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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.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More Ways to Identify Judicial Clerkships from Hell:
  2. Judicial Clerkships From Hell:
ATRGeek:
Some enterprising person should come up with a way for ex-clerks to provide anonymous reviews of their clerkship. I guess the main problem would be verifying the fact that the person did in fact have the clerkship they claimed to have, but surely someone can figure out a way around that issue (maybe use the law schools as a blind verifier?).
7.11.2007 4:36pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
A super double-secret blog would do....
7.11.2007 4:46pm
Keyes:
Law clerks, like associates, are always free to quit, no?

And if Rappaport and Rao did not, then shame on them for now trashing their former employer -- when they chose to continue to subject themselves to her supposedly hellish treatment, rather than vote with their feet.

But if they did quit, then more power to them . . . if they quit.
7.11.2007 4:49pm
Lurker:
Oh dreidel dreidel dreidel
7.11.2007 4:52pm
Steve P. (mail):
The less-marketable version of "The Devil Wears Prada"
7.11.2007 4:52pm
Anony (mail):
Greedy Clerks is a useful resource. Do a search for Eric Clay, for instance...

It's surprising that so few judges have negative reputations. Judge Sloviter is well known as a tyrant to clerk for, but I think that all circuit judges with similar reputations could be counted on two hands -- maybe even one hand.
7.11.2007 4:54pm
ejo:
why do they have to quit to note that the former employer was nuts. why not serve the year and trash her. she won't lose her job.

EJO
7.11.2007 4:54pm
Steve:
Rappaport doesn't provide very much in the way of juicy detail, which is unfortunate.
7.11.2007 4:56pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Will everyone who railed on Edward Lazarus, do the same now to Rappaport and Rao?
7.11.2007 4:58pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Doubling up, here's a bit from a comment at the Amazon link:

She doesn't seem to have a grasp of basic legal principles, and then is outraged that her judge expects her law clerks to know these things (to use a minor example since it won't give anything away, she is utterly confused by the term "en banc," which would be fine unless you supposedly just graduated from Columbia Law School and got a clerkship on the 3rd Circuit).

I would be pretty hellish towards such a clerk.
7.11.2007 5:00pm
JRL:
". . . shame on them for now trashing their former employer -- when they chose to continue to subject themselves to her supposedly hellish treatment, rather than vote with their feet."

Battered Clerk Syndrome???
7.11.2007 5:03pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Of course a clerk is free to quit. And the judge is then free to give a recommendation to prospective employers. The clerk is sure to end up with a good result in that situation, don't you think?

I've heard lots of bad stuff about some clerkships -- from babysitting, to doing the judge's laundry, to writing term papers for the judge's college age students, and that's just the egregious, non-work related stuff. And all of this stuff tends to remain a dirty little secret, the stuff of unconfirmed rumor.
7.11.2007 5:09pm
anonVCfan:
Will everyone who railed on Edward Lazarus, do the same now to Rappaport and Rao?

Lazarus's book talked about case deliberations. Kozinski explained why that's bad.

Rappaport's post is fairly general. This is all he says:

That law clerk's year of hell turned out to be quite similar to our year. Soon enough, we all disliked the judge, and I started counting the weeks to the end of the one year clerkship at 50. One of my co-clerks, a strongly liberal women who had chosen the judge for her liberal politics, hated the judge so much that she quit twice.

This, and the remainder of the post, says little more than "she isn't a pleasant boss," which isn't exactly a threat to the judiciary.

Rao's book, on the other hand, gives more detail than Rappaport, talks about the extent to which opinions are the product of clerks vs. judges, talks about court politicking, and goes into things that, I think, would be a breach of the duty of confidentiality if one sets aside the "fiction" aspect of it.

I read the book recently, and it's simply awful. It's badly written, about twice as long as it needs to be, and is filled from cover to cover with cliches and overwritten attempts at wit. And her portrayal of the judge is lacking in complexity. The Friedman character comes across as someone who is generically senile, capricious and cranky. The Raj/Rao character is also a stereotype of the materialistic, superficial, ditzy New Yorker.

