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Aliza Shatzman

Aliza Shatzman is the President and Founder of The Legal Accountability Project, a nonprofit aimed at ensuring that law clerks have positive clerkship experiences, while 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 D.C. Superior Court during the 2019-2020 term.

In March 2022, Aliza submitted congressional testimony about the lack of workplace protections in the federal judiciary, detailing how she was harassed and retaliated against during and after her clerkship, 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, clerkships, and diversity in the courts. She has been published in numerous law journals and mainstream publications, including the Columbia Law Review, Harvard Journal on Legislation, Yale Law & Policy Review, NYU Journal of Legislation & Public Policy, UCLA Journal of Gender & Law, Administrative Law Review, Law360, Above the Law, Balls & Strikes, Slate, Bloomberg Law, and Ms. Magazine.

What is The Legal Accountability Project, and what prompted you to start it?

The Legal Accountability Project (LAP) is a nonprofit aimed at ensuring that law clerks have positive clerkship experiences, while extending support and resources to those who do not. I launched LAP in June 2022 after I was harassed and retaliated against during and after my DC Superior Court clerkship - an experience I first shared publicly in written testimony for a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing in March 2022 – to correct injustices I personally experienced, including a lack of transparency in the clerkship application process that causes too many new attorneys each year to enter unsafe work environments because they lack information about judges; a lack of diversity in the clerkship applicant pool and judicial chambers; and a lack of accountability for judges who mistreat their clerks.

I decided to clerk in D.C. Superior Court during the 2019-2020 term because I aspired to be a homicide prosecutor in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO), and I knew that D.C. prosecutors appeared before D.C. judges. I thought I’d get a crash course in trial lawyering and judicial decision-making. The messaging at my law school, Washington University in St. Louis School of Law, around clerkships – like at most law schools – was uniformly positive. I was told I would develop a lifelong mentor/mentee relationship with the judge for whom I clerked, and that the position would confer only professional benefits. No one talked about the potential downsides to clerking – the enormous power disparities between judges and clerks that makes it incredibly difficult to speak up about mistreatment; the fact that law clerks lack basic workplace protections, and judges are rarely held accountable for misconduct; and the far-reaching authority judges can exert over their former clerks’ careers and reputations, long after the clerkship has ended.

I began my clerkship in August 2019 and, beginning just weeks in, the judge began to harass me and discriminate against me because of my gender. He would kick me out of the courtroom, telling me that I made him “uncomfortable” and that “just felt more comfortable” with my male co-clerk. He told me I was “aggressive,” “nasty,” and that I had “personality issues.” The day I learned I passed the Bar Exam—a big day in my life—he called me into his chambers and told me, “You’re bossy. And I know bossy because my wife is bossy!”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I moved back to Philadelphia to stay with my parents and work remotely beginning in March 2020. The judge ignored me for six weeks—my calls, texts, and emails went unanswered—and he resorted to communicating with me through my male co-clerk. Eventually, in late April 2020, the judge called me and told me he was firing me because I made him “uncomfortable” and “lacked respect for” him, but he “didn’t want to get into it.”

I reached out to WashU Law for support and assistance. I learned that the judge had a history of harassing his clerks and that several individuals from WashU Law, including the clerkships director and several professors, knew this at the time I accepted the clerkship. They chose to withhold this information from me—because they wanted another student to clerk.

It took me a year to get back on my feet, before I finally secured my dream job in the D.C. USAO. I moved back to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2021, intending to put my negative clerkship experience behind me and launch my career as a prosecutor. I was two weeks into training when I received 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 “would not be able to obtain a security clearance;” and that my job offer was therefore revoked. Several days later, the USAO extended an offer to interview for a different job with the office. They revoked that offer too, based on the judge’s same negative reference.

I was only two years into my legal career. This judge seemed to have limitless power to ruin my reputation and destroy my career. I filed a formal judicial complaint; hired attorneys; and participated in the investigation into the now-former judge. Partway through the investigation, I learned the judge was on administrative leave, pending an investigation into other misconduct, at the time he filed the negative reference. The USAO was not alerted of those circumstances.

In January 2022, pursuant to the terms of a private settlement agreement—separate from anything the judiciary could or would do for a former clerk—the former judge issued a “clarifying statement” to the USAO, addressing some but not all of his outrageous claims about me. However, the damage had been done. I was blackballed from what I thought was my dream job.

Since I first publicly shared my experience with the Subcommittee in March 2022, I have shared my experience numerous times. My negative clerkship experience is not rare. Yet it is one that is rarely shared publicly, due to the legal community’s culture of silence and fear—one of deifying judges and disbelieving law clerks.

In my current role, I aim to foster honest dialogue on law school campuses, throughout the legal profession, and in the judiciary about the full range of clerkship experiences. I also seek empower law students to demand increased transparency and equity in the clerkship system – particularly from their law schools; and to inspire current and former clerks who have experienced mistreatment to speak openly about their experiences, perhaps for the first time.

How does the Legal Accountability Project collaborate with law schools and other stakeholders to address issues faced by law clerks in the courts?

