More on the Law Clerk Hiring Process – An Interview with Federal Judge Robert Lasnik

This is the second installment of a series of interviews I am doing on judicial clerkships. The first interview was with Third Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro; that interview can be found here. In this interview the focus is on clerkships at the federal district court level.  

Judge Robert Lasnik with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor at the University of Washington Law School

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with Judge Robert Lasnik at the U.S. Courthouse in Seattle

Robert S. Lasnik is a United States federal judge who sits on the District Court for the Western District of Washington State.

Born in 1951 in Staten Island, New York, Judge Lasnik attended Brandeis University (B.A., 1972) and then Northwestern University (M.S., journalism, 1973 & M.A. in education, 1974). Following that, he went on to the University of Washington School of Law where he received his J.D. in 1978.

Prior to his service on the Court, he was a deputy prosecutor in the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office (1978-1981) and then a senior deputy prosecutor (1981-1983), and later chief of staff in that office (1983-1990). Thereafter, he served as a Superior Court judge in King County (1990-1998).

President Bill Clinton nominated him to the Court on May 11, 1998.  He was confirmed unanimously by the United States Senate on October 21, 1998, and received his commission on October 22, 1998. He served as Chief Judge from 2004 to 2011. Chief Justice John Roberts appointed him to serve as a member of the Judicial Conference Executive Committee

 Some of Judge Lasnik’s more notable opinions include Browne v. Avvo, Inc. (2007) (“To the extent that their lawsuit [contesting lawyer rankings on a public website] has focused a spotlight on how ludicrous the rating of attorneys (and judges) has become, more power to them. To the extent that they seek to prevent the dissemination of opinions regarding attorneys and judges, however, the First Amendment precludes their cause of action”), and Video Software Dealers Association v. Maleng, et al (2004) (enjoining Washington State law prohibiting the sale of video games depicting violence against police officers). More recently, he authored Wilbur v. City of Mount Vernon (2013), which the ACLU labeled as a “landmark case on indigent defense.”

Welcome, Judge Lasnik, to our corner of the blogosphere here at Concurring Opinions. It is an honor for us to have you contribute to this blog. 

Question: How many law clerks do you have, and how long are their terms?

Answer: I have one career law clerk who has been with me since my appointment in 1998, and a one-term law clerk whom I hire on a one-year basis. Occasionally, where there is mutual agreement by mid-year, I have extended the clerkship to a second year.

Question: Tell us a little bit about how the clerkship application process and how it works in your chambers. For example, when do you first start accepting applications, and up to what point do you stop considering them?

Answer: I start accepting applications in September, the year prior to the start of the clerkship. Interviews begin in January/February and are on-going until I fill the position.

Question: How much do you rely on OSCAR?

Answer: I post open positions on OSCAR. However, we do request hard copies of materials.

Question: Some district judges are now seeking law clerks with some experience as a practicing attorney. What do you think of that and is it something you either are now doing or plan to do?

Answer: I do require a year of experience either clerking in federal court or for a state’s highest court or practicing law. I find that having some real-world experience makes for better clerks and that the clerks also get more out of the year.

Question: How far in advance do you select your clerks? Some federal judges are now hiring two years in advance? What is your practice?

Answer: I hire the same year of the opening although occasionally, where I have two outstanding candidates, I will extend an offer for the next year to the one who comes in second. This has happened on two occasions and I’m so glad I got both outstanding clerks.

Question: About how many trials do you preside over in a calendar year?

Answer: I do approximately eight trials per year—half civil and half criminal.

Question: Do you have any idea of how many orders you issue in a year?

Answer: 2,039 civil orders, 206 criminal orders, and 194 miscellaneous for a total of 2,439. This covers the period from the June 2013 to June 2014. 

Question: Since so much of legal education is tied to reading appellate opinions, do you think law schools adequately prepare students for work in trial courts, either as counsel or as law clerks? What are your views on this generally?

Answer: Law schools have so much more to offer now in terms of legal clinics, externships etc. They do a better job than in the past. But law students are always shocked at the human tragedies we encounter on a day-to-day basis in trial courts. It’s hard to prepare law students for that.

Question: Professor Aaron Nielson has stated that the law clerk “hiring process is chaotic.” And Catherine Rampell, writing in the New York Times (9-23-11), was far less diplomatic: “The judges compete aggressively each year to recruit the best law students to work for them as clerks, prestigious positions that involve research, counsel, and ghostwriting. But the 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.” Do you agree? What is your sense of this?

Answer: It is nonsense to think that there is such a limited pool of superstar students that we all have to compete for or judges will be saddled with inferior clerks. As I said, I hire merely months before the clerkship begins and I have had some fabulous clerks who have become tremendous lawyers. I also question how much you know about a candidate based on just his or her first year of law school.

Question: You must receive a lot of form letters. Given that, how important are the cover letters?

Answer: I am a journalist at heart, so your cover letter is as important to me as to how you write. And if you can’t spell my last name right, you are not likely to get an interview!

Question: What do you look for in a letter of recommendation? How important is it?

Answer: Unfortunately, letters of recommendation do not convey as much information as they should because of the sheer volume with which professors must deal. I like to do follow-up phone calls and emails with people to get a real sense of the applicant.

Question: Apart from typos or grammatical errors, what is the most common mistake that applicants make?

Answer: Using a form letter that doesn’t change the judge’s last name somewhere in the letter.

Question: About how many applicants do you call for an interview, and how long do those interviews last? Do your law clerks participate in the interviewing process?

Answer: I try to interview at least five applicants. The interviews last around 45 minutes and both my judicial assistant and my career law clerk participate.

Question: When you make an offer, do you do it by phone (do you leave a message if there is no answer?), or e-mail, or both? And how much time do you allow for an acceptance? What do you think of “exploding offers”?

Answer: I think “exploding offers” are cruel and unusual. I make offers by phone.I also try to call the people who I am not hiring to tell them why and to express my sympathy and appreciation for their participation. People deserve to be told how great they were and why they were not selected.

Question: Once one gets a clerkship from you, what do you think is the greatest challenge facing that person at the outset?

Answer: Learning to “get” my voice. I lean on my clerks to write ready-to-sign orders, but they have to be in my language, which is more like a journalist than a law professor or appellate judge.

Question: What is the greatest plus and minus that your law clerks report after their clerkship?

Answer: The plus is seeing how a federal judge decides motions and rules on objections and the insight into how a total case progresses. The minus is knowing you have just ended the greatest law job you will probably ever have.

Thank you so much, Judge Lasnik, for sharing your thoughts on the law clerk application process with us. 

Go here for “Useful Links and Resources” (Columbia Univ. Law School). See also Christopher Avery, Christine Jolls, Richard Posner & Alvin E. Roth, “The New Market for Federal Judicial Law Clerks” (2007), and Danielle Citron, “Zelinsky on the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Crisis,” Concurring Opinions, Feb. 1, 2013.

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