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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Clerkship from Hell
Mike Rappaport

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.

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Mike Rappaport


She was kind of like that practicing law in the mid-sixties when she was Dolly Korman, a 30 something associate at the firm then known as Dilworth, Paxson, Kalish, Kohn and Dilks.

While attending Penn Law, I was at Morgan Lewis as a part time associate (then known as a clerk) working on a multitude of civil anti-trust cases filed by her mentor, Harold E. Kohn the dean of the Class Action Anti-Trust Plaintiffs bar.

Dolly had the reputation of being a good lawyer, but a bit sharp, using elbows, knees and teeth where such tactics were not called for. I think, though, that Harold enjoyed her abrasive personality. Apparently the Black Robe has exacerbated the situation. Since I have not practiced in Philadelphia since 1966, I haven't gotten much of the dirt on the subject.

I thought, though, you might be interested for historical context.

Posted by: vnjagvet | Jul 11, 2007 2:10:11 PM

I know someone who clerked for Sloviter as well and said it was the worst experience of that person's life. Screaming, yelling, and general abuse that reeked of not just unprofessional, but plainly uncivil behavior to which no one should be subjected. There was a story (no one knew if it was true) that she fired a previous clerk who wanted to take more than a few days off due to a parent's death.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 12, 2007 8:04:10 AM

Anon - unless you are alluding to another such incident, I can confirm that account, except that the judge did not fire the clerk. The clerk called in asking to take a few more days than the clerk originally asked for, due to the need to perform a rather trying duty related to the family member's passing; I would rather not go into detail, but let's just say that a medical examiner was involved. When the judge then went ballistic, complaining about the upcoming sitting and generally tut-tutting about the few extra days involved, the clerk decided that this behavior was intolerable and quit. The judge did not make that easy, either.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jul 13, 2007 11:01:09 AM

I clerked on the ED Pa around the time of the incident with good ole Dolores. My judge -- no warm and fuzzy person either, but generally a likeable curmudgeon -- told us about it (I believe it was the clerk's mother) and understood it to be true, noting with admiration that s/he believed the clerk immediately quit.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 13, 2007 11:12:47 AM

I clerked for her. It was a horrific experience. She routinely screamed. It was not unusual for her to throw things (books, files) in a clerk's direction in a rage. She was irrational and self-contradictory, praising you almost affectionately for something one minute and launching a crazed, enraged tirade against you the next for the very same thing. Her gamut ran from cloying to sadistic, tending toward the latter, and I have never seen such a traumatized group as the cowering, furtive, whispering people who worked for her, myself included. While clerks continued to quit over the years, sometimes mere weeks after starting the job, it is surprising that so many made it through their year.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jul 13, 2007 3:40:46 PM

From my law school experience, I noticed that many of my classmates thought that clerkships were the be-all-end-all. The judges aren't stupid and know that many clerks will put up with anything just so they can have the clerkship on their resume. Personally, if I were a clerk and a judge abused me to that extent or threw something at me, I'd tell the judge to, well, this is a family-friendly blog, so you will have to guess. And, if a law firm doesn't want to hire me becuase I refused to put up with that nonsense, then I don't need them either.

Truth be told, I usually don't respect quitters but in this case I respect those who quit on this judge more than those who put up with it.

Posted by: djslybri | Jul 14, 2007 11:17:59 PM

If a man comes to your front door and says he is conducting a survey And asks you to show him your bum, do not show him your bum. This is a scam. He only wants to see your bum. I wish I had got this yesterday. I feel so stupid and cheap. -The Bum

Posted by: Morris Young | Jul 18, 2007 12:56:24 AM

Okay, I see the PERSONAL harm these Judges have seemingly caused so many.

So my question becomes, if these Judicial representatives are this VIAL to the one's bound to learn from them and help them, why is it so hard to believe that these Judges are Judicially Corrupt in their cases before them?

You can NOT say, well this Judge treats their clerks like crap and takes their rights away as NON CHARGED CRIMINALS, BUT, I THINK this Judge will be fair according to the LAW when cases come before them.

Pennsylvania is the LAST state to get the LAWS of Constitution and Pennsylvania online for public veiwing or access.

How many people have a PACER account or even know what that is?

I bet if those clerks got together and told what they REALLY knew, heads would ROLL in the Judiciary of the TREASON set before the Courts in ANY state.

Who is going to speak up on the LAW bwing broken?

It is against the rules of conduct of a Judge to give even the APPERANCE of impropriety, yet who's holding them accountable?

Posted by: Carla Johnson | Jul 24, 2007 3:37:24 AM

I clerked for Judge Sloviter in the mid-1990s, and yes, she had her moody days but I don't think she deserves this. Even leaving aside her excellent judicial mind and work toward justice (her politics were all the right place as far as I was concerned), what about the extraordinary amount of time she took working with law clerks to improve their research and writing skills? Yes, I would sweat buckets when going over a draft opinion (she would have you print it out triple spaced on the top half of the page, with the bottom half blank, all to allow for insertions and corrections). She'd sit with you and go over the opinion word by word and ask you to support each statement. That skill has helped me immeasurably in the many years since then. One other point: what about all the crazy law partners, crazy law professors out there? I'm sure there are lots of tales to be told but no one would be interested - this law clerk is capitalizing on the prominence of Judge Sloviter to make a quick buck and sling some mud at her. Shame on her, hope it comes back to bite her in the butt some day. (Or maybe it already has: bravo Cleary!)

Posted by: Jessica | Jul 25, 2007 12:12:24 AM

No judge has the right to treat anyone poorly, including their clerk, regardless of how prestigious the clerkship is.

Federal appellate clerks are absolutely necessary to the job. The judge cannot do the work necessary to issue all of the necessary decisions without their clerk/clerks writing the drafts & doing the resource for them.

When I was a young prosaecutor, I had a judge who was a screaming, ignorant lunatic who browbeat me unmercifully.

Fortunately, for me, our legislature removed the hiring/firing powers from the judges.

After that, the next time he called me into chambers to launch a tirade, I simply walked out in midscream.

He never mentioned it, nor did he ever mistreat me again.

Judges in my state have discovered, to their regret, that abusing the staff has its perils.

One judge lost an opportunity for an appellate seat because the prosecutor & the reporter saw to it that some untoward comments that he made were published in the local paper.

Another had to fight for reappointment after the prosecutor & PD that she abused reported her misconduct, including playing cards with the delinquents at the local juvy hall.

Every clerk & court employee should be treated decently, & with respect. Being an Art.III judge doesn't relieve you of that responsibility.

Posted by: A Person | Dec 28, 2007 1:30:57 PM