“Judges Behaving Badly” in Clerkship Hiring

The Wall Street Journal blog has an entertaining post/discussion this week about the frenzied market for judicial clerks. (My thanks to Brian Leiter for calling my attention to the WSJ post.) The post discusses a recent survey conducted by Judge Richard Posner, Christopher Avery, Christine Jolls, and Alvin Roth as part of an update to their 2001 Chicago law review article on the federal clerkship hiring process. (The paper is available for download at SSRN.) The authors surveyed recent graduates at Yale, Chicago, Harvard, and Stanford who applied for clerkships in 2004 or 2005. The survey offers up all sorts of interesting (though not particularly surprising) statistics, suggesting that the 2003 changes to the clerkship hiring guidelines have been less than successful: Over a third of those surveyed received interview offers before the “official” guidelines permit, one quarter interviewed with judges before they were supposed to, and 12% received job offers from judges who had jumped the gun on the official start date for offers. On the WSJ blog, recent law graduates have weighed in with their own horror stories about the clerkship hiring process.

The clerkship hiring frenzy is certainly not a new phenomenon. I’m reminded of the experience of a Yale law school classmate back in the late 90s. The student got a call from a judge who said, “IF I were to make you an offer right now – and I’m not saying that I am – but IF I were to make you an offer right now, how long would it take you to accept it?” Dumbfounded, the student replied, “Uh, well … I suppose I could let you know within the hour?” Dead silence on the other end of the line. The student said, “Judge X? Are you still there, Judge X?” Another long pause. And finally, the judge replied, “Hold on. I’m THINKING.”

I told this story to my father, who as a federal judge in Arkansas had been hiring clerks for over twenty years. (For the most part, he opted out of the process entirely by hiring (generally superb) clerks from the University of Arkansas. As a trial judge, he took the view that his clerks should have a feel for the people and a respect for the local culture – and that gave local graduates a decided edge.) My father was amazed that other federal judges would engage in (in his words) “such nonsense.” “I just don’t get it,” he said, shaking his head. “Why do they care so much who they hire? The job is not rocket science — any decent lawyer can do it. And besides … you’re a bunch of damn kids!”

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5 Responses

  1. Scott Moss says:

    These sorts of antics by judges confirm my view that judges have no basis for belittling lawyers involved in discovery disputes, which many judges do on a regular basis.

  2. Melissa – your father is a wise man

  3. Brian says:

    Speaking of clerkships and antics, here’s a link to a news story on a recent novel, CHAMBERMAID, by Saira Rao, that depicts — perhaps unfairly — a nightmare clerkship on the Third Circuit:

    http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/20070724_Novel_does_no_honor_to_judge.html

    Rao’s myspace page:

    http://www.myspace.com/sairarao

    Rao’s website

    http://www.sairarao.com/

  4. Xanthippas says:

    Melissa – your father is a wise man

    I second that. Your father was a wise man for realizing that since the job wasn’t rocket science, maybe he could give other kids a chance at it besides some pampered elites from big-name law schools. I only wish more judges felt that way, so you weren’t doomed to long odds in getting a clerkship by which school you end up attending.

  5. David S. Cohen says:

    The federal judge I clerked for knew it was a job most intelligent law students could do, so he was much more concerned with whether he would get along with the person for a year rather than stressing over whether he was picking the One Perfect Clerk.