Rao has decided not to be a lawyer, so it takes no real courage to write this sort of thing. James Grimelmann's review is quite apt.
7.11.2007 5:16pm
anonVCfan:
When I said "which isn't exactly a threat to the judiciary," I meant "which isn't exactly a threat to the independence of the judiciary."
7.11.2007 5:18pm
Observer (mail):
I recall that the year I clerked on the Second Circuit (for a wonderful judge), Judge Irving Kaufman went through several clerks. I don't remember the details (this was 25 years ago), but I think 2 or 3 quit in disgust during that year, nothwithstanding the prestige of clerking for him. He had no problems finding new clerks, though - there was always the hope that this time, it would be different.
7.11.2007 5:19pm
John P. Lawyer (mail):
Rappaport's post is "informationless." Yeah, he might have had a bad time, but without offering any details, there's no way of assessing if he is simply whining or has a legitimate beef with Judge Sloviter.

And if he didn't like it - he should have quit. I am sure with a Yale law degree someone might have hired him. After all, this was in the time before autoadmit.com.
7.11.2007 5:31pm
John P. Lawyer (mail):
Rappaport's post is "informationless." Yeah, he might have had a bad time, but without offering any details, there's no way of assessing if he is simply whining or has a legitimate beef with Judge Sloviter.

And if he didn't like it - he should have quit. I am sure with a Yale law degree someone might have hired him. After all, this was in the time before autoadmit.com.
7.11.2007 5:31pm
glangston (mail):
Ed Stein, Professor of Law

My experience as a clerk for Judge Dolores Sloviter of the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit was especially valuable because I was fortunate enough to work for an experienced, highly intelligent, hard-working, and skilled judge who takes her job very seriously. Additionally, I liked the judge a lot, learned a great deal from her, and found myself agreeing with her on most issues.
Ed Stein
7.11.2007 5:57pm
Steve P. (mail):
I was under the impression that being a clerk at that level was supposed to be a fairly demanding job (which is why they get the best and brightest). If you leave, it will be generally viewed that "you can't hack it", even if you put the blame on the employer. After all, blaming your employer is a very common way of squirming out of responsibility for your own bad behavior.

Based on this, and knowing that a clerkship is a limited-opportunity (only the best!) / limited-time (one year) deal, it seems to be in the clerk's best interest to suffer it out if they can make it. After all, it's a huge exclamation mark on their resumé.
7.11.2007 6:00pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Hm. Anyone got an opinion on whether it would be acceptable for the judge to publish her side of the story, vis-a-vis Ms. Rao in particular or clerks generally?
7.11.2007 6:13pm
volokh watcher (mail):
Duffy Pratt:

Of course a clerk is free to quit. And the judge is then free to give a recommendation to prospective employers. The clerk is sure to end up with a good result in that situation, don't you think?


This is just the kind of attitude that lets people rationalize their clerkship bonus.

And God forbid these poor clerks be honest with prospective employers.
7.11.2007 7:17pm
anonVCfan:
Anyone got an opinion on whether it would be acceptable for the judge to publish her side of the story, vis-a-vis Ms. Rao in particular or clerks generally?

Reading the book probably tells you all you'd need to know about what sort of a clerk she was.
7.11.2007 7:37pm
Anthony Calabrese (www):
The judge I clerked (Judge Whalen of the US Tax Court) for was a wonderful man, who unfortunately I do not keep in as close contact as I would have liked. there were a few judges though who had reputations for being tough to work for.
7.11.2007 7:40pm
jimbino (mail):
Is there any part of the law, from ambulance chasers, through errant prosecutors, attorney generals and life-tenured bitch judges that is not totally corrupt? It's articles like these that make us wait with baited breath for Bin Laden and Sharia Law.
7.11.2007 8:24pm
Steve:
Is there any part of the law, from ambulance chasers, through errant prosecutors, attorney generals and life-tenured bitch judges that is not totally corrupt?

