In the midst of a nightmarish judicial clerkship, Aliza Shatzman found that there was almost no protection for her, a lowly clerk, suffering harassment at the hands of a seemingly all-powerful judge. This experience and its aftermath spurred Aliza on to create The Legal Accountability Project. Host DeMario Thornton talks with Aliza about how the Project’s research and partnerships are bringing much-needed transparency to the judicial clerkship experience to create more resources and ensure better outcomes for future clerks.
Aliza Shatzman is the president and co-founder of the Legal Accountability Project.
Special thanks to our
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grands from finals and graduation to the bar exam and finding a job. This show is your trusted resource for the next big step. You’re listening to the Legal Talk Network.
DeMario Thornton: Ladies and gentlemen, today we have very special guest well I mean all of our guests are special. But today, an extra special guest. We have Aliza Shatzman. She is actually the President and Co-Founder of the Legal Accountability Project. It’s a non-profit organization that ensures that law clerks have positive clerkship experiences while extending support and resources to those who do not. So, without further ado, please welcome Aliza Shatzman.
Aliza Shatzman: Thanks for having on the podcast.
DeMario Thornton: Just to get this out of the way, you’ve had a horrible experience at a clerkship. Would that be good to say?
Aliza Shatzman: Yes.
DeMario Thornton: Okay.
Aliza Shatzman: Yes, that’s correct.
DeMario Thornton: Okay, cool.
Aliza Shatzman: Yes.
DeMario Thornton: First of all, let me say I am a 3L so all of the clerkships and summer associateships that I’ve done are out of the way so I can relate your story is something that I can relate to. And I would like for you to tell our audience your story.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. Thanks for the question. I’m sorry that you can relate but I know that lots of people who hear me share my story or read it can relate as well. And that’s why I think it’s so important to share my experience publicly. I often say that my experience well not rare is rarely shared publically.
So, I went to WashULaw. Graduated in 2019 and I aspired to be a homicide prosecutor in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office. The messaging at WashULaw like in most law schools was uniformly positive around clerkships. I was told that I should clerk because I would develop a lifelong mentor-mentee relationship with a judge. I get a crash course in trial lawyering and judicial decision making that deposition would confer only professional benefits.
I was told to apply broadly meaning across the U.S. and across the political spectrum and to accept the first clerkship I was offered. So, I did all those things and decided to clerk in D.C. Superior Court during the 2019 to 2020 term.
So, I started this clerkship in August of 2019 and pretty much just weeks into it, the judge for whom I clerked began to harass me and discriminate against me because of my gender. He would kick me out of a courtroom and tell me that I made him uncomfortable and that he just felt more comfortable with my male co-clerk. He told me that I was bossy, aggressive, nasty that I had personality issues.
The day that I found out that I passed the D.C. Bar, so big day in my life, he called me into his chambers, got in my face and said, “you’re bossy and I know bossy because my wife is bossy.” And I was just devastated. I mean this was my first legal job. This judge seemed to be singling me out for mistreatment. I remember crying myself to sleep at night. Crying in the courthouse bathroom. I wanted to be reassigned to a different judge for the rest of the clerkship. My workplace in the D.C. Courts did not have an employee dispute resolution or EDR plan that might have been abled me to be reassigned.
I confided in some attorney mentors who advised me to stick it out so I tried. We transitioned to remote work during the pandemic. I moved back to Philly in March of 2020 to stay with my parents and the judge basically ignored me for six weeks before he called me up in late April and told me he was ending my clerkship early because I made him uncomfortable and lacked respect for him but he didn’t want to get into it. I mean he hung up on me.
So, I contacted the D.C. Courts’ HR and they told me there was nothing they could do. HR doesn’t regulate judges. Judges and law clerks have a unique relationship. Then they asked me whether I knew that I was an at-will employee. I reached out to my law school to WashULaw seeking advise and support, found out the judge had history of harassing his clerks and the law school officials including several professors and the clerkships director, who still there, knew about this at the time I had accepted the clerkship, had decided not to share that information with me. I guess because they wanted another WashULaw student to clerk.
This was all pretty devastating. I connected with some other D.C. judges who directed me to the judicial conducted commission where I ultimately filed my judicial complaints but I decided to wait to file my draft because I was worried the judge would retaliate against me. So, I tried to find a new job and it was challenging. It took me a year to get back on my feet. Employers had questions about why the judge was not listed as a reference and why the clerkship had ended early.
