The legal profession places an enormous premium on getting judicial clerkships, which usually offer both valuable learning experiences and a major boost to a young lawyer’s future prospects. But, are there potential downsides to clerkships? Some law clerks have a wonderful experience, but too many have had an experience marked by harassment and mistreatment at the hands of an abusive judge. Molly Ranns and JoAnn Hathaway welcome Aliza Shatzman to talk about her personal story and her efforts to bring transparency and awareness about the full range of clerkship experiences to lift current stigmas and prevent future judiciary workplace mistreatment.
Aliza Shatzman is the president and co-founder of the Legal Accountability Project.
Molly Ranns: Hello, and welcome to another edition of the State Bar of Michigan’s on Balance Podcast on LegalTalk Network. I’m Molly Ranns.
JoAnn Hathaway: And I’m Joanne Hathaway. We are very pleased to have Aliza Shatzman join us today. Aliza is president and founder of the Legal Accountability Project. Aliza, could you share some information about yourself with our listeners, please?
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. Thanks for having me on the podcast. I’m Aliza. I’m the president and founder, as you mentioned, of the Legal Accountability Project. We are a non-profit aimed at ensuring that law clerks so new attorneys have a positive clerkship experience while extending support and resources to the ones who don’t. We aim to increase transparency, diversity, and accountability in judicial clerkships, the judiciary, and the legal profession.
Molly Ranns: Excellent. Aliza, thank you so much for being here today. Can you explain what a judicial clerkship is, how students get them, and what sort of premium does the legal community place on these positions?
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. So a judicial clerkship is when a new attorney, typically fresh out of law school, perhaps after gaining a few years work experience, spends a year or two working closely with and learning from a judge. While tasks vary from chambers to chambers, you could clerk at a state court, an Article 3 federal court, an Article 1 federal court, most law clerks conduct research. They write memos, orders and opinions. They go to court with the judge. They assist with judicial decision-making. These are very powerful positions, making them valuable both as a learning experience and for their future employers. The legal community places an enormous premium on clerkships. They are considered either a gold star or a necessary checkbox for many legal jobs. When you look at government jobs like at DOJ, they require one year work experience, which is really a euphemism for a clerkship expectation.
Unfortunately, this causes too many new attorneys to prioritize getting a prestigious clerkship period, over thinking through what kind of clerkship would be right for them, what would be a good fit. Law students and practicing attorneys both use their law schools as the primary mechanism by which they obtain clerkships. Law schools assist with everything from cover letter, resume preparation to facilitating references to connecting students with judges and judges with students.
Unfortunately, there is a real dearth of transparent information about judges as managers and clerkship experiences accessible to students, leading too many law clerks to enter unsafe or unsupportive work environments because they just lack information about judges. And regardless of whether you go to a T5 or a regional school or somewhere in between, if I ask you as a student how you’ll get information about judges, you’ll go through a series of crazy suggestions, anonymous T14 blogs, Wikipedia the robing room before you’ll reach the same conclusion that LAP has always reached, which is there is not enough information about judges accessible to students right now.
JoAnn Hathaway: So, Alisa, what inspired you to launch the Legal Accountability Project?
Aliza Shatzman: I decided to launch a non-profit following my personal experience with mistreatment during and after my clerkship to address injustices that I personally experienced as a law student and a law clerk, a lack of transparent information at my law school about judges, a lack of judicial accountability mechanisms when I was experiencing mistreatment.
So I decided to clerk in DC Superior Court during the 2019 to 2020 term because I aspired to be a homicide prosecutor in the DC US Attorney’s Office, and I knew that a USA’s federal prosecutors appeared before those judges. The messaging at my law school at WashU Law, like at all law schools, was just uniformly positive. I was told I would develop a life-long mentor-mentee relationship with the judge for whom I clerked, that the position would confer only professional benefits.
