Clerkships

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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On Monday we published an update on Supreme Court law clerk hiring. In the wake of that update, we received a veritable cornucopia of tips and news of new hires (for which we thank you).

The most welcome information came from the Supreme Court itself. The Court’s Public Information Office kindly provided us with the official list of law clerks for October Term 2011. This list does not include law school and prior clerkship information, which the PIO will release later this year, but it does allow us to verify all of the crowdsourced hiring information we have gathered on our own.

So let’s take a look at (1) the official list of SCOTUS clerks for OT 2011, courtesy of the Court itself; (2) our unofficial list of OT 2011 clerks, with law school and prior clerkship information; and (3) an updated list of October Term 2012 hires thus far (at least three justices are already done)….

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July has arrived. At law firms, partners leave early on Friday, so they can beat the traffic out to the Hamptons (or the Eastern Shore, or the Cape).

At the Hollister store across the street from the Above the Law offices, hot shirtless men stand outside, trying to lure shoppers into the darkened, heavily perfumed, previously bedbug-ridden space. At 7-11 stores, they are giving away 7.11-ounce Slurpees (because today is 7-11 — geddit?).

And at One First Street, home of the Supreme Court of the United States (aka “SCOTUS”), clerk classes are transitioning. July is when outgoing Supreme Court clerks leave the marble palace — do pass go, do collect a $250,000 signing bonus — and their replacements arrive. The arrivals and departures are staggered over the entire month, so the departing clerks can train the newest members of the Elect.

July is a good time for an update on Supreme Court law clerk hiring. Let’s have a look….

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Move over, chick lit. Make way for “clerk lit”!

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a number of novels focused on the clerkship, a professional rite of passage for many a prestige-obsessed young lawyer. In these books, plucky law-clerk protagonists have tried to do justice while also holding on to their jobs (and their sanity, and even their lives).

One of the first was The Tenth Justice (1998), a thriller by Brad Meltzer that went on to become a bestseller. More recent examples of “clerk lit” include The Law Clerk (2007), by Scott Douglas Gerber, and Chambermaid (2007), by Saira Rao. (Rao’s buzz-generating book, which generated controversy because it was seen as based heavily on her clerkship for the notoriously difficult Judge Dolores Sloviter (3d Cir.), was discussed extensively in Above the Law’s pages.)

Today we bring you news of a new novel featuring a law clerk protagonist: Tropical Depression, by Arin Greenwood. It tells the story of Nina Barker, a neurotic young lawyer toiling away at a large New York law firm, who decides — after losing her job and her boyfriend — to leave it all behind, by accepting a clerkship with the chief justice of a faraway tropical island.

Let’s learn more about Tropical Depression and its author, Arin Greenwood — who, like her protagonist, graduated from a top law school and worked at a leading law firm, before accepting a clerkship on a remote Pacific island….

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Who says the Midwest is more laid back than the coasts? Who says Midwesterners are more polite than people who live in big cities? Who says working in a place like Iowa affords a higher quality of life and a better work/life balance than working in a place like Chicago?

Not United States District Court Judge Mark Bennett. No sir.

We’ve written about Judge Bennett before. He’s a funny guy. The last time we saw him, he was expressing his personal bias against “East Coast law firms,” in part because he think big city lawyers possess “unsurpassed arrogance.”

But Judge Bennett might be selling himself short. I don’t think the average East Coast lawyer’s arrogance even approaches what His Honor rolls with…

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What’s going on with clerkship bonuses? The last time we really checked was over a year ago. We might do a follow-up; if you have tips — not questions or requests for advice, but hard information about clerkship bonus amounts — please email us (subject line: “Clerkship Bonuses”).

In our last look at the subject, in February 2010, the going rate seemed to be $50,000. You can look back at our prior post for the names of at least 11 firms paying $50K clerkship bonuses. (If any of that info needs to be updated, in either direction, please let us know.)

We can confirm that at least one firm is paying a clerkship bonus in excess of $50,000: BuckleySandler, a young, highly-regarded firm that focuses on banking and financial-services law. We’ve written quite a bit about the firm before; it started with a bang, when Skadden partners Andrew Sandler and Benjamin Klubes left the megafirm to set up their own shop.

Let’s learn a little more about BuckleySandler, and check out the memo announcing the $60K clerkship bonus (along with other compensation-related information)….

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Inside Straight, Above the Law’s column for in-house counsel, written by Mark Herrmann.

Here are two stories, from nearly thirty years apart. They’re bookends on the subject of why standard of review counts.

Travel back with me, if you will, to the summer of 1983. I’m ten minutes out of law school, and I’ve just arrived in the chambers of Judge Dorothy W. Nelson of the Ninth Circuit, for whom I’ll clerk. Our wise and sagacious predecessor-clerks — out of law school for an entire year! — are introducing us to the job. (We overlapped for one week.)

One of my predecessor-clerks, John Danforth, asked the new group: “Do you think standard of review matters in appeals?”

I knew the answer, and I was about to pop off: “Of course not! Once you convince the court that your side is right, the judges will do whatever it takes to rule in favor of your client. Standard of review is just a silly lawyers’ game.”

Fortunately, Danforth talks quickly. Before I was able to make a fool of myself, he said: “Standard of review decides cases. It decides cases. That’s the most important thing I’ve learned in a year of clerking. Standard of review makes all the difference in the world.”

Why?

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Judge Wesley Brown will be 104 in June.

When I clerked on the Ninth Circuit years ago, one of the judges on the court at the time was extremely old — and didn’t seem very “with it.” His law clerks seemed to take on a large amount of responsibility. One of his clerks that year, a law school classmate of mine I’ll call “Mary,” would negotiate over the phone with Ninth Circuit judges over how particular cases should come out — a responsibility well beyond the legal research and opinion drafting done by most clerks.

On one occasion, a vote on whether to rehear a case en banc emanated not from the judge’s chambers account, but from Mary’s personal email account. Even more embarrassingly, it was written not on behalf of the judge or the chambers, but in the first person: “I vote YES to rehearing en banc.” A law school classmate of mine who was also clerking for the Ninth that year remarked, “I thought only judges did that. When did Mary get her presidential commission?”

Some of us jokingly referred to that chambers as Weekend at Judgie’s. What appeared to be going on over there reminded us of Justice Thurgood Marshall’s famous quip to his clerks: “If I die, prop me up and keep voting!”

We joked about this delegation of Article III authority to a newly minted law school graduate. But as Joseph Goldstein suggests, in a very interesting article just published by Slate and ProPublica, the issue of superannuated jurists is no laughing matter….

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Ed. note: Have a question for next week? Send it in to advice@abovethelaw.com.

Dear ATL,

I am an assistant clerk at a state court.  I graduated in May 2010 and worked hard to find a decent job after taking the July bar.  I have noticed over my past few months that a co-worker, also a 2010 law school graduate, has told at least a few pro se parties and attorneys in the court that he is a lawyer.  This would be fine except for the fact that he has not taken the bar in any state.  It particularly annoys me because I am a graduate of a top tier school in the same state as his third tier school and I have taken and passed the bar in two states while he seems to have spent the summer doing nothing.  I only inform attorneys and parties that I am a licensed attorney when specifically asked because the court is suppose to stay neutral and we are not allowed to give legal advice.  I recently tired to point out to him that he is not a licensed attorney and should not tell or imply to people that he is.  He made some BS distinction between a lawyer and an attorney that made it ok for him to say he’s a lawyer.  Need less to say I’m didn’t buy it.  I cannot believe that the parties contacting our office with questions would understand the difference between his definition of lawyer and attorney….

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