Eventually secured my dream job in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor. Moved back to D.C. in December of 2021 hoping to put this behind me. And I was two weeks into training at the D.C. USIO. I had already started working there when I received some pretty devastating news that altered the course of my life. I was told the judge had made negative statements about me during my background investigation that I wouldn’t be able to obtain a security clearance and that my job offer was being revoked.
Then a couple days later, the USIO offered me the opportunity to interview for another job with the office and they revoked that offer too based on the judge’s same negative reference. I was two years into my legal career and this judge seemed to have just limitless power to ruin my reputation and destroy my career. So, I filed a judicial complaint with the D.C. Commission on judicial disabilities in tenure, hired attorneys and the December and fall of 2021, participated in the investigation into the now former judge.
We were part way through the investigation when I found out the judge was on administrative leave pending an investigation into other misconduct at the time he filed the negative reference. USIO was not alerted of that until January of 2022 when pursuant to the terms of our private settlement agreement, separate from anything the judiciary could or would do for a law clerk, the former judge issued a clarifying statement to the USIO addressing some but not all of his outrageous claims about me but by then, it had been too long the damage was done. I am pretty much black-balled from what I thought was my dream job.
DeMario Thornton: Well, first of all, I’m so sorry about all of this. But I will say that I hate to say everything happens for a reason but your story and your testimony was able to do more good than I think. You realized – so there are so much nuances and levels to this and relatability for me personally. First of all, when I first got out of college, I got what I thought was my dream job. I was a news reported and it got revoked so I understand that level of having something and it being snatched away from you.
Matter of fact, I can tell you that when it was revoked and spoiler alert, it was because I had too many tickets when I was a sophomore in college. The little spot in between the tub and the toilet is where I was crouched down to cry. So, I understand that almost helplessness of having something that you’ve worked so hard for be taken away when you thought everything was clear.
Secondly, I guess – oh, there’s so many things in my head. My first questions is, were you aware of the dynamic between a judge and a clerk? Did you go into it automatically thinking this is going to be really nice, a great thing? Or did you go in with the mindset, this will be kind of like the —
Aliza Shatzman: That’s a great question. I went into the position feeling optimistic that it would be a positive experience because that is all the messaging around clerkships at law schools and in the legal community. I did not realized the enormous power the judges have over law clerks’ lives, careers and reputations even many years later. And as I’m speaking with a lot of students now of my work as a non-profit leader, a lot of them say to me, “I just came off a judicial internship and while my experience was great, I can now totally understand everything you’re talking about, enormous power disparities, the isolation, its judge and a couple clerks working long hours behind locked doors and stressful circumstances and issues can arise.
I wish I had had more information, known more and made a more thoughtful decision when I was considering my clerkship. And so, what I’m trying to do now is increase transparency in the clerkship application process, increase data sharing so the info gets from the folks who have it, law schools and law clerks to the folks who need it, law students.
DeMario Thornton: Let me ask you this. So, at your time that you are at your clerkship, were there only two of you or four of you, how was it set up?
Aliza Shatzman: Two clerks and the judge.
DeMario Thornton: Two clerks and the judge and of course you were the only woman and there was a male. So, was it before –
So you come in your first day, is it automatically “I hate you” or is it like microaggressions in the beginning?
Aliza Shatzman: That’s a good question. Something I don’t think about that much. Microaggressions in the beginning but it escalated quickly.
DeMario Thornton: Got you. Okay. So, here’s our hard question. So, me and my mom, we always talk about this. I have a strong personality so she always tells me when people meet me, they’ll either love me or they’ll hate me just because I have a strong personality. Have you dealt in life before this clerkship? Have you dealt with I have a strong personality so sometimes I feel like I have to bring myself down where I have to be a little bit nicer or not say the things that I want to say because people will take it the wrong way?
Aliza Shatzman: That is a great question. Yes. I have a strong personality. I’m an assertive woman. I wanted to be a homicide prosecutor. That is an assertive and male-dominated field. So yes, you can kind of see how issue would arise in that context. But I often say that it’s important to create larger cultural change in the legal community so that everybody can bring their full selves to work every day. Nobody should be mistreated based on their personality.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah. I definitely agree with that. So, I’ve never had a judicial clerkship in the sense of a federal clerkship like after school. However, I have interned with a judge and I have worked as a summer associate at a big law firm, a couple of big law firms. I will say I have never felt the level of discontent that you have felt. However, I know that feeling of helplessness and almost feel like there is nothing you can do because judges, they reign over their courtroom and who are you going to go to? Who are you going to tell? They are the HR. They are the judge and jury when it comes to their work environment. I truly believe there is no blueprint and what you are doing, you have almost set a blueprint where president – so, we’re going to take a quick break and when we return, we’re going to find out what Aliza is doing in order to help the next generation of clerks that are coming in. We’ll be right back.
