Last week, the Massachusetts Trial Court got approval for a unique solution to address its budget shortfall, reported Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly:
The Supreme Judicial Court’s Committee on Judicial Ethics has approved a proposal by Chief Justice for Administration and Management Robert A. Mulligan that would allow deferred law-firm associates to work for the Trial Court as “volunteer interns” while on the payroll of the firms that hired them.
Great for the court — it doesn’t have to pay for clerks. Great for deferred associates — they get valuable experience during their deferral year. Great for BigLaw — their incoming associates get clerkship experience. Everyone’s happy, right?
Well, not the 24 clerks who had been slotted to get those positions whose offers have been withdrawn. And not those troubled by the ethics of corporate-sponsored clerks in the courtroom. Though approving the arrangement, the Committee on Judicial Ethics admitted that there’s something a bit troubling about it:
The CJE acknowledged that allowing law firms to pay the salaries of clerks implicates portions of the Judicial Code of Conduct that require judges to avoid impropriety and appear unbiased. It also stated that the plan raises the issue of whether the volunteer interns are a “gift” or “favor” to the judges of the Trial Court from the law firms.
The CJE had a solution for that. Keep it all secret!
“Structuring the program in such a way that the law firms’ involvement is unknown not only to the public but also to the judges who will be ‘employing’ the volunteer interns will negate any impression that those law firms are in a special position to influence the judge,” the CJE panel wrote.
Members of the public might not be aware of the connection when they have a case before the court, but the general news-consuming public of Massachusetts knows about the plan now. It’s in the Boston Globe and is currently the newspaper’s number four most e-mailed story.
What do you think about the ethical hullabaloo? Vote in our poll, after the jump.
We’ve speculated before that BigLaw’s deferred associates, with their nice stipends attached, could displace their peers seeking out government and nonprofit opportunities. This is the first time we’ve actually seen solid evidence of it though. From the Boston Globe:
The Massachusetts judiciary has withdrawn offers for dozens of highly coveted law clerk jobs as a result of expected budget cuts. Instead, the court system is considering filling the vacancies, at no cost to the state, with newly hired private lawyers whose firms have pushed back their start dates because of the bad economy….
The state court system recently wrote to at least 24 recent graduates saying that because of a systemwide hiring freeze, the judiciary had no choice but to rescind offers made in December, according to Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the courts. “We’re just heartbroken about the situation, both from the point of view of the law clerks as well as for selfish reasons,” said Superior Court Judge Carol S. Ball, who heads a committee that screens prospective law clerks and oversees them. “But times are incredibly tough, and we have to make do with what we have.”
What they will “have to make do with” is a bunch of free help from BigLaw. What do you think? Are financial constraints forcing Massachusetts to compromise ethics? Or are BigLaw-sponsored clerkships a great solution to address the first-year-associate-no-nothing problem? Maybe it’s better than a first-year training wheels program.
SJC panel OKs plan for firm-sponsored law clerks [Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly]
Law firms may provide clerks for courts [Boston Globe]
Judicial Clerkships on BigLaw’s Dime: But is it Ethical? [WSJ Law Blog]