LAP is the resource I wish existed when I was a WashU Law student applying for clerkships; a law clerk experiencing mistreatment and unsure where to turn for help; and a former clerk engaging in the formal judicial complaint process. LAP works on several initiatives in collaboration with law schools and other stakeholders – including affinity and local bar associations, other nonprofits, the judiciary, law firms, and the legal technology community – aimed at increasing transparency, diversity, equity, and accountability in judicial clerkships, the judiciary, and the legal profession.

LAP’s initiatives are premised on this basic fact pattern. I speak often with law students, and I ask: How do you obtain information about judges? Some students say they’d ask someone. Who are they going to ask? Law school clerkship directors and deans tell students to “do their research” about judges before applying for clerkships. But what research are they going to do, when so little information about judges as managers, chambers culture, and clerkship experiences, is available to students?

A handful of law schools – primarily the top schools – conduct post-clerkship surveys of their law clerk alumni. Some but not all law schools save these in internal searchable databases, accessible to students and alumni, including alumni who are judges. Law schools generally understand these do not capture the full range of clerkship experiences, because law clerks who experienced mistreatment are notoriously unwilling to share that with the law schools who facilitated those clerkships. Troublingly, the tone of some of these law school post-clerkship surveys is often, “You had a positive clerkship experience, right?”

No law school has a monopoly on information about judges. No one knows about all the judges. Yet every school has a ceiling on the number of judges they can keep track of. This depends on who alumni have clerked for in the past and their willingness to share information.

An important aspect of LAP’s work is a Centralized Clerkships Database, innovative legal technology that democratizes information about judges. It’s a repository of post-clerkship surveys submitted by law clerks from courthouses nation-wide. When this goes live this school year, law students at participating institutions can log into the Database and read all the surveys, in order to identify judges who will create positive work environments and avoid judges who mistreat their clerks. The Database replaces the “whisper networks” which are currently one of the only ways for prospective clerks to obtain information about judges. This transparency initiative will ensure that law students have as much information about as many judges as possible, before making important career decisions, considering the outsized influence that a judicial clerkship, and a law clerk’s relationship with a judge, have on future career success. We are the largest independent repository of clerkship information.

LAP has created a post-clerkship survey incorporating information students report they’d like to know before clerking, and that clerks report they wish they’d known before clerking. Law clerks receive the survey from one of several sources: their law school, LAP, a local bar association, an affinity bar association, or a judge. After law clerk alumni create accounts with LAP, they can submit a survey anonymously if they choose. The option to submit anonymously; the national, centralized nature of the Database; and the fact that judges will not be able to read clerks’ surveys, all vastly increase the breadth and candor of responses. LAP’s survey asks about mistreatment, as well as other important information: how judges provide feedback, whether clerks get writing and courtroom experience; what hours they work; and whether they can take vacation. The survey also includes aggregate ratings about judges and overall clerkship experiences (positive, neutral, or negative).

The Database is a subscription model. Law schools will pay LAP $5 per student per year, based on their total JD enrollment, when the Database goes live. This resource will ensure that students considering clerkship have as much information about judges as possible, prior to commencing the application process. LAP’s Database is better than any law school’s internal database because students can read surveys by clerks’ nation-wide, not just their alumni’s surveys. Based on my personal experience as a law student and law clerk; my conversations with more than 80 law schools’ deans and clerkship directors; and more conversations with law students and law clerks than I can count, this is the best way to ensure positive clerkship experiences and to empower students to make the career decision that’s best for them.

It is particularly important for law students to identify a beneficial clerkship and avoid an experience like mine, considering the lack of workplace protections for judiciary employees. The federal judiciary is – outrageously - exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, meaning that people like me, with experiences like mine, cannot sue our harassers and seek damages for harms done to our lives, careers, reputations, and future earning potential.

How does LAP empower more diverse students to pursue clerkships?

LAP’s Clerkships Database will empower a more diverse group of students—with “diversity” defined broadly to include gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, first generation status, geographic, political, disability, law school, and veteran status—to pursue clerkships, by arming everyone with the information they need before applying. This initiative will bolster schools’ clerkship programs by empowering more students who might not previously have pursued clerkships, to do so. These students regularly reach out to LAP to convey that they would clerk, if they had the necessary information to identify judges who create positive work environments.

Anecdotally, historically marginalized groups experience disproportionate mistreatment clerkships. They also disproportionately lack access to formal networks and information channels that help some of their peers obtain clerkships. LAP’s Database corrects this inequity. Transparency benefits everyone, but it particularly benefits diverse applicants, who have unique considerations when deciding whether and where to clerk, including whether judges hire diverse applicants and are sensitive to diverse identities.

Judges understand this, which is why LAP has enjoyed support from many federal and state judges. Judges regularly convey to LAP, as well as to their law school alma maters and schools from which they hire, that transparency benefits both judges and clerks, by helping everyone to identify positive working relationships. Judges want to hire more diverse clerks, but they are constrained by their pool of candidates—that is, by who applies. I do think judges must be more intentional about their hiring – including hiring outside the top few law schools and outside the top 10 percent of law school classes.