Welcome back with my conversation with Aliza Shatzman. So, tell us about the work that you’re doing to try to bring awareness to this.
Aliza Shatzman: Absolutely. So, there are numerous things I’m doing in this space and I definitely wanted to jump up what you said about the feeling of helplessness. I mean a judge’s chambers, they perceive it to be their own little fiefdom. And other judges even to the extent they hear about workplace issues or judges mistreating their clerks kind of say “not my chambers, not my business.” Not to point the finger at all judges but it is to say that there really are no workplace protections in the judiciary. There’s no place for a law clerk to go to speak up about mistreatment, to seek assistance. Law clerks are exempt from Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act. Meaning that folks like me cannot sue our harassers and seek damages for harms done to our lives. EDR and other internal workplace processes are run by other judges leading law clerks to reasonably believe they are neither impartial nor confidential.
So, that’s the situation right now. And my first public statements was written testimony before the house judiciaries court subcommittee to advocate for the judiciary accountability act which is legislation that would extent Title 7 protections to law clerks and federal public defenders. Finally, enabling folks like me to sue our harassers and seek damages.
In a weeks’ following my written testimony, I began to toss around some ideas for further advocacy work which ultimately led me to launch the Legal Accountability Project in June to address various issues that I saw and personally experienced in the clerkship application process through my law school and larger issues related to a lack of accountability and unsafe work environments in our judiciary.
The Legal Accountability Project basically seeks to ensure that law clerks have a positive clerkship experience and then extend support and resources to the ones who don’t. I speak with a lot of law students and I say, “So, you want to clerk? Great. How would you avoid judges who harass their clerks?” Some students say, “I’d ask someone.” But who are you going to ask? Some clerkship directors and deans? We tell students to “do their research.”
“What research are you going to do when so little information about judge is available to students on an equitable basis?” Handful of law schools do a post-clerkship survey of their alumni but they understand that these do not capture the scope of the problem. They ask the wrong questions. Students and alumni often characterize the questions as “you had a positive clerkship experience, right?” They understand that law clerks who faced mistreatment are notoriously unwilling to report that back to their law schools.
DeMario Thornton: Right.
Aliza Shatzman: Think of your clerkship director and deans. Lovely people probably.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah.
Aliza Shatzman: Not necessarily the first folks you’re going to go to when you are harassed by life tenured federal judge. So, the Legal Accountability Project is working on two major initiatives in collaboration with law schools beginning this year. The first one is a centralized clerkships’ reporting database which will democratize information about judges so students have as much info about as many judges as possible before they make what is clearly a really important decision about their careers.
We will have law clerk alumni from the participating institutions the past 10 to 20 years’ worth creating an account with us and writing a report about their judge and their clerkship. Good, bad, medium, want to hear everything.
DeMario Thornton: So basically, rate my professor but like rate my clerkship?
Aliza Shatzman: Sort of. Some similarities. People make that comparison sort of. And yeah, we ask a wide variety of questions you’d want to know about your boss and your job. Questions and information that if you pursued other private or public sector employment, you would get to know. But right now, you just don’t. Mistreatment is certainly something we seek to finally capture in a way law schools have not in the past. But it’s also how does the judge provide feedback? Do I get writing in courtroom experience? Can I take vacation? All kinds of stuff you might want to know. Stuff that troublingly is not accessible to most law students right now.
Law clerk alumni report in the database and in exchange, law school – it’s a subscription model so law schools pay us $5 per student per year based on their total JD enrollment that is a small sum to protection all their students and alumni against mistreatment. And then, law students at the participating schools can read all the reports but so importantly and one reason why this is better that anything that exists right now, they do not just get to read their law school alumni’s reports. They read the reports of all the alumni from all the schools participating in the database.
This is the best way to centralize and democratize information to finally bring transparency to an overly secretive process. That’s the clerkship’s database. And I’m interfacing right now with about 70 law schools’ worth of deans and clerkships directors. So, if you are a law student or an attorney listening to this and you believe this would be valuable to you or to alumni from your law school, reach out to your administration and urge them to participate.
