Wednesday, July 11, 2007
In 1985, having just graduated from law school, I arrived for my first day of work as a law clerk to Dolores K. Sloviter of the Third Circuit. My interview with the judge had gone very well, and I thought she would be a fascinating person to work with.
My two co-clerks, who had arrived a week earlier, took me to lunch. I asked how things were going, and they looked kind of uncomfortable. They explained that on their first day, a week earlier, they had gone to lunch with the holdover clerk, and had asked her, almost making small talk, how her year had been. Expecting something like, "really good but a lot of work," they listened as she spent the next hour and a half detailing the horrors of the experience, and how she wasn't sure how she had gotten through it.
That law clerk's year of hell turned out to be quite similar to our year. Soon enough, we all disliked the judge, and I started counting the weeks to the end of the one year clerkship at 50. One of my co-clerks, a strongly liberal women who had chosen the judge for her liberal politics, hated the judge so much that she quit twice. She first announced that she was leaving after 9 months, but was somehow able to get one of next year's clerk to come three months early. That allowed her to leave gracefully "for family reasons." But it was not to be. She could not stand working with the judge so much that three weeks before her new completion date, she simply did not show up. Nothing graceful there; just self preservation.
While some of my friends know this story and many others about my clerkship, I have never written about it. But now I figure it is appropriate because of the publication of this new book by a more recent Sloviter law clerk, loosely based on her clerkship. Here are the two descriptions from Amazon:
Here is the legal system exposed and skewered for what it is: haplessly human. Columbia Law School grad Sheila Raj accepts a clerkship from Judge Helga Friedman of the federal court of appeals in Philadelphia, and the world appears to be at her feet. The terrain inside the courthouse turns to quicksand, however, as Sheila discovers Friedman is a sociopathic, homicidal, bipolar jurist who screams at, mocks and otherwise tortures her clerks. Yet Sheila and co-clerks Matthew and Evan must suffer in silence, since the world universally views Judge Friedman as a champion of liberalism. During her tenure, Friedman had nailed cops for racial profiling, overturned a law banning pornography on First Amendment grounds, and nine out of ten times thought company executives were sexually harassing pricks. If she weren't a tyrant who racially profiled her law clerks, she'd be worth idolizing, Sheila laments. This judicial nut job winds up the crucial member of a panel hearing a death penalty appeal that pits her against a rival judge with a dirty little secret that Sheila helps reveal.
The devil holds a gavel in this wickedly entertaining debut novel about a young attorney’s eventful year clerking for a federal judge. Sheila Raj is a recent graduate of a top-ten law school with dreams of working for the ACLU, but law school did not prepare her for the power-hungry sociopath, Judge Helga Friedman, who greets her on her first day. While her beleaguered colleagues begin quitting their jobs, Sheila is assigned to a high-profile death penalty case and suddenly realizes that she has to survive the year as Friedman’s chambermaid — not just her sanity, but actual lives hang in the balance. With Chambermaid, debut novelist Saira Rao breaks the code of silence surrounding the clerkship and boldly takes us into the mysterious world of the third branch of US government, where the leaders are not elected and can never be fired. With its biting wit and laugh-out-loud humor, this novel will change everything you think you know about how great lawyers, and great judges, are made.
Both of these descriptions ring very true to my clerkship. I know this is one book that I will be reading very soon.
Update: I have more to say about the issue above.