Clerkships

Several prominent judges, like Richard Posner (left) and Alex Kozinski (right), hire 'off-plan.'

Over the weekend, we mentioned a very interesting New York Times article on the chaotic state of the clerkship application process, and said we’d have more to say about it later. Well, now is later, quite a bit later — so let’s discuss.

The piece — by Catherine Rampell, who has written about the legal world before — paints a depressing picture of a dysfunctional system. Rampell reports that the clerkship process “has become a frenzied free-for-all, with the arbiters of justice undermining each other at every turn to snatch up the best talent.”

Let’s look at the reasons behind this, and discuss whether the process can be fixed….

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At birth.

– Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, explaining when he begins recruiting law clerks.

(Chief Judge Kozinski is quoted in a very interesting New York Times article on the chaotic state of the clerkship application process, which we’ll have more to say about later.)

UPDATE (9/27/11): Here is our commentary on the NYT piece.

Judge Wayne Phillips: He likes clerk butt and he cannot lie?

When I learned about this lawsuit out of Montana (via Morning Docket), I thought it might be from The Onion or an old episode of Ally McBeal. Reports the Billings Gazette: “A lawsuit has been filed against Fergus County District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips by a female law clerk who alleges that the judge slapped her in the buttocks with a legal file.”

If the clerk’s allegation is true, was Judge Phillips’s action inappropriate? Certainly. Was it rude? Most definitely. But should it spawn a civil lawsuit, as well as possible criminal charges? Absolutely not.

And wait until you hear what the clerk is claiming in damages….

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Law clerks aren't jumping for joy these days, especially when it comes to pay.

I spent last weekend in Portland, Oregon, where I attended the 25th judicial anniversary celebration and law clerk reunion of my former boss, Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain of the Ninth Circuit. It was a warm and wonderful occasion, a chance to reconnect with old friends and to catch up with the O’Scannlains (Judge and Mrs. O’Scannlain were joined by all eight of their children for the festivities). Former clerks shared happy memories from their time in PDX clerking for DFO.

Most former law clerks I meet — mainly law clerks to federal judges, whether Article III or magistrate or bankruptcy — recall their clerkships fondly. They praise the excellent experience, the clerkly camaraderie, and the training and mentoring they received from their judges (for the most part; a few describe judicial clerkships from hell).

It struck me as strange, then, that “law clerk” recently came in at #7 on CNBC’s list of 10 Most Hated Jobs. I can’t help wondering whether courthouse administrative personnel with the title of “clerk” were somehow mixed in with federal judicial law clerks. The median salary of $39,780 a year suggests that this might be the case, since federal law clerks (and many state law clerks) make more than $40K these days.

Then again, people don’t clerk for the money. Sure, clerkship bonuses, especially Supreme Court clerkship bonuses, can be considerable — but in most cases, a graduate who goes straight into a law firm will do better financially than her classmate who clerks after graduation.

If you’re planning to clerk or interested in clerking for a federal judge, you should be aware of the latest news about law clerk compensation….

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Now that Labor Day is behind us, fall is fast approaching. You can tell by the chill in the evening air.

Or is that just the cold offers we’re feeling? Last month, we asked you for stories about firms giving out cold offers to summer associates. As we explained, a “cold offer” or “fake offer” is, in the words of NALP, an employment offer made “with the understanding that the offer will not be accepted.”

This “offer,” made with a wink and a nudge, allows the employing law firm to report (and boast about) a 100 percent offer rate, when in reality it isn’t welcoming back 100 percent of its summer associates. It also has an advantage for the recipient: when she goes through 3L recruiting, she can truthfully say, “Yes, I received an offer from the firm where I summered.”

We recently heard a story about a pretty cold offer (not from summer 2011, but from not too long ago summer 2010). This summer associate, who wasn’t the most popular person in her class, received a full-time employment offer “contingent upon obtaining a federal clerkship.” Given how hard it is to land a federal judicial clerkship, that’s a pretty cold offer — especially considering that the student in question, now graduated, didn’t go to a law school known for cranking out lots of clerks.

