More Ways to Identify Judicial Clerkships from Hell:

University of San Diego lawprof Michael Rappaport follows up his earlier post on his judicial clerkship from hell with an addendum to my suggestions on ways clerkship applicants can identify judges who abuse their clerks:

Ilya raises the question of how information about judicial tyrants can be publicized. One possibility is simply to list whenever a law clerk quits his or her job. While one or two quits might be innocent, a pattern would be revealing, especially when supplemented with gossip. One Volokh commentator mentions that many clerks resigned from their clerkship with Judge Irving Kaufman of the Second Circuit. At law school, I knew that about Kaufman -- everyone did -- but I had no knowledge about [Judge] Sloviter [the oppressive judge Rappaport clerked for]. (Interestingly, my two co-clerks did know that she had a reputation for being a very tough boss, but they took the clerkship anyway, because their wonderful interview with her (mistakenly) convinced them that the reputation was undeserved.) As I remember it, when I started the clerkship in 1985, three Sloviter clerks had quit in the six years she had been a judge. My co-clerk made it 4 in 7 years.

Michael's suggestion is a good one. On rare occasions clerks resign for reasons of their own that are no fault of the judge's; sometimes, a judge will have no choice but to force a clerk to resign because the latter is simply too lazy or incompetent to do the job. Even so, a pattern of repeated resignations does indeed suggest that there's something wrong with the judge in question.

Michael's idea is only a partial solution to the information problem. Even if their judge is an oppressive tyrant, clerks will hesitate to resign early because of the very high costs of doing so. Because prospective future legal employers will almost always contact the judge an ex-clerk served under, alienating the judge by leaving the clerkship early is likely to be a major career setback. Still, Michael's proposal would certainly provide valuable information about those (probably very few) judges who are so bad that large numbers of their clerks are willing to pay the high cost of resigning in order to be rid of them.

David Lat at Above the Law has his own proposal for increasing the availability of information about hellish clerkships:

Never fear, Above the Law is here! We're happy to serve as a clearinghouse for your clerkship horror stories.

Email us with your tales of clerkship woe. We will confirm that you actually clerked for the judge in question (or were otherwise properly situated to acquire such dirt). We will then post your horror story, but without identifying you as our tipster, per our standard procedure. (Of course, if you for some bizarre reason WANT to be credited, we can do that too.)

Judges are public figures, and they're used to being criticized. But sometimes even judges sue for libel. So — and this should go without saying — only send us stories that are TRUE.

I should mention that David is himself a useful font of information about judges and their clerkship policies, since he has a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of the various denizens of the federal judiciary. If you want the real dope on what it's like to work for a particular judge, he's often one of the best people to ask.

Finally, I want to emphasize that I am NOT suggesting that applicants should automatically forego clerkships with judges who treat their staff badly. Sometimes, the educational and career benefits of clerking for a nasty judge will outweigh the pain and suffering involved. Some mean judges are also outstanding and highly respected jurists whom clerks can learn a lot from. Others are major figures in the legal profession who can do a lot for a clerk's career prospects. Applicants will have to decide for themselves whether the benefits of clerking for a particular judge are worth the costs. I simply hope that such decisions will be taken with the benefit of as much accurate information as reasonably possible.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More Ways to Identify Judicial Clerkships from Hell:
  2. Judicial Clerkships From Hell:
BruceM (mail) (www):
Why not start a website like The Robing Room (or have a section created right there) for people to anonymously rate federal judges based on how they treated their clerks.
7.13.2007 2:32am
I'd be interested to hear what Professor Volokh thought about this Ninth Circuit clerkship, given the reputation of his judge . . .
7.13.2007 5:51am

I think the problem is confirming who worked for the judge, a service Lat is offering to provide.
7.13.2007 7:46am
Bruce Hayden (mail) (www):
I had had a similar thought to that of BruceM - but yes, employment does need to be verified.
7.13.2007 9:22am
I clerked for a judge whom I soon grew to despise as a person, an opinion that has not changed through the years. At the same time I thought and think that his work product was quite good.

I took away a lot of positive things from that year, especially an awareness of all the external BS you sometimes have to put up with that has nothing to do with practicing law or doing your job. The experience was very valuable to me and I have no regrets.

As for warning systems-- I think few people getting into practicing law really have much idea what it is going to be like. Warning them about bad judges and bad firms will have little effect.
7.13.2007 9:57am
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
I am told that William O. Douglas was the absolute worst.

I think rather little of his judicial output, also.
7.13.2007 10:24am
xx (mail):
BruceM/Bruce Hayden: I think for every clerk that disliked his or her judge, there are 10,000 disgruntled lawyers and litigants willing to insult a judge in an anonymous forum.

