended to thank me for applying, compliment me for nothing in particular, wish me good luck. The killer sentence always began “Unfortunately…”
All this was okay, expected, but the pile – which became a conversation piece – showed me the price for trying. Of course, I desperately wanted to clerk, but was learning how to manage rejection too.
Weeks became months, and dark letters kept coming, hundreds of rejections. Then one day, I got a ticket to the ball, just the chance to interview. From 300 letters, I got six interview offers, two in Maine, three in California, one in Seattle – all district judges, except Seattle.
When people tell you the cost is too much, you are crazy, just smile. I had zero money, none for air tickets or hotels, up to my ears in educational loans, now this. I booked flights.
All six interviews seemed okay, last in Seattle. Then came round two of the dark letters. Nice to meet you, but “unfortunately…” and “wishing you every success.” Two from Maine, three from California.
Sometimes you just gather yourself, take a deep breath, sit back, and wonder if the people who think you are crazy might not…be right. What gave me the audacity to think any federal judge, able to pick anyone from anywhere, ties to their own law school, would want me? What wild hair …?
Then it came, the last letter. The Honorable Judge Robert R. Beezer, former United States Marine Corps, appointed by Ronald Reagan to the US Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit, March 1984, three years prior, was asking me…to become his clerk. I just about collapsed, scrambled for the phone, said “Yes, Sir, it would be my honor.”
There began one of the best years and strongest professional relationships of my life, he and his wife mentoring, reinforcing, guiding, later visiting my family, hosting forays back, until at last – 11 years ago this month – that good, true, cheerful-to-the-end, rock-ribbed conservative took his leave.
Bottom line: If you believe in something, an idea, goal, job, mission, or calling – no matter how long the odds, steep the path, unlikely the outcome, do not quit, stay with it. You will not always get what you seek, but you will know you tried, and sometimes – when you least expect it – the ball gets caught. Directly and indirectly that was the lesson I was taught – by a good man, good judge, good conservative, a US Marine who saw his share of strife, and in one stroke, changed my entire life. You never know.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.