But wait, it gets better….

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Today is Friday, September 9, 2011. Do you know why today is special? Here’s the answer:

Yes, that’s right — we’re smack dab in the middle of the clerkship application season. Today was the first date and time (10 a.m. Eastern) when judges could contact applicants to schedule interviews, pursuant to the official law clerk hiring plan.

Let’s talk more about the process — and hear from those of you who are going through it….

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Walking the hallways at One First Street.

Last month, the Supreme Court law clerks for October Term 2010 finished their clerkships, turning over their clerkly duties to the October Term 2011 class of clerks. As in past years, many of the OT 2010 clerks are joining private law firms — which welcome them with six-figure signing bonuses. These bonuses are paid on top of base salaries reflecting their seniority (many SCOTUS clerks join firms as second- to fourth-year associates), as well as the usual year-end bonuses.

For the past few years, at least since 2007, law firm signing bonuses for members of The Elect have hovered around $250,000. But this year, at least a few firms are offering even more.

So how much are we talking about?

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First an earthquake, and now a hurricane. If the world is coming to an end, let’s go out doing what we love: talking about Supreme Court clerks.

Since our last round-up, which was over a month ago, there have been a few new hires. And some of them are for the distant future — namely, October Term 2013. Hopefully the world will still be around by then.

Let’s have a look, shall we?

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Many prominent people, including Chief Justice John Roberts and Judge Harry Edwards, have raised their voices about the increasing irrelevance of academic writing to practicing lawyers and judges. Yet, despite railing at the academy, those judges — and law firms, and sophisticated purchasers of legal services — all rely on the academics to identify talented lawyers. Law schools brand the beef, and purchasers buy based on the brand. What do I mean, and why is that process natural and appropriate?

Let’s start with an example for people coming right out of law school: How should judges pick law clerks? One way — perhaps even the “fair” way — would be for judges to assume that each of the 45,000 people graduating from law school is equally likely to make a fine clerk. Judges would solicit applications from all 45,000 and then start the process of sorting the good from the bad.

That cannot work, of course. Judges don’t have the resources (or, necessarily, the ability) to study transcripts, read writing samples, conduct interviews, and do the other spadework needed to assess all of those candidates comprehensively. And judges can’t externalize the cost of the screening process; there’s no person or institution that would play that role for an acceptable price.

What are judges to do? They rely on law schools to brand the beef.

Rant as they may about scholars producing unhelpful scholarship, most judges rely essentially unthinkingly on those same scholars to have separated the potentially gifted lawyers from the crowd. Judges assume that the best students went to the best law schools; that, after arriving, the more talented law students outperformed the less talented ones; and thus that the best performers at the best law schools will make the best clerks. Judges typically pick their clerks from among the top graduates of the elite schools. Judges may think that professors are insane when they’re selecting topics for their scholarship and then devoting months to researching and writing on those subjects, but those same judges rely on the same professors to brand the beef astutely. Whatever criteria law schools are using within the asylum to rank their students, the outside world seems quite happy with it.

Is that fair?

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'These MBE questions are way easier than the practice ones!'

We thought we had a winner for most gutsy bar exam performance of July 2011. On Thursday, a woman taking the New Jersey bar exam passed out during the test — then picked herself up off the floor, and went right back to typing.

That’s impressive — but we may have spoken too soon. Here’s a labor-intensive story that tops it.

“A friend of mine went into labor while taking the Illinois bar exam,” a tipster told us. “She calmly finished, went to the hospital, and had her baby an hour or two later. Girl’s a real trooper.”

“A certain Northwestern Law alumna went into labor during the second day of the Illinois bar,” said a second source. “She finished the exam and had her baby, her first, at 5:58 p.m. I think that is worth noting.”

You better believe it’s worth noting. If ever there was a baby immaculately conceived by a lawgiver, this might be the one.

We have all the details — including a picture of the Bar Exam Baby, whom we’ll nickname “Baby Bar”….

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