We’re also doing a workplace assessment of the federal and state judiciaries. It’s a climate survey that will finally answer the question, how pervasive is harassment in the judiciary? We ask a subset of questions which I think are particularly important and they elucidate law clerks’ concerns about reporting formally to the judiciary and informally back to their law schools. Unfortunately, some law schools tell me things like, “we’re blessed to only work with good judges. All our alumni have a positive clerkship experience.” You’re laughing, that is nonsense.
But unfortunately, law clerks have been historically unwilling to report a negative experience back to their law schools, allowing law schools to really disclaim responsibility for these problems. I really think law schools have received a free pass in the conversation about judicial accountability. They should be the first to step forward to make changes, to protect the next generation of folks.
And the third aspect of what we’re doing is programming. I visited 24 law schools this fall. We’re visiting more in the spring. I share my experience, talk about scope of the problem, talk about solutions including our resources which I really believe will transform the clerkship application process and the legal profession for the next generation of attorneys.
DeMario Thornton: I definitely get that. So, I know me personally I use the word clerkship loosely. In most of my – I’m scared to say horrible. Most of my horrible experience came from a summer associate stent at a firm. Is this program exclusively for judicial clerkships or is it all encompassing to internships, clerkships, some associateships, all of that?
Aliza Shatzman: So, this is focused on judicial clerkships as well as judicial internships and externships.
DeMario Thornton: Okay.
Aliza Shatzman: So, this year, we’re going to have law clerk alumni, so post-grad clerkships. Those folks will report into the database. Student considering either a post-grad clerkship or a summer or semester judicial internship and externship can read all the reports. We’ve already received requests about expanding this to other aspects of the legal profession or to other industries like business and medicine so we filled and consider those requests. It really just shows the pervasiveness of these issues and I get a lot of questions, how pervasive is harassment in the judiciary?
Unfortunately, there is a real dirt of data in this space that enables the judiciary leadership to disclaim responsibility for these problems. You can see a theme here. Folks disclaiming responsibility.
DeMario Thornton: So, I know for me personally when I worked for a judge as I’m listening to your story, it’s not to the level of what your experience was. How do you intercept or make sure that people who had uncomfortable times or a hard judge or a strict judge are not conflating the issue of being harassed?
Aliza Shatzman: Great question. In the database questions, we define mistreatment in various ways throughout the database. Harassment, gender-based mistreatment, sexual harassment, bullying, retaliation. So, we make it clear what those things mean. But the other issues you described are still important while not legally actionable. Being a tough judge is something law students considering clerkship should know about. The way judges provide feedback is something law students should be aware of. This information is also not shared from the folks who have it, law clerks, law schools, to the folks who need it, law students.
Law students considering a clerkship are going to these eyes wide shut almost uniformly. And I hear over and over, I just had to hope that my judge was going to be a nice guy. That is outrageous. That is not how we should treat the legal profession. That is not how we should continue to treat clerkships.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah. And I believe that you do kind of go in blind. You’re not really knowledgeable. It’s kind of like one of those things, you hear law school is hard. You hear some professors are hard and they use the (00:22:56) method. They weaponize it but how do you gauge this is them being a tough judge or professor or they are harassing me? And it’s a thin line but you really have to I guess look within because you really wouldn’t know unless you can at least gauge some other experiences and see what other people are saying.
Aliza Shatzman: Right. So, I think a couple of things. First of all, law students really need to hear it from the – or the pens and keyboards of the former clerks. They do not need law school professors, deans and administrators to be filtering the information about these positive or negative clerkship experiences. Law students need the info when they need it. Whether it is the first day of 1L fall or two years post-grad when they are thinking about transitioning careers. They do not need the law schools to be the gatekeepers of this information.
DeMario Thornton: And sometimes I feel like your school, your deans, your professors, they would rather you be silent because you have this clerkship looks good at the school so it’s kind of like one of those things where they might want to say like just grin and bear it so you can through it.
Aliza Shatzman: I remain really concerned because yes I hear that over and over again. I am working productively with most law schools, deans, clerkship directors and professors and I have been cautioned not to point the finger broadly at all law schools. I’ve been cautioned that some clerkship directors take my criticism personally. And I really don’t mean for them to. But the thing is I hear over and over reporting is a personal choice and most people just want to keep their heads down and move on. I take real issue with that.
I think it is not only untrue because I see they told that staying silent has on these mistreated former clerks and I know because they reach out to me every day.
