How do federal Circuit Judges manage their staffs?

For a short but utterly fascinating article that describes the different models used by federal Circuit Judges to manage their staffs, see G. Mitu Gulati and Richard A. Posner*, The Management of Staff by Federal Court of Appeals Judges, U of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 531 (April 5, 2015) (the entire article is free by download). The abstract describes the thrust of the article this way:

Federal court of appeals judges have staffs consisting usually of a secretary and four law clerks; some judges have interns or externs or both (law students working part time). These staffs are essential, given judicial workloads and judges’ limitations. Yet not much is known about how the judges manage their staffs. Each judge knows of course, but judges rarely exchange information about staff management. Nor is there, to our knowledge, a literature that explains and evaluates the varieties of staff management by federal court of appeals judges. This article aims to fill that gap. It is based on interviews, some in person, most by telephone, of more than 70 judges, chosen mainly at random and covering almost all of the thirteen federal courts of appeals.

It would great to hear from former law clerks who served a Court of Appeals judge. Please feel free to comment anonymously. Of course, the thoughts of others are welcome too.


*Judge Posner is a national treasure even if he only likes his family and his cat.

H/T: How Appealing.

11 responses

  1. I think it would be interesting to see how frequently the clerks agree with the judge’s assessment of his or her own management style. I’m fairly certain my judge would have self-identified as squarely within the “Standard Model,” whereas I’d say it was closer to “The Lunatics Running the Asylum.”

  2. ke,

    I have always favored the Prusian model where I am the lunatic. My uniform is way cool.

    Thanks for your humor, comment and candor. By the way, while clerking, how much therapy did you have to do to avoid putting a gun in your mouth.

    All the best.


  3. I clerked for a district judge and a circuit judge, for a year each. I thought it was interesting how much more common it seemed to be for district judges to have career clerks. I only knew, I think, one or two judges (of 15 or so) on the circuit who had one, while I think most DJs I encountered had a career clerk. I think this must be closely connected to how challenging the job of a district judge (and his or her clerks) is on a daily basis. It would be very difficult, I think, for a DJ to start all over again every year with new clerks, while it’s just a small bump in the road for a circuit judge. Appellate judging and clerking is pseudo-academic goofing around compared to running a trial court (and I’m not just saying this to suck up to our host). In all cases, the judge’s assistant (secretary) was a far more vital employee than any of the law clerks.

    Of course, at the circuit court level, considerably more work is also done centrally by staff attorneys. In my circuit, staff attorneys submitted draft opinions to a screening panel in criminal, immigration, habeas, and civil pro se cases (or if they identified a complex issue they wrote a memo recommending the case for argument). So as a chambers law clerk, the only time you were starting “from scratch” with a new case was a counseled civil appeal. To some extent district courts can use magistrate judges and pro se law clerks for this kind of work, but there’s not nearly as much pre-screening of the non-glamorous cases.

  4. Jay,

    Thanks very much. I second your statement that: “It would be very difficult, I think, for a DJ to start all over again every year with new clerks, while it’s just a small bump in the road for a circuit judge.” Because appellate clerks tend to stay a very short time, I think it is also true, based upon my experience as a clerk to a federal appellate judge, that “the judge’s assistant (secretary) was a far more vital employee than any of the law clerks.”

    All the best.


  5. I too wonder whether former clerks would match their judge’s assessment of his or her managerial style. There was a wide range in the Circuit where I clerked and I was very grateful to have a great experience. I also think the differences in use of staff attorneys would be an interesting study.

  6. Are you kidding? It was great! I was, after all, one of the lunatics.

    Now, in retrospect, I find it kind of horrifying that we had as much free rein as we did. But at the time, it was quite exhilarating.

  7. I clerked for a circuit judge and did not enjoy my experience, because for whatever reason my boss and I did not get along, and I also felt that he treated employees quite unfairly. He would berate the clerks for nonsensical reasons when he found an issue difficult, then change course without apologizing or explanation (most likely he realized that his earlier criticisms had no basis). He also made personal criticisms that were hard to take- yet if you stood up to him, he only got angry. The end product from his chambers tended to be good, but he had a crazily inefficient way of getting there.

    That said, my clerkship was more valuable than I dreamed at the time. It taught me how to focus on doing excellent work despite truly unpredictable external interference. It was good preparation for trying to do my work despite an unreasonable client or employer. We were never friends after my clerkship, but I did have a moment of pride a few years after my clerkship when I briefed an appeal and he went my way in dissent (I assumed it was not because he wanted to do me any favors!); we later won en banc.

    It’s still a disappointment that my year clerking involved so much negativity. But there was a lot of upside to it, some of which I could not appreciate at the time.

  8. Ex-clerk,

    You are a “glass half full” person! I am glad you were able to learn from your clerkship despite the unpleasant working conditions. Good for you.

    All the best.


  9. I was blown away by, and chuckled at, this seemingly offhand comment at the end of the section on “The Stripped-­‐‑Down Model – the Authoring Judge,” which Posner presumably uses to describe his own approach, and probably Easterbrook as well, but likely no other judges currently serving (essentially, the judge does all the writing himself, and uses the law clerks to fill in with research help): “A subcategory of these judges, well illustrated by Judge Henry Friendly, have a touch of Asperger’s syndrome and get little help from their clerks because they don’t know how to work with other people and are therefore more comfortable doing (almost) everything themselves.”

    That might well be true, but still, I can’t believe he said that! In my mind’s eye I can see him grinning like a cat as he wrote that sentence.

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