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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.

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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:
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