Federal Judges

With the death of the Law Clerk Hiring Plan, federal judges are hiring law clerks earlier and earlier in students’ law school careers. We recently wondered — jokingly, but only half-jokingly — whether 1Ls should start applying for clerkships.

So federal judges should be keenly interested in the insights of young legal minds — especially minds being cultivated at the Yale Law School, the nation’s #1 law school (according to both the U.S. News rankings and the Above the Law rankings). Right?

Well, just because a judge wants your advice as a law clerk doesn’t mean he wants to hear from you as an expert witness. A current Yale law student recently learned this lesson the hard way….

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Ed note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, Debra M. Strauss, Associate Professor of Business Law at Fairfield University, offers helpful tips for landing a judicial clerkship.

Now that the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan is officially defunct, the timing of your clerkship applications depends on the individual hiring practices of each judge. This is another aspect of what is essentially a research project, with the primary resources being OSCAR (“Online System for Clerkship Application and Review”) for federal clerkships and Vermont Law School’s Guide to State Judicial Clerkships. See the additional tips on the timing in my first article in this series, “Putting it in Perspective: Understanding the History of the Timing Issue and Making Lemonade.”

So let’s take a closer look at the application process, the components of the application, and strategies you can employ to increase the chances of success in your quest for the prized clerkship.

Continue reading at the ATL Career Center…

SCOTUS: coming to a theater near you?

If you’re a legal geek who loves theater (I know I am), these are exciting times. Here in New York, you can check out a play in which a legal luminary’s daughter appears naked. Down in D.C. in a few weeks, you can attend Arguendo, the SCOTUS-themed play by Elevator Repair Service that’s being staged by the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (I saw the play last year and enjoyed it.)

That’s not all. Also coming to Washington: a new play featuring a Supreme Court justice as its star….

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You can take your analogy and shove it right up your [expletive], judge.

Kenneth Conley, a convicted bank robber, at his sentencing for having masterminded a daring escape from the Chicago MCC in 2012. Judge Gary Feinerman could only respond with a “thank you,” making this a rare “defendant-slap.”

The term “daring” is no understatement when it comes to this escape. Conley and his accomplice cut a hole in a concrete wall and then used a rope fashioned from bed sheets and dental floss to scale down the prison’s outer wall in the middle of the night.

(If you’d be scared scaling a two-story wall suspended only by dental floss, check out a picture of the wall they actually scaled down.)

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As we all know, a federal clerkship is the salve that cures all employment ills, even in a depressed job market. But now that the Law Clerk Hiring Plan is dead, everyone and their mother and their dog has been applying for these clerkships. Come August 2014, even students completing their 1L summer jobs will be able to apply for clerkships. It’s a frustrating process that just got even more chaotic.

As much as we wish that clerkships were doled out Oprah-style — And YOU get a clerkship! And YOU get a clerkship! — the competition is going to be that much stiffer now that anyone and everyone can apply, in any which way they so choose.

Aww, did you think you were going to be able to land a clerkship just because you applied to a less-than-prestigious district court, one not located in a major city? Think again….

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Judges can usually keep it together even when the lawyers deserve a paddlin’ for their disrespectful behavior. And I cannot imagine how a judge summons the depth of patience required to deal with a pro se litigant without constantly losing their composure. While lawyers may privately think of judges as arrogant and imperious from time to time, when you really look at the job, judges spend most of their time holding their tongues.

Which is why a uncontrolled outburst from a federal judge is such a rare treat.

Now you may think, “This is probably a minor rebuke blown out of proportion.” To that I quote David Frank, the managing editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly: “I have heard judges raise their voice. I’ve heard judges get tense. I have never heard something as loud as that.”

I guess this was less of a benchslap and more of a benchpunch….

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Yes, benchslaps are great fun to read about, especially if you enjoy a little schadenfreude. But benchslaps are not fun to receive — and they’re not always justified.

Because of the prestige of judicial office, judges generally get the benefit of the doubt when dishing out benchslaps. But sometimes judges go too far. For example, some observers felt that Judge Richard Posner crossed the line when interrogating a Jones Day partner during a recent Seventh Circuit argument.

This brings us to today’s benchslap — directed at a lawyer for the federal government, no less. It’s harsh, but is it warranted?

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Give this man a federal judgeship.’ That sounded as if I were desperate, which I was . . . .

– Judge Leslie Southwick, in response to a Washington Post headline during his confirmation struggle.

In The Nominee: A Political and Spiritual Journey, Judge Leslie H. Southwick chronicles the long path to his current seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Southwick is a former Mississippi Court of Appeals judge, former deputy assistant attorney general in the first Bush Administration, and Iraq war veteran. He was recommended by Mississippi senators for a Fifth Circuit vacancy in 1991 and 2004, for a district judgeship in 2004 and 2006, before his final nomination in 2007. He initially appeared to be an uncontroversial nominee. However, a fierce partisan battle in the Senate threatened his eventual success. The Nominee follows Southwick’s tortuous path, relying on the judge’s day-by-day personal notes.

Southwick’s account is fascinating on its face. He drops names on every page, and it’s exciting to trace the earlier steps of those who would become legal luminaries in later years. For those only generally familiar with the way that federal judges get made — a process resembling in unsettling ways how sausage gets made, Southwick notes — the book provides an education in both the official and the unofficial processes. The book will certainly satisfy in excruciating detail the curiosity of anyone who wonders exactly how stubbornly political the judicial confirmation process has become.

Notably, the book shows just how long the process can be. Before he clears the Senate Judiciary Committee vote, before his nomination even reaches the Senate floor, Southwick writes that the day “was a double anniversary of my seeking a position on the Fifth Circuit. In my diary, I wrote, ‘Tuesday, 10 July. Sixteen years today since this started,’ meaning that I learned on July 10, 1991, that Judge Charles Clark was retiring. In addition, the 1991 date was exactly sixteen years after I wrote my July 10, 1975, letter applying to clerk for Judge Clark.” Judges, whether made the right way or not, are not made overnight.

None of this is what makes the book most worth reading, though — and it certainly is worth reading . . . .

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Judge Richard Posner

From the Above the Law mailbag: “Is ATL ever going to call out Judge Posner for being so needlessly nasty to litigants?”

Ummm, no. I’m a big fan of Judge Richard Posner, who is brilliant and hilarious. (Yes, hilarious — if you doubt that, check out the awesome podcast that he and I did together, which you can download and listen to during your commute or at the gym.)

But in the interest of fairness, I will make this reader’s case. This correspondent cited the recent oral argument in Notre Dame v. Sebelius, which we alluded to yesterday, in which Judge Posner dispensed some benchslaps to Matthew Kairis, head of litigation in the Columbus office of Jones Day. The reader also mentioned the argument on remand in the Conrad Black case, alleging that Posner “was particularly nasty to Miguel Estrada, seemingly piqued that Estrada got him reversed by SCOTUS.”

Let’s focus on the Notre Dame v. Sebelius argument, since it just happened. How bad was it?

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Bradley Cooper: a very handsome man, but sadly not a lawyer.

Seemingly random small-firm lawyers from Alabama weren’t the only legal types in attendance at the White House State Dinner on Tuesday evening. Indeed, as we’ve previously noted, numerous legal celebrities attended the festivities as well.

Sure, there were some “celebrity celebrities” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that night. The guest list included such boldface names as J.J. Abrams, Stephen Colbert, Bradley Cooper, Mindy Kaling, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.

But who cares about Hollywood? Above the Law readers are more interested in the government lawyers, federal judges, Biglaw partners and law professors who attended this major social event….

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