No one, when I was applying for clerkships, ever talked to me about potential downsides of clerking. The enormous power disparity between judges and clerks, the lack of workplace protections, the lack of mechanisms to seek redress, the enormous, far-reaching power that judges can exert over their law clerks’ careers. So I start clerking in August 2019, and beginning just weeks into this, clerkship, the judge for whom I clerked began to harass me and discriminate against me because of my gender. He would kick me out of the courtroom and tell me that I made him uncomfortable and that he just felt more comfortable with my male co-clerk.
He told me I was bossy, aggressive, and that I had personality issues, so very gendered statements, something that wouldn’t be said of a male clerk. The day I found out that I’d passed the DC bar exam, obviously a big day in any young attorney’s 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.” This was just devastating. It was my first legal job. I remember crying myself to sleep at night, crying on the walk to work in the morning. It was just taking a toll on my mental health. And I confided in some attorney mentors who advised me to stick it out. So I tried, and I knew that I needed a year of work experience as we’ve already discussed, before I was eligible for my dream job at the DC US Attorney’s Office.
So during the pandemic, I moved back to Philly to stay with my parents and work remotely, and the judge basically ignored me for six weeks before calling me up in late April of 2020 and firing me. He told me that I made him uncomfortable and lacked respect for him, and then he hung up on me. So I tried to use the judiciary channels that were available to me. I reached out to HR in the DC Courts, and they said there was nothing they could do, because HR doesn’t regulate judges. The judges and law clerks have a unique relationship and that I should have known that I was an at will employee.
So then I reached out to WashU seeking advice and support, and that’s when I found out this judge had a history of harassing his clerks, the law school officials, including several professors, and the clerkship’s director who still works at WashU to this day, knew about at the time I’d accepted the clerkship, decided not to share that with me because they wanted another student to clerk. So this is obviously all really devastating. It takes me a year to get back on my feet, and then I secured my dream job in the DC US Attorney’s office, moved back to DC intending to launch my career as prosecutor, put all this behind me, and I was two weeks into training at the USAO. I had already started working there when I received some really 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.
So I filed a formal judicial complaint, hired attorneys, and participated in the investigation into the now former judge. And he was subsequently removed from the bench for issues other than mistreating his clerks. He made a clarifying statement to the USAO, but by then, the damage had been done. It had been too long. I was pretty much blackballed from my dream job, and we’ll talk more about what the Legal Accountability Project does. But one thing I do often is share my experience with law students and attorneys. And what I always seek to underscore is that my negative clerkship experience is not rare, but it is one that is rarely shared publicly due to the culture of silence and fear surrounding the judiciary. One of deifying, judges and disbelieving law clerks and workplace mistreatment is an enormous well-being issue because countless young attorneys’ careers are harmed, their mental health is harmed by workplace mistreatment.
Molly Ranns: Aliza, thank you so much for being here today and sharing your very powerful story. Can you help us understand what the biggest well-being challenges facing law students and law clerks are today?
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. So there’s definitely been more dialogue recently about some well-being issues, mental health issues, substance abuse, and it’s important to talk about those because the lack of candid dialogue has precluded many people from getting help. But I also think that there is an enormous well-being issue in terms of workplace mistreatment during clerkships that has enormous and countless effects on new attorney’s health going forward.
I spend a lot of time speaking with current and former clerks who reach out to confide in me. They perceive me as a trusted source because I can relate, and they explain that they’ve never shared this with their law school, they’ve never filed a judicial complaint, but that they were severely mistreated, bullied, harassed, retaliated against.
And so many of these clerk stories stand out to me, not just because they are terrible, but because I can see the long-term mental health ramifications of workplace mistreatment on their relationships with their law degrees, on their relationships with the profession, on their ability to be healthy, functional attorneys. Workplace mistreatment drives people from their dream jobs. It drives them from the profession. I can think of many mistreated former clerks who are still in therapy, trying to deal with the issues of mistreatment they experience as clerks, and nobody’s really willing to talk about that. And so I think it’s important to do so.
