Fighting for Transparency in the Legal Field with Aliza Shatzman, President of the Legal Accountability Project
In this episode of On Record PR, Leslie Richards goes on record with Aliza Shatzman, the president and founder of the Legal Accountability Project, to discuss how to help law clerks receive the support they need to move forward in their careers. The Legal Accountability Project is a nonprofit aimed at ensuring that law clerks have positive clerkship experiences and extending support and resources to those who do not. Aliza earned her BA from Williams College and her JD from Washington University School of Law. After law school, Aliza clerked in DC Superior Court during the 2019-2020 term. In March 2022, Aliza submitted written testimony for a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the lack of workplace protections in the federal judiciary, detailing her personal experience with harassment and retaliation by a former DC judge, in order to advocate for the Judiciary Accountability Act legislation that would extend Title VII protections to judiciary employees, including law clerks. Aliza now writes and speaks regularly about judicial accountability and clerkships. She has been published in numerous law journals and other forums.
Tell us about the Legal Accountability Project – its goals, major initiatives, and why the focus on law schools as partners.
The Legal Accountability Project seeks to ensure that law clerks have a positive clerkship experience and then extend support and resources to the ones who don’t. I began advocating for judicial accountability because of my personal experience with gender discrimination, harassment, and retaliation during and after my DC Superior Court clerkship, which I first shared publicly in written testimony last March for a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing about workplace protections in the federal judiciary.
We work on several major initiatives in collaboration with law schools aimed at increasing transparency in the clerkship application process, an issue that leads too many new attorneys each year to unwittingly enter unsafe or unsupportive work environments because they lack information about judges, and we also address the lack of judicial accountability for both state and federal judges who mistreat their clerks. I think of the nonprofit as the resource I wish existed as a WashU Law student applying for a clerkship, a law clerk experiencing mistreatment and unsure where to go for help, and a former clerk engaging in the formal judicial complaint process.
A handful of law schools conduct a post-clerkship survey of their law clerk alumni. Some, but not all, keep those in searchable databases for students and alums, and they include alums who are judges to look at. They understand that these do not capture the scope of the problem because law clerks who’ve experienced mistreatment are notoriously unwilling to report that back to their law schools, fearing reputational harm in the legal community for saying something less than glowing about a judge, as well as fear of retaliation by the judges who mistreated them. Unfortunately, the tone of some of these post-clerkship surveys that law schools currently send out is really, “You had a positive clerkship experience, right?”
What I say to law schools is that no law school has a monopoly on information about judges. Nobody knows about all the judges. Every school has a ceiling on the number of judges they can keep track of, and this totally depends on who alums have clerked for in the past and their willingness to report back on their experiences. As we’ve discussed, law clerks who had a negative experience don’t report back, so administrators who are advising students on clerkships have information that is incomplete at best.
What LAP seeks to do is democratize information about judges through our centralized Clerkships Database, a repository of post-clerkship surveys with a variety of information students need to know before clerking. Mistreatment is definitely something we seek to capture in a way law schools troublingly have been unwilling to ask about, but there’s other stuff you’d want to know before clerking: how the judge provides feedback, whether you get writing and courtroom experience, how many co-clerks you’ll have, whether you can take vacation – all kinds of normal stuff you might want to know. Stuff you’d get to know if you pursued other private or public sector employment.
In exchange, when the database goes live, students are going to get access to reading the reports. Why is this better than anything a law school could ever do internally? Students don’t just read their alums reports, which is the current system. They can read the reports of all the alums at all the schools participating in this database. This is, based on my personal experience, my conversations with more than 70 law schools’ worth of deans and clerkship directors, and more conversations with law clerks and students that I can count, the best way on the front end to ensure positive clerkship experiences and to diversify the clerkship applicant pool and pipeline. It is disproportionately historically marginalized groups – women, non-white, first-gen, and LGBTQ students – who disproportionately lack access to information about judges through formal networks and information channels that are helping some of their peers obtain clerkships.