There's nothing at all "corrupt" in this story. It's a story about someone's boss who was an asshole, period.
7.11.2007 8:26pm
Carolina:
I'll second the suggestion to check out the greedy clerks forum. I clerked on the 9th a few years ago, and the posts re: judges on the 9th generally jived with my own experiences.
7.11.2007 8:44pm
DavidBernstein (mail):
My judge was a total gentleman, and always stayed well within the bounds of propriety, but one of his colleagues, otherwise a seemingly nice guy, had his clerk do his taxes, which I thought was totally inappropriate.
7.11.2007 10:37pm
Jim Rhoads (mail):
David:

Was the clerk who did the Judge's taxes an accountant or a tax lawyer? Did the judge politely ask or order?
7.12.2007 1:19am
McCoy:
anonVCfan:
It takes great courage to write a book, especially if people will assume that it is autobiographical. Sheila bares her deepest self-doubts in a climate where admitting vulnerability is more taboo than staying home from work during a blizzard. The personal side to her story, including the hilariously true depiction of the Indian extended family, was a nice balance for readers who were looking for more than just a Jane Grisham novel. This book is fun!
Judge Friedman was plenty complex for me. That she was similarly insensitive and arrogantly detached from reality in her personal life, as in chambers, does not make her less complex; it simply makes her less sympathetic. Management of employees or relationships through fear tactics, abuse, and erratic behavior, hiding behind an implicit shield of secrecy and absence of consequences, is what truly lacks courage.
7.12.2007 1:37am
NickM (mail) (www):
Federal judges are not supposed to give recommendations or references about their former clerks. It's considered a violation of the Canons of Judicial Ethics, because it tends to use the prestige of the judge's office to advance someone's private interests.

Nick
7.12.2007 5:02am
ATRGeek:
NickM,

Actually, the commentary to Model Canon 2B states:

"Although a judge should be sensitive to possible abuse of the prestige of office, a judge may, based on the judge’s personal knowledge, serve as a reference or provide a letter of recommendation."

Model Canon 2
7.12.2007 9:05am
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7.12.2007 9:13am
Special Guest:
The top law schools (or their law reviews) all keep a running list of judges' reputations, particularly in their geographic area. Those lists (which are usually confidential) detail the experiences of current and past clerks, as well as interviewees. The "crazy" judges are all very well known, as are the "easy" judges and the "nice" judges. So, anyone from a top school who choses to clerk for Judge Sloviter has no excuse -- they know what they're headed for.
7.12.2007 11:42am
CrazyTrain (mail):
Unlike criticizing your own judge, commenting negatively on another judge isn't likely to cause serious damage to an ex-clerks' career prospects.

LOL. Spoken like a true law professor!!! Those of us who have to actually, you know, like practice law, cannot go around bad-mouthing federal judges who we will appear before or may appear before in the future. I clerked on both the 9th Circuit &the Central District of California and have a lot of things to say about the judges for whom I did not clerk and I think my info is very good (based on candid conversations wiht other clerks), I would never for the life of me repeat most of that info publicly as I and my colleaugues. have to appear before these judges.
7.12.2007 12:27pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
CrazyTrain:

Of course, like the clerks, you are always free to quit :)

Jim Rhoads:

Very often, when a judge politely asks, its an order.
7.12.2007 7:07pm
JKS (mail):
Just to point out an error. Saira Rao didnt go to Columbia Law. Her leading character in her book did.
7.13.2007 12:57am
paul (mail):
I have always thought that one of the occupational hazzards of being a judge is that judges are always treated with great deference and no one ever tells them when they are acting like jerks. So without negative feedback to keep them in line, many judges tend to drift towards increasingly arrogant and difficult behavior.
An exceptionally good judge once told me that he has given his staff permission to let him know when he is acting as a fool or a jerk just to avoid such drifting.
7.13.2007 11:45am
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7.14.2007 11:46pm
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7.16.2007 10:41am