JoAnn Hathaway: Why focus your efforts on law school-based reforms rather than, for example, judiciary-based reforms?
Aliza Shatzman: So, in March of 2022, I submitted written testimony for a house judiciary subcommittee hearing about the lack of workplace protections in the federal judiciary, sharing my experience in support of legislation that would extend Title 7 to law clerks and federal public defenders. Currently, folks like me with experiences like mine cannot sue our harassers and seek damages for harms done to our lives. So in the weeks following my written testimony, which is my first public statement, the response was very positive. And I began thinking through some ideas to make real reforms in judicial clerkships, the judiciary, and the legal profession.
So I began having initial conversations with a couple dozen law school clerkship, directors, and deans to identify resources that they provide for students considering clerkship, to identify good bosses and good mentors, and to avoid judges who mistreat their clerks. And I quickly discovered that my experience at WashU Law was not rare and that in far too many cases, there are either information gaps where law schools just don’t know about all the judges, or information withholding which is much more nefarious and is where law school clerkship, directors and deans decide to withhold information about judges who mistreat their clerks from the students who need it.
While my advocacy is also in collaboration with or critiquing of the judiciary, I focus on law schools because I think they are the ideal vectors for change. Whether you are a student or an alum, you will circle back with your law school to help you get information about judges, to help you get a clerkship. I think if even a handful of law schools were willing to step forward and make changes, the rest would follow suit quickly. And I’ve been heartened by the really positive response from many federal and state court judges in response to LAP’s efforts. But judiciary wide changes are going to take a lot of time. Judiciary leadership has just been notoriously unwilling to change. And so when I consider the two potential stakeholders, law schools and the judiciary, law schools seemed like the better vector for change.
Molly Ranns: We are now going to take just a short break from our conversation with Aliza Shatzman to thank our sponsors.
JoAnn Hathaway: Welcome back. We are thrilled to be here today with president and founder of the Legal Accountability Project, Aliza Shatzman.
Molly Ranns: Aliza, why is it important for attorney well-being to discuss judiciary workplace mistreatment so both on law school campuses and in the legal profession? And what are the ramifications of not addressing these issues?
Aliza Shatzman: So until I began speaking about these issues, there was nobody willing to engage in candid dialogue about the full range of clerkship experiences. If you go to a law school campus, the messaging around clerkships is just uniformly positive. But that’s not the full range of experiences, and it makes those who’ve experienced mistreatment feel like they are alone. One of the first questions every single current former clerk asks me when they speak with me is, have you heard from other people like me, or am I the only one.
The ramifications for not discussing these issues are enormous. We are perpetuating a culture of silence and fear around the judiciary. It is time to engage in candid dialogue about the full range of experiences. Because one thing I’m asked too frequently is how pervasive are these issues, with the subtext being, I haven’t heard too many experiences like yours, Aliza, therefore you must be the exception and not the rule. That is very incorrect. These issues are pervasive and unaddressed in both the federal and state courts, just like they are pervasive and unaddressed in the legal community, at law firms, at other legal jobs.
But until people are willing to share their experiences, it’ll continue to look like my experience is the exception and not the rule. We need to underscore for everyone experiencing mistreatment that they are not alone. And sharing our experiences is the first step toward making real change. Because I think when people hear my experience, it resonates with them, but there need to be more experiences like mine to resonate with more people.
JoAnn Hathaway: So what changes would you implement in law school campuses, in the judiciary, and in the legal profession to improve attorney well-being?
Aliza Shatzman: So the Legal Accountability Project’s major initiative this year is a centralized clerkships database. Innovative legal tech that democratizes information about judges as managers and clerkship experiences so that you as a student or a young alum considering a clerkship have as much information about as many judges as possible before you make what is clearly a really important decision about your career, considering the outsized influence that a clerkship and a relationship with a judge are going to have on your future career success.