In conjunction with this, I do a lot of law school programming, so I visited more than 20 law schools this year – sharing my experience, talking about the scope of the problem, and talking about solutions, including LAP’s resources, which are really going to transform not only the clerkship application process but the legal profession for the next generation of attorneys. It’s about empowering students to demand safer workplaces, increased equity, and transparency in the process, and also to inspire current and former clerks who’ve experienced mistreatment to finally share that less-than-positive experience in a way they have historically not done.
Leslie Richards: It sounds like you’ve identified a place in the system that has been a black box, and you’re bringing transparency and light to it. It sounds like important work that addresses some of the bigger issues in legal around diversity, equity, and inclusion. This starts at the very beginning of that journey and, as you said, starts to democratize it a little bit, which I think is really interesting.
Aliza Shatzman: Law schools have conveyed that clerkships are their express purview. They have, for a long time, resisted efforts at standardization and transparency. Every school does things a little bit differently. Some schools have very robust resources, multiple career services, professionals dedicated to this, and lots of programming. Some schools have fewer resources, and it’s really not a statement about their rankings. They’re not super related as to how many clerks a school is sending and what the resources look like. I think law schools are the ideal vector for change on this issue. Unfortunately, law schools don’t love me saying this, but that’s okay. Some of them have historically been part of the problem, sending students into clerkships they know or suspect are less than positive in order to increase their clerkship numbers, and bolster public perception of the schools.
I don’t think it is mean-spirited. It is more that there is uniformly positive messaging around clerkships on these law school campuses, but it goes a step further. Several of our professor moderators at LAP’s events said things to me privately afterward and also publicly to the groups of students, to the effect of, “We encourage people to accept a clerkship even if they know it’s going to be taxing or difficult because the experience is worth it.” They say, “That’s what I did, and it was beneficial.” I worry about that messaging and framing. Several of those professors followed up with me after the event to say, “I am preparing students, especially historically marginalized groups, particularly women, for the legal profession, that is.”
My response, respectfully, is that my goal is to prepare law students and empower them to demand the legal profession that should be. One of the biggest boulders I push up the hill is, I’m talking about the messaging around clerkships, changing the culture in the legal community. Nobody should willingly accept a taxing clerkship experience. There is no guarantee that if you experience mistreatment, as my experience illustrates, that will stop when the clerkship ends. Judges, particularly life-tenured federal judges, have enormous far-reaching power over their former clerks’ lives, careers, and reputations. Law schools have historically been part of the problem, but I definitely think they can and should be part of the solution, and I feel that every law school can and should be an ally.
Leslie Richards: I think the other thing that’s interesting is that the definition of “taxing” can be varied. The framing of it as something that’s taxing makes it sound like it’s just about hard work, which everyone in legal expects. That’s very different from something that gets at your core personhood and lacks a demonstration of respect for you professionally.
Aliza Shatzman: The response has overall been quite positive, particularly from the judiciary. I spend a lot of time speaking with both state and federal judges, who are generally very supportive, and I appreciate that many have been willing to reach out to their alma maters and schools from which they hire to convey support and encourage those schools to partner with the Legal Accountability Project. They understand that transparency benefits both law students and judges, and it helps everybody identify a good fit because not every student is a good fit with every judge. Personalities clash. That’s not necessarily mistreatment, but that does not help anybody. Judges understand that.
Why not, on the front end, help everybody identify a positive experience? Judges also understand that this initiative is going to increase diversity in their clerkship, applicant pools, and clerkship pipeline, and then a larger change in the legal profession in terms of diversifying the face of the profession, including who rises to and through the judiciary.
Judges convey to me that their applicant pools are overwhelmingly white, and they are overwhelmingly male. This is in line with the limited data that exists about diversity in law clerk hiring. It is historically marginalized groups who disproportionately lack access to the information they need in order to feel empowered to apply for a clerkship, and these students want to know the judges hire diverse candidates and are sensitive to diverse identities. Judges need to be a little intentional in their hiring in order to diversify their clerkship hires, but they appreciate outside efforts to assist. Judges also know that this type of internal database and post-clerkship survey already exists at a handful of law schools. They went to many of the law schools that conduct these post-clerkship surveys. They perceive there to be negative survey responses in there, and they perceive that law schools are warning students to avoid certain judges.
