Judicial Clerkships From Hell:

University of San Diego law professor Michael Rappaport describes his “clerkship from hell” with Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Dolores Sloviter. The apparently hellish experience of clerking for Judge Sloviter is also the subject of a new thinly veiled novel by recent Columbia Law School grad Saira Rao, who also clerked for Sloviter. I don’t know Judge Sloviter, but I do know Michael Rappaport, and can therefore testify that he’s not the kind of person to be easily offended by minor instances of mistreatment by a boss.

Unfortunately, Judge Sloviter is not the only federal judge who apparently abuses her clerks and other staff. Federal judges have weaker incentives to treat their employees well than most other employers do. They, of course, have life tenure and therefore won’t lose income or their jobs if they alienate their clerks. It’s possible that a reputation for mistreating clerks will reduce the quality of future clerks; however, there will still be enough applicants for the judge to get at least minimally competent help, and that is sufficient for the judge to be able to get the clerks to handle whatever work she wants to transfer to them. Judges with low-quality clerks will, on average, write worse opinions than judges with good ones. But an abusive judge may not care much about that.

This raises the more general issue of how clerkship applicants can avoid such judges, or at least know what to expect if they accept clerkships with them. One possible way is to talk to the judge’s former clerks. Unfortunately, however, ex-clerks have strong incentives to avoid saying anything negative about their judges. Even if the judge is a complete troll, his or her name is going to be listed on the ex-clerk’s resume for years to come, and prospective employers are likely to call up the judge for a reference. It’s not hard to see why this would create a strong disincentive against telling tales out of school. If, however, a judges’ ex-clerks nonetheless DO say critical things about him – as Rappaport and Rao have done, that is a very strong signal that this is one judge you should avoid like the plague.

Another potential source of information is ex-clerks for other judges on same court. By the time I completed my year of clerking on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, I had a pretty good idea of which Fifth Circuit judges treated their staffs well, which were indifferent, and which ones (very few, I should note) were petty tyrants (none as bad as Judge Sloviter seems to be). Other ex-clerks probably have similar knowledge about the judges on the courts where they served. Unlike criticizing your own judge, commenting negatively on another judge isn’t likely to cause serious damage to an ex-clerks’ career prospects. Therefore, you have a better chance of getting an honest answer.

There are probably other ways to get information on judges’ treatment of their staff. But I can’t think of an equally promising one that is likely to be readily available to clerkship applicants.