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.
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.
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….
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…
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.”
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….
Barack Obama's purported birth certificate - click to enlarge.
Orly Taitz and the Birthers aren’t the only people obsessed with Hawaiian birth certificates. A young lawyer by the name of Adam Gustafson — a 2009 graduate of the Yale Law School and former vice president of the Yale Federalist Society, who’s currently clerking in Hawaii for Judge Richard Clifton (9th Cir.) — is making a federal case over them.
And Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway, the district court judge who wound up with the case, is not impressed. She recently dismissed Gustafson’s complaint — in forceful fashion:
This case is an example of why people who overreact to situations are accused of “making a federal case out of nothing.”
Plaintiff Adam Gustafson and his wife… proceed pro se against various state officials. The Gustafsons complain about having been asked to state their race and any Spanish origin on a birth certificate registration form submitted in October 2009 for their Hawaii-born daughter. The Gustafsons articulated to the State their objection to a birth certificate identifying their races.
The court has no quarrel with the Gustafsons’ wish for a birth certificate devoid of such information. What follows, though, shows questionable judgment.
Ouch — quite the benchslap. Gustafson’s boss, Judge Clifton, should keep Gustafson far away from any appeals of decisions by Judge Mollway.
Filing a federal lawsuit in Hawaii, while clerking in Hawaii for a federal judge? It’s gutsy of Gustafson. At least he won’t have to travel far for any appearances.
So what about Gustafson’s case reflects “questionable judgment”?
Summer is just around the corner, with Memorial Day just a few weeks away. Summer associates are starting to arrive at law firms. Meanwhile, in government, many law clerks are getting ready to leave chambers. Summer is traditionally the season when clerkships turn over. (At the Supreme Court, July is the magic month for the changing of the guard.)
What does this mean? Well, it means that clerks need to start thinking about their post-clerkship plans. Many will return to law firms where they summered or worked full-time before clerking. But others — such as clerks who got no-offered as summer associates, or who weren’t happy with their prior firms — are looking for new opportunities.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the job market for law clerks is improving. One friend of mine, who took a second clerkship last year after having a tough time finding a position with a law firm (despite excellent credentials), went back on the job market a few weeks ago — and promptly wound up with three offers.
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In a land that is right here and in a time that is right now, a technology has arisen so powerful that it can replace basic human document review. Is it time to bow down before our new robot overlords?
First, here’s a little story about me: my life in the legal world began as a paralegal. My first case was a GIANT patent infringement case that was already six years old and had involved as many as five companies, multiple US courts, the ITC and an international standards committee. I knew nothing about any of this.
On my first day, my supervisor (a paralegal with at least eight other cases driving her crazy) sat me down in front of a Concordance database with a 100,000+ patents and patent file histories. “Code these,” she said. I learned that “coding”, for the purposes of this exercise, meant manually typing the inventor’s name, the title of the patent, the assignee, the file date, and other objective data for each document. I worked on that project – and only that project – for at least the first six months of my job. After a week or so, time began to blur.
What I know, in retrospect and with absolutely certainty, is that as time began to blur, so did my judgment. So did my attention to detail. If you could tell me that I did not make at least one mistake a day – one inconsistent spelling, one reversed day and month, one incorrectly spaced title – I frankly would need to see your evidence. I would not believe it. The human mind is trainable but it is not a machine.
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