They absolutely overestimate both of those things, but it’s interesting that they are aware of and okay with that. Besides a couple of judges making ridiculous statements recently about law clerk moratoria on hiring, we really don’t see judges saying, “I’m not going to hire from the T-5 because this school has an internal database.” They’re just not, because those are excellent candidates, and they are fortunate to go to well-resourced schools. Whether you go to a well-resourced school or a less well-resourced school, there shouldn’t be a horse race for the basic truth about clerkships and the basic truth about judges as managers. The response from the judiciary has been quite positive. I’m interfacing productively with many law schools. We definitely face the first mover problem in terms of getting law schools on board. That’s okay. This is a long-term process, and I appreciate the many deans and clerkship directors with whom I work very productively.
There are a handful that say things to me like, “We’re blessed to work with only good judges, and all our alums have a positive clerkship experience.” My alma mater has told me, “It is our official policy that we don’t warn students about judges who harass their clerks.” One said to me, “It’s not harassment. It’s just women adjusting to their first jobs.” Then there’s one clerkship director who just refuses to speak with me after a year of advocacy and outreach in conjunction with students and professors.
That’s the minority, and we think we will get them on board eventually. I think some law school administrators perceive me to be criticizing them. I don’t mean to criticize the system, and really encourage everybody to be part of the solution. A couple of law school clerkship directors are quite entrenched, and that entrenchment benefits them, but it certainly does not benefit their students and alums who continue to have negative experiences. The alums either tell their law schools, and it falls on deaf ears, or they do not tell their law schools because they perceive that the response will be negative, so they tell me instead. Every law school is different. I spend a lot of time thinking through a strategy for every school, every dean, and clerkship director in conjunction with student orgs and alums.
Tell us about the experience that led you to all of this important work.
My experience is not rare, but it is one that is rarely shared publicly due to the culture of silence and fear that the legal community has created around the judiciary and the larger cultural encouragement of silence around workplace mistreatment.
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 DCAUSAs and DC prosecutors appeared before DC Superior Court judges. I hoped to get a crash course in trial lawyering and judicial decision-making. I went to WashULaw, and the messaging around clerkships at my law school, like at every law school, was uniformly positive. I was told that I would develop a lifelong mentor-mentee relationship with the judge for whom I clerked and that the position would confer only professional benefits. I was applying for clerkships in 2017 and 2018, and at the time I don’t remember anybody talking about the potential downsides of clerking, the enormous power disparities between judges and clerks, the fact that judges are exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, and the fact that these are enormously isolated work environments.
The judges can exert far-reaching power over their former clerks’ lives, careers, and reputations. I was told to apply broadly, meaning across the US, across the political spectrum, and to accept the first clerkship I was offered, so I did all those things. I took my four DOJ internships’ worth of experience. I packed up and moved to DC, intending to launch my career as a homicide prosecutor. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Beginning just weeks into this clerkship in late August and early September 2019, 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 and aggressive and that I had personality issues. The day I found out I’d passed the DC bar exam, a big day in any young attorney’s life, he called me into his chambers, got in my face, and said, “You’re bossy. I know bossy because my wife is bossy.”
I was just devastated. This was my first job out of law school. This judge was clearly singling me out for mistreatment. I remember crying on the walk to work in the morning and crying myself to sleep at night. I just wanted to be reassigned to a different judge for the remainder of the clerkship, which was supposed to last a year. My workplace in the DC courts did not have an Employee Dispute Resolution plan in place that might have enabled me to be reassigned. I knew that I needed a full year of work experience to be eligible for my dream job at the DC US Attorney’s Office, which was the reason I’d accepted this clerkship. I confided in some attorney mentors, who advised me to stick it out, so I tried.
We eventually transitioned to remote work during the pandemic. In March 2020, I moved back to Philadelphia to stay with my parents and worked remotely. The judge basically ignored me for six weeks. Calls, texts, and emails went unanswered. He communicated with me exclusively through my male co-clerk, and then he called me up in late April 2020 and told me that he was ending my clerkship early because I made him uncomfortable and lacked respect for him. He didn’t want to get into it, and then he hung up on me. I called DC Courts’ HR. They told me there was nothing they could do because HR doesn’t regulate judges and that judges and law clerks have a unique relationship. Then they asked me whether I knew that I was an at-will employee. Then I reached out to my law school, to WashULaw, seeking advice and support, and I found out, this judge had a history of harassing his clerks. That law school administrators, including the clerkships director and several professors, knew about this at the time I accepted the clerkship, and they decided to withhold that information from me because they wanted another student to clerk.