We’re asking law schools to send our post clerkship survey to their alumni. They will share their experience with LAP anonymously if they choose, and in exchange, when the database goes live, students can read all the survey responses. This is better than what any law school can do internally, because right now, information about judges is capped by law school. If you go to a well-resourced school, you might get some info about judges depending on people sharing it with you. But if you don’t, you just won’t. And so, with this model, whether you go toa well-resourced school or a not so well-resourced school, there will no longer be a rat race for basic information about clerkships.
We hope that every law school will ultimately participate in this initiative. This is the best way to ensure positive clerkships and to ensure that historically marginalized groups can get the information they need, because they disproportionately lack this information. They lack the formal networks and information channels that help their peers get clerkships. But I do a lot of thought leadership, a lot of programming and public speaking aimed at encouraging law schools to make basic, just marginal changes even on their campuses, making the programming and messaging about clerkships realistic rather than overly optimistic, sharing information about judges who mistreat their clerks with students who need it, conducting an internal post clerkship survey of their alums and making that accessible to current students.
Those are just some basic changes law schools can make. We hope the legal profession will support these efforts because transparency benefits everybody. It increases overall attorney well-being. But for everybody listening who clerked or who appears before judges or who encourages students to clerk, I would implore you to consider the messaging around clerkships that you perpetuate, because the messaging around clerkships is uniformly positive. And while some people, I’m sure, had that perfect clerkship experience, many more had a much more nuanced experience and some had a negative one. And it’s about sharing that full range of experiences and being mindful when you counsel students to clerk, that it’s about being mindful about who you clerk for. It’s not about getting a clerkship period; it’s about a positive clerkship experience that will launch your career, promote positive well-being, promote a good relationship between you and your law degree, between you and the legal profession.
Because we are sending people into clerkships without the information they need. When young attorneys and their first job out of law school are having this negative experience, it weighs on them. It really affects their mental health. These are radically under discussed issues, and there is a real stigma against discussing them, against saying anything negative about a judge, and that is so detrimental to the future of our profession.
Molly Ranns: Aliza, how can we support law clerks that are experiencing mistreatment?
Aliza Shatzman: This is a great question, and one that I get a lot. So there are a real lack of accountability mechanisms and protections for clerks, whether they are state or federal. But when somebody confides in you about workplace mistreatment, it is about telling them that they are not alone. It is about trying to connect them with an attorney who can help. It is about encouraging them to share their experience with other law clerks they trust, another judge in the courthouse they trust. It is about encouraging them to get out of that work environment.
For federal clerks, they can engage in employee dispute resolution. That is the internal courthouse mechanism by which a law clerk could theoretically be reassigned to a different judge. Longer term, it’s also about empowering law clerks to stand up for themselves by filing complaints. But as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, the messaging around clerkships right now in the legal profession is really toxic. It makes law clerks experiencing mistreatment feel like they are alone. So the first step is underscoring that you are not alone, that your experience is not rare. If it feels like systems and forces are stacked against you, it’s because right now, unfortunately, they are. But we’re trying to change that for the next generation of attorneys.
I don’t think anyone should endure a toxic work environment for the prestige of the position. And I worry that that messaging occurs on law school campuses and it happens in clerkships as well. And then the fear of retaliation and reputational harm in the legal community is what keeps law clerks silent so it is about supporting those who want to report, who want to share their experience. Unfortunately, law clerks decide not to file a complaint, decide not to share their experience with anyone because they are worried that the judge for whom they clerked, their former employer, will do what my former employer did to me give a retaliatory negative reference.
So legal employers can push back against that by encouraging law clerks to be candid about their clerkship experience. I’ve spoken with former clerks. I’ve spoken with law firms where the former clerk was honest about the fact that they’d had a negative experience. They were worried the judge’s reference would be negative and the firms opted not to call that employer at all. I think that is a model for legal employers and that is how we are going to change the culture in the legal profession. That is how we’re going to say we are about empowering clerks, the next generation of attorneys, and that we will push back against abusive judges, judges who mistreat their clerks.