Part of the problem in locating horror stories about judges is that most judges are pretty reasonable human beings, and most clerks enjoy their clerkships. While its certainly true that clerks have an incentive to talk up their experience, the large majority of people who claim they loved their clerkship are telling the truth. So without careful verification, unsubstantiated rumors and gossip are likely to very quickly drown out the relatively small number of legitimate complaints.
7.13.2007 10:39am
Curious, Judge Kozinski had this to say in his FLCIS posting a few years back:

I'm looking for amazingly
intelligent Supreme Court clerk wannabes
eager to slave like dogs for an unreasonably
demanding boss who'll cut their work to
shreds. Dweebs OK.
From what I've heard from former AK clerks, that's about accurate. EV knows much better than I would, of course.
7.13.2007 10:45am
Law Review Editor (mail):
I know this is a subject for another post, but hopefully people won't mind if bring up something else here.

I'm wondering if there should also be (or already is) a clearinghouse of information regarding, shall we say, "difficult to deal with" authors who submit articles to law reviews. I'm an outgoing member of an editorial board of a top 25 school, and, while the vast majority of the authors we dealt with were perfectly decent and professional people, there were a few whose arrogance and rudeness simply flew off the charts and exceeded any normal bounds of professional behavior. And, lest anyone think that it's easy to predict the big offenders, the few problem authors came from across all levels of seniority, insitutional affiliation, gender, and ideology.

I'm going to create a little file for our own law review, but perhaps it would be nice if law reviews could somehow come together on this.
7.13.2007 10:49am
Dan Weber:
I wonder if a system of resignations being public would cause the Judge to strike first: fire the clerk if they look like they're getting uppity. Or, better yet, threaten to fire them and have that stain on their record when they try for future employment.

I'm not saying this will necessarily happen; it's just that in my experience, the a-holes don't stop being a-holes when rules are put in place to report on them. They just try to use them to their advantage, projecting righteous indignation the whole way.
7.13.2007 11:28am
I imagine that publicizing resignations might just deter more clerks from resigning.

Also, as I think Prof. Somin notes, not all resignations should be blamed on the judge.
7.13.2007 11:30am
I've noticed that the substance, quality, and mien of a judge's dissents pretty accurately track his or her personality (as a judge). Luttig, Easterbrook, Kozinski and Boggs all behaved (in fairly private settings) as I expected they would based on their dissents (i.e., well-reasoned, witty, prickley and, in certain ways, overly serious). Ditto for the 6th Circuit's thoughtful and well-mannered (and underrated) Judge Siler.

It's harder with district judges, since much of their work is clerk written (although you can get a good sense of Chief Judge Barbara Crabb from her opinions).

Oh, and Judge Susan Dlott's (S.D. OH) clerks have been seen walking her dogs (a pair of King Charles spaniels) during the day. (Who knows what says that about her.)
7.13.2007 12:55pm
BruceM (mail) (www):
xx: Go check out the Robing Room website, it is not filled with tens of thousands of disgruntled lawyers and litigants insulting the judges. In fact, most comments are fairly positive. I'm quite confident that a website devoted to allowing litigants and lawyers to rate judges would have much more abuse than one devoted to allowing clerks to rate the judges for whom they worked. Considering there is seemingly zero abuse on Robing Room, I don't think a flood of abuse at a similar website for current/former law clerks would be a mecca of anonymous libel.
7.13.2007 1:19pm
The economics of this might be interesting. How do you put this?

First, some assumptions.

Objectively speaking, clerks are taken from the better law students, judged generally by school and ranking within that school. The demand, I assume is relatively high.

And clerkships are sought after, I assume. Therefore, they are in short supply.

One can imagine that the best students from the best schools get, if they want, whatever clerkship is available. One can imagine that there are a bunch of students who do not even qualify (the great majority). And there there is a group of students on the bubble, so to speak. One would think there is a way to rank all of the eligible students.

So, if there is a way to rank the students, one can look to see which judges get the best applicants, consistently, and which get the ones who are nearer the bubble.

This sounds like an interesting study. And, it might help. If judges realize that they are getting lower quality workers because they are bad bosses, perhaps they will change their ways. Or, perhaps not.
7.13.2007 1:20pm
xx (mail):
BruceM: First, I don't really agree with your assessment of Robing Room, in that the negative ratings are not particularly helpful. Generally speaking, most of the judges that have high ratings deserve to have them (though there seems to be a huge skew in favor of judges that are nice to the public defender's office, which I think hints at where the reviews are coming from). But a couple of the judges who have low scores are plainly being skewered by a few annoyed lawyers or disgruntled pro se litigants. A few great judges have absurd scores.

Second, I think using a similar system for clerks would be even more skewed. Someone who wants to trash a judge may be willing to assert first hand knowledge in an anonymous forum when he or she has no such knowledge. I doubt someone who wants to praise a judge has the same level of incentive. In short, very upset people are more prone to do stupid things then very content people.
7.13.2007 1:45pm