By fostering beneficial clerkship experiences, LAP helps to shape the next generation of enthusiastic attorneys. LAP believes that every student and alumnus who wants to clerk, should feel empowered to pursue a judicial clerkship in a safe work environment. Applicants must be mindful about who they clerk for: they currently cannot be, due to the opacity of clerkship hiring. At a minimum, a judicial chambers must be safe, respectful, and free from discrimination and harassment.

The Clerkships Database seems like a common-sense solution. Why do you think no one has proposed this before now, and what are the biggest roadblocks you face as you pitch this to law schools?

Law schools are slow to change. They’re cautious, and they have historically prioritized their relationships with the judiciary (even judges known to mistreat their clerks) over their duty to all of their students and alumni.

Most law schools have been generally open to dialogue with me about these issues. Some law schools believe the status quo benefits a handful of deans, clerkship directors, and faculty members. Some don’t know who would benefit from increased transparency. However, the opacity of the current system does but not benefit any students. LAP’s Database isn’t just a diversity, equity, and inclusion initiative and a transparency initiative: it is also a student and alumni wellness initiative. Law schools should care about the well-being, safety, and happiness of their students and alumni, especially when they push them into these coveted, yet troublingly unregulated, judiciary work environments.

I encounter a lot of fear from law school career services professionals. Fear that judges will oppose this initiative and blackball law schools for participating. Fear of dissuading any students from clerking. Yet many judges support LAP’s Clerkships Database, which they have been conveying to law schools. And what I say often to law schools is this: you should not encourage your students to clerk for judges who oppose transparency and believe their chambers culture should not be known to applicants.

Law schools have the power here: they should stop sending students to clerk for known harassers. They can send a powerful message to the judiciary by collaborating with LAP that it’s time to make changes. LAP’s Database encourages every judge to take a hard look at their role as a manager, and it’s already changing judiciary behavior. In order to continue receiving the best candidates from the best schools, the judiciary will need to make some changes too.

I appreciate that many judges reach out to law schools to convey support. Law schools also reach out to judges to discuss this initiative, and those conversations are positive and productive. But law schools need to be willing to take those steps. Some are; some aren’t (yet).

I encourage everyone to consider clerking – but students must be mindful about who they clerk for. They currently cannot be. LAP emphasizes identifying positive, beneficial clerkship experiences. I continue to worry that some law schools are obsessed with the number of clerkship placements, period, and they prioritize raw numbers over student and alumni well-being.

LAP appreciates judiciary support for this initiative. But I worry about how much law schools focus on whether judges support this. It should be a red flag if some judges don’t support this. The judiciary has resisted efforts at transparency and standardization, unlike many other sectors of the legal community and other professions, who have undergone a #MeToo type reckoning.

LAP is fostering larger cultural change in the legal community. Law schools have historically been part of the problem, but they can—and must—be part of the solution. They are the ideal vectors for change, considering their central role in clerkship advising and their relationships with the judiciary. They should be the first to step forward and make necessary changes to protect the next generation of attorneys against workplace mistreatment.

You launch LAP 18 months ago and are rolling out your first major initiative this school year. What do you envision to be the future of LAP, say, 5 years from now?

This year, LAP’s Clerkships Database will supplement law schools’ existing clerkship resources. Five years from now, I hope that all 100+ law schools will partner with LAP on the Clerkships Database, that we will supplant law schools’ existing resources, and that LAP’s Clerkships Database will be the go-to source for law students and alumni considering clerkships. Transparency is the missing piece in conversations about both diversity and clerkship advising. Legal technology is the solution.

LAP’s Database is just one initiative we’re working on, although getting this off the ground takes up much of my time. LAP is creating an Employment Attorney Consortium to connect mistreated law clerks with attorneys who can help. To take the enormous judicial accountability steps I took, law clerks need to hire attorneys. I am enormously grateful for everything my attorneys did for me and, unfortunately, there are a dearth of employment attorneys willing to take on law clerk cases.

LAP also intends to conduct a workplace culture assessment of the federal and state judiciary – a climate survey that will finally answer the question, “How pervasive are gender discrimination, harassment, bullying, and retaliation in the judiciary?” The dearth of data on both judicial misconduct and diversity issues in the courts enables judges to get away with mistreating their clerks. It also enables judiciary leadership to discount the scope of these problems and disclaim responsibility for correcting problematic behaviors in their ranks. Quantifying the scope of these problems is the first step toward crafting effective solutions.

LAP does a substantial amount of programming about judicial accountability, clerkships, and diversity in the courts, particularly on law school campuses. This will continue to be an important aspect of LAP’s work. It’s important to reach students early, to continue changing the messaging around clerkships on law school campuses, and to ensure they’re asking the right questions before clerking.

I also do a lot of thought leadership – writing, speaking, podcast interviews, etc. Public education is crucial. I still encounter people who did not know that the judiciary is exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. LAP works to change the laws and change the culture. There will always be more work to do in this space.

As I reflect on everything LAP has accomplished over the past 18 months, I am incredibly optimistic about the future. LAP has sparked a clerkship transparency movement. We are improving the judiciary through better clerkships.



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