They are looking for somewhere to report, somewhere to share. They want to protect the next generation of folks. We have created and some of us are perpetuating a culture of silence and fear in a legal community deifying judges, disbelieving law clerks, telling them not to come forward that it is not worth it, you will not be believed. That is wrong. And when I share my experience, I also talk about the many female attorneys who told me and some continue to tell me, the right professional decision would have been not report that speaking publicly would tarnish my reputation. That is the larger uphill battle we are trying to fight on these issues.
But I have news for everybody who is telling people to stay silent. For law clerks who do not report the mystery event, the judges who harassed you will harass other clerks and you are perpetuating a culture of abuse by remaining silent. That is I imagine hard for some people to hear but it was quite hard for me to hear after my negative experience that the judge who harassed me had harassed other clerks and that my law school knew and we really need to change the culture. Students and alumni, law clerks cannot wait another year for changes to be made.
DeMario Thornton: Yeah. And it’s almost like we are scared to report by fear of trying to protect them but if she was on the other foot, they would not have any coms about letting people know how we were. We are going to take a break on that and we’ll be back with Aliza Shatzman.
Okay. So, Aliza, I want to give a little hypothet for you, okay?
Aliza Shatzman: Okay, I’m back in law school now.
DeMario Thornton: Right. So, I am a law student who has gotten a clerkship and I’ve accepted it. I’ve done my first week and just by happenstance, myself and you are at the airport and we just see each other and we’re sitting and we’re talking and I just tell you, “Well, I’m in law school and I’ve actually accepted a clerkship. I actually started last week. It’s been a horrible week for me. My judge is mean, rude, I’m just having a horrible time.” Just off happenstance I tell you about this. I don’t know anything about you or anything like that. And if I found out that you are the Aliza Shatzman, what do I do? What steps can I take?
Aliza Shatzman: Couple things. So, it really depends whether you are a state or a federal clerk, as to what protections you have within your courthouse. If you are federal clerk, your first option is employee dispute resolution or EDR, that’s the internal complaint process whereby a law clerk can seek reassignment to get away from the judge who’s harassing them.
If you are a state clerk, you would go to HR which would probably run a similar process. You’d file an EDR complaint, you’d probably need to hire an attorney which sounds scary especially because you have just started your clerkship and this is going to overshadow the majority of your time in the clerkship. You can reach out to the Legal Accountability Project and I often make referrals for attorneys connecting mistreated law clerks with employment attorneys who can help.
File a complaint, find allies, confide another clerk or intern in your courthouse. Keep track of who you confided in. Takes notes. Forward yourself emails, keep things documented. That is certainly not the first thing people think to do when they are mistreated is to document everything but it’s so important. And if there is another judge in your courthouse who you can confide in, you should do that too because they will be an ally but it is absolutely about standing up for yourself and getting a way from the dangerous work environment that you are in. Nobody should grin and bear it should think that they’re going to put their head down and just endure it and I would caution anyone who gives that advice who says that a clerkship is just a year of your life.
My story is excellent evidence that it’s a year of your life than in the worst circumstances could really change a life.
DeMario Thornton: I truly agree. With all of this happening, you’ve been through this experience, do you believe that you will go back into the criminal prosecution sector?
Aliza Shatzman: I don’t see myself practicing law anytime soon. I’m going to be leading Legal Accountability Project and seeing where that takes me and I think the organization is going to grow a lot and I’ll see where it takes me. I consider myself to be law adjacent at this point. I obviously interact everyday with attorneys. I don’t know if I’ll ever practice law again. I’m pretty far from the experiences that led me to law school, the experiences I had throughout law school and now it’s really just about ensuring that what happened to me doesn’t happen to anybody else.
DeMario Thornton: Well, I want to thank you for your time today. I will say that you have given me a lot to think about. I don’t think I dealt with harassment. I think I was just uncomfortable and it just was not the right place for me. However, if you feel that someone is actively harassing you at your clerkship, you have the Legal Accountability Project to look out for as well as they have amazing resources in order to help you through that. I want to thank you so much today for sharing with us. Where can people follow you or get your information or connect with you?
Aliza Shatzman: They can visit our website which is legalaccountabilityproject.org to donate to us, join our mailing list, get more info. I am [email protected] and they can also find me in LinkedIn and Twitter. I post about these topics a lot and I would also say if you are listening to this and you believe these resources would be valuable, reach out to your law school and urge them to partner with the Legal Accountability Project. Deans and clerkship directors need to hear from you right now this is the best way to protect the next generation of young attorneys from harassment.
DeMario Thornton: Well, thank you so much Aliza and thank you so much for listening.