It took me about a year to get back on my feet. I did draft a formal judicial complaint and connected with some DC judges, who directed me to the local Judicial Conduct Commission. I decided to wait to file it until I had a new job because I was already worried this judge would retaliate against me. The judge had told me in our last conversation that if contacted, he would provide a neutral reference. I secured my dream job in the DC US Attorney’s Office and moved back to DC in the summer of 2021, intending to put this behind me and launch my career as a prosecutor. If I had stayed in that job, who knows where my career path would’ve taken me? However, I received some pretty devastating news two weeks into training that altered the course of my life. I was told that 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.
I remember crying on the phone with USAO leadership, crying on the phone with DC Court’s leadership. The USAO wouldn’t tell me what had been said about me. They would not give me the opportunity to challenge the negative reference. They said the decision was final. A couple of days later, they reached out, invited me to interview for another job with the office, and then revoked that offer too, based on this judge’s same negative reference. I was two years into my legal career. This judge seemed to have enormous power to ruin my reputation and my life, so I filed a judicial complaint with the DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, the regulatory body for DC judges who are Senate-confirmed, hired attorneys. In the summer and fall of 2021, I participated in the investigation into the now-former judge.
We were partway through the investigation when I found out he was on administrative leave pending an investigation into other misconduct at the time he filed the negative reference about me. The US Attorney’s Office was never alerted of the circumstances surrounding that negative reference. In January 2022, pursuant to the terms of our private settlement agreement and separate from anything the judiciary can or would do for a law clerk or former clerk, the former judge issued a clarifying statement, addressing some but not all of his outrageous claims about me. By then, the damage had been done. It had been way too long, and I was pretty much blackballed from what I thought was my dream job.
My experience, as I said earlier, while not rare, is one that is rarely shared publicly. What keeps law clerks silent and fearful in the face of mistreatment is the fear that what happened to me will happen to them. Law clerks are not protected by Title VII, the Civil Rights Act. Folks like me cannot sue our harassers and seek damages for harms done to our lives. There are also no protections for law clerks against retaliation by judges, and much of the retaliation by judges against clerks is insidious. It is not as explicit as the kinds of negative references the former judge was submitting about me. It is when the US Attorney’s Office, the public defender’s office, or the law firm calls the judge. They say, “Eh, that law clerk was okay.” That lukewarm statement has the effect of destroying a former clerk’s career, and there is nothing to prevent judges from doing that, from making that lukewarm statement, or sending that lukewarm email. That is a question of a larger cultural change in the legal community.
You recently testified before the DC Council about oversight over reforms to the DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, the regulatory body for DC’s local judges. What was that like, and what was the result of that testimony?
The DC courts are regulated by Congress. They are Article I federal courts. The DC Council also has some oversight because DC is not a state. The regulatory body for DC judges, which is controlled by Congress as well, is financed through the federal budget, and it is called the DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure. They also consider judges for reappointment for a second 15-year term, and they basically serve as a rubber-stamping function. They are notoriously unwilling to discipline judges. In their more than 52-year history, they have never disciplined, reprimanded, or removed a judge for gender discrimination, harassment, or retaliation, an enormous red flag that something is wrong. Their chair and vice chair are a current federal judge and a former local judge. I have been saying for a very long time that processes, procedures, and statutes need to be revised, that there needs to be increased oversight over this commission, and that their notorious unwillingness to discipline judges chills complaints by law clerks.
I had a really trying experience with the commission after I filed my complaints. It was ultimately dismissed after a very painful set of interactions with them in which the special counsel said things to me like, “You must have done something wrong because the judge hired you in the first place.” When they dismissed my complaint at the time, I felt shame, but that did not halt my advocacy in any way. I think the commission and the former judge hoped the fact that my complaint had been dismissed would silence me. It did not. I came to realize that the vast majority of law clerk complaints are dismissed and that very few were filed in the first place. Each year there is a judiciary committee oversight hearing for the commission, and that is where I testified a few months ago. I advocated for some basic and very important changes, including data dissemination, producing annual reports about the outcomes of judicial misconduct complaints, which they had not done since 2018, and procedural due process rights for law clerks.