JoAnn Hathaway: So what positive changes have you seen over the past year and what areas still need improvement?
Aliza Shatzman: So what keeps me going in the face of setbacks is a couple of things. It is collaborating with many wonderful judges, including a judge who’s on our board of directors at the Legal Accountability Project. It gives me hope that so many judges are supportive that they want to make changes, that they understand that transparency benefits both judges and clerks. I’m also really heartened by the many clerkships, directors and deans working with me to ensure positive clerkship experiences who get it immediately. And I think that is great. I think there is a real hunger for change.
Some of the best feedback I’ve received over the past year since we launched is that I have changed the messaging, changed the programming on law school campuses, that I am changing the culture in the legal profession. I can see it from the many people who follow the Legal Accountability Project’s work, who reach out to me to share their experiences, to thank me, to ask what they can do to help. We are not there yet. The Legal Accountability Project is preparing to launch our clerkships database, and we need law schools to join us in these efforts, because ultimately, law school buy in is what’s going to make this clerkships database successful long term. It’s what will encourage more alums to share their experiences. It’s what will encourage students to use the database. And some law schools need to step forward and make changes to say that they support students and clerks, that they will push back against judges who mistreat their clerks.
So law schools need to make some more changes, and there are still some that are very challenging to engage with and say things to me like, we’re blessed to work with only good judges, all our alums have a positive experience, and mistreatment isn’t happening. It’s just women adjusting to their first jobs. And for my law school alma mater, it is our official policy that we don’t warn students about judges who mistreat their clerks. That’s a problem. And we encourage every law school to make some changes. Whether you’re ready to partner with LAP on the database or whether you’re contemplating internal change, every single law school can, must do better.
And then judiciary wide changes are also necessary. There is a dearth of law clerk complaints because the current systems chill reporting. As we’ve discussed, law clerks fear reputational harm, they fear retaliation. They perceive that no one in the US Courts is a trusted source to address their law clerk concerns.
We need to pass the Judiciary Accountability Act or JAA and extend Title 7. We need to reform the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act and the Employee Dispute Resolution Plan to make them more complainant friendly, to support clerks, to encourage them to report, and to protect them against retaliation by the judges who are committing misconduct. So we’ve made a ton of progress over the past year, but there is still a lot more to do.
Molly Ranns: Aliza, as we wrap up today, can you help pour listeners understand what they can do to help improve law clerk and attorney well-being overall?
Aliza Shatzman: Of course, I think that fostering candid dialogue about the full range of clerkship experiences is the best way to ensure that people can share their experiences safely, that they know that they are not alone. What keeps law clerks silent, what makes them suffer in silence, is this belief that they are alone. By sharing our experiences and extending that support to the next generation of folks, we can say, we support you, we encourage you to share your experience, I think that is the best way we can change the culture in the legal community and thereby improve attorney well-being across the profession. Whether you are clerking right now, whether you clerk 20 years ago, it’s about fostering candid dialogue. That is the best way to change things going forward.
JoAnn Hathaway: Well, it seems we’ve come to the end of our show. We’d like to thank our guest today, Aliza Shatzman, for a wonderful program.
Molly Ranns: If our listeners would like to follow up with you, Aliza, what is the best way to reach you?
Aliza Shatzman: So our website is legalaccountabilityproject.org. They can go there to learn about our work, support us, join our mailing list. I’m very active on LinkedIn and Twitter @alizashatzman and @theLAP(ph), I post about these issues every day. And you can also email me if you’d like to chat about what you can do to help get your law school on board, what you can do to help make changes throughout the profession.
Molly Ranns: Thank you again, Aliza. This has been another edition of the State Bar of Michigan on Balance podcast.
JoAnn Hathaway: I’m Joanne Hathaway.
Molly Ranns: And I’m Molly Ranns. Until next time, thank you for listening.
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