When your complaint is dismissed, you don’t receive findings of fact, and you can’t appeal. Judges can appeal. I don’t think judges should lead this commission. I think there should be clear timelines for review and a whole host of very basic reforms. It was very challenging. When people testify before DC Council and testify before Congress, they don’t usually come face-to-face with the people who dismiss their complaints. I was face-to-face with the two judges, whom I perceive as destroying my legal career, candidly, and they were not happy with my testimony. They made some statements. That’s unfortunate. In conjunction with our testimony, mine and theirs, they did make some announcements about increasing data transparency, which is great. They are making some basic changes, which is great, but those are just the first step. I think that this commission needs to only handle judicial reappointments.
The DC Court should be covered under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act. That is the federal complaint process for all Article III judges and some Article I judges. This would eliminate the DC Commission’s jurisdiction to mishandle judicial misconduct investigations.
That is an uphill battle, and we will see, but I think sharing my experience is important. I think advocating on this issue is important, regardless of how personally taxing it might be for me. Judges have been generally quite supportive of my advocacy of the Legal Accountability Project. The DC courts and the DC Commission are certainly exceptions to that, and I think that’s very sad that in the face of a law clerk sharing their experience advocating for change, there is so much burying of heads in the sand and so much stonewalling. The DC courts have been unwilling to engage with me for the past 13-14 months since I began advocating on this issue.
I’m not going anywhere. LAP is just growing in influence, gaining steam. Advocating for increased transparency and workplace protections in the DC courts can’t be the only thing I do, but it is certainly personally important to me. Personalizing my advocacy work is important. I think it’s what gets me in the door with many law schools and other stakeholders. There’s never a question as to why me, why now? Why is this the solution you’re proposing? But it also means I take setbacks very personally. I certainly took the response from the DC Commission very personally. Nobody likes to be criticized or dismissed. With every setback with a law school where they say, “Everybody has a positive experience. It’s our official policy not to warn students,” that means a whole class of students is going to go another year without urgently needed resources, and it makes me very sad to know that what happened to me will happen to other clerks.
What gives you hope? Where do you see little cracks in the system that might open up into something that’s more equitable and more transparent?
A couple of things. So many current and former clerks, attorneys at all stages in their careers, just random people, reach out to me every day on social media and via email to thank me and confide in me. As I have those one-on-one conversations with current and former clerks, I see them becoming more empowered. They share their experience with me for the first time. Then they are empowered to reach out to their law school to share their experience for the first time, advocate for change, and help protect the next generation of young attorneys against workplace mistreatment. The overall positive response from the legal community gives me a lot of hope. I think when we launched the Legal Accountability Project last June, there was probably some skepticism. Is this girl just going to be out there antagonizing the judiciary? What is this going to mean for us?
I’m clearly not out there criticizing judges. I criticize judiciary leadership sometimes for their unwillingness to make reforms, but that is not personal; that is criticizing the system. I’ve honed the messaging in collaboration with some wonderful deans and clerkship directors to bring more people in. One of the other things that give me hope: not every law school is a willing partner right now, but some are. There are wonderful deans out there with whom I am working who just got it immediately. When I first reached out to them last spring, they spent a long time on the phone with me. They knew all about what I was doing. They have been great partners through and through. They convey that I have changed the messaging and programming around clerkships on their campuses and that the Clerkships Database solves an enormous problem in the legal community, and that is fantastic. I think some of these wonderful administrators are going to help me lead the charge on these issues. I certainly can’t do it alone, but I think the positive response has been surprising and really encouraging.
What’s the best way for people to reach out to you?
Our website is legalaccountabilityproject.org. They can visit the website, join the mailing list, and support us. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org, and I love hearing from law clerks, students, and alumni who want to reach out to their administrations. I love having those conversations. I’m very active on social media, particularly on LinkedIn and Twitter, @AlizaShatzman, talking about these issues every single day.
Learn more about Leslie Richards
Listen to more episodes of On Record PR