Incarceration, Second Chances, and Clerkships

Shon HopwoodShon Hopwood’s rebirth continues. Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the “second highest court in the land,” the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, has hired Mr. Hopwood to serve as a law clerk in her chambers beginning next term. For Mr. Hopwood, this is another in a string of victories in his legal career. Sweet victories within this story of redemption, for Mr. Hopwood is a former convict.

Because I do what I do – advising and supporting law students and lawyers through the clerkship application process, I can’t help but be curious about Mr. Hopwood’s clerkship applications. Sure, he has successful petitions for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court under his belt (and a unanimous Supreme Court win in one of those cases) and support from some of the most familiar names in the legal profession, Adam Liptak and Seth Waxman, making him an atypical and ideal clerkship candidate. I still wonder whether and how he disclosed his criminal past in his cover letter and resume. Did it come up during his clerkship interview? What other judges called him in for an interview? Will the Supreme Court entertain his clerkship application the way it entertained his petitions for cert?

Judge Brown hasn’t spoken publicly about the hire, and no one should expect her to do so, but since the announcement of her decision to hire Hopwood, Judge Richard G. Kopf, the judge who sentenced Hopwood to 147 months in prison, has blogged about his sentencing instincts, which he says must suck in light of this development. There is quite an interesting exchange between Judge Kopf and Hopwood in the comments section of the blog. Certainly, it can be useful to reflect on the past, though not to dwell, and I can’t help but wonder what this means for the future of clerkships. Will Shon Hopwood’s success mean that the doors will open a little wider for other non-traditional clerkship candidates? Will it mean that judges will take Judge Brown’s lead and allow themselves to look for clerks in the recesses of the legal playing field? Only time will tell and we’ll have to have patience to await the larger implications of this clerkship hire, probably another lesson we can take from Mr. Hopwood.


At Judicial Clerk Review (JCR), we provide tailored support to law students and lawyers in applying for judicial clerkships. JCR offers a multi-level review and revision of written application materials and mock interviews. E-mail us today ( for a FREE consultation.


Clerical Errors – The secret handshake black lawyers don’t learn

I wrote this piece in February 2009 for The Root. It is still relevant today, not only for black lawyers, but for lawyers from many different walks of life. Read more about the new diversity in this post.


Some have accused Attorney General Eric Holder of pointing a scolding finger at white America in his recent Black History Month speech. But that’s not what he did. The nation’s top lawyer used the collective “we” to implore all Americans to begin the “awkward and painful” process of engaging one another across racial lines. In this regard, lawyers have a heightened duty.

Because the law is how we mediate our differences in this country, and because race has been at the heart of so much of what divides us, a meaningful, “awkward and painful” discussion on race must, by necessity, involve the legal profession and the process by which we resolve our disputes.

But the lack of diversity in the nation’s judiciary makes such a conversation difficult at best and frightening at worst. Now, in a report issued last month by New York University’s Brennan Center, we have hard numbers to document the existence of whites-only benches in many states.

Still, one thing the report and the general discussion about the paucity of minority judges often overlook is the absence of color in judicial clerkships. Clerks are a quiet, hidden power in the justice system: typically recent law school graduates who work assisting judges in chambers and in the courtroom. But that year or two spent clerking is in effect the secret handshake that opens up access to the halls of judicial power for a lifetime.

The influence law clerks wield in chambers is perhaps imaginary, perhaps not. Most would never dare breach their sacred oath to let you know. In most instances, it is Supreme Court law clerks, not the justices themselves, who cull through the thousands of petitions to the court, sent by people of all ilk—from regular folks who want to be heard to corporate machines protecting their interests. Law clerks recommend that the justices grant certain petitions or deny others, dashing desperate hopes. These are the quietly powerful, seated on the justice’s shoulder whispering sweet everythings in the judge’s ear.

But like judges, law clerks are mostly white.

This is a travesty not just because clerking is a time-honored path to the halls of legal power. It’s also a missed opportunity for lawyers of color to repay the debt we owe to those on whose shoulders we stand, to heed Charles Hamilton Houston’s famous admonishment that, as lawyers, we not be parasites on society. Clerking is an important mainstream credential, a crucial start to a career of giving back.

The power of clerks has evolved over time. The first Supreme Court law clerk was hired in 1882, a mere 17 years after slavery was formally abolished, and bore the title legal secretary. Sixty-six years later, in 1948, the first black Supreme Court law clerk, William T. Coleman Jr., was hired. And nearly 20 years after that, Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as the first black justice on the Supreme Court. Since then, much progress has been made in every area of the legal profession, but blacks are still only 4 percent of all judges nationwide, less than 5 percent of all law firm associates and less than 2 percent of all law firm partners in the country.

In 2005, only 6 percent of all law clerks were black. In the federal courts, only 5 percent of law clerks were black, a decrease from previous years.

Judicial clerkships are a pipeline to the elite Power Hall of the legal profession, where judges, law firm partners, general counsels, federal government attorneys and law school professors converge. The more black law clerks, the more black attorneys who will eventually be granted entree to the upper echelons of the legal profession. That in turn means more black attorneys in positions to address some of the social ills facing the black community—warehousing of black boys in special education and in disciplinary “alternative schools”; disparities in crack cocaine and powder cocaine sentencing; testing of vaccinations in low-income communities.

As a law student at Harvard, I got lucky and fell into clerking because everyone around me was doing it. I did two clerkships—one state, one federal—in Indianapolis, my hometown. I won’t pretend that as a law clerk I was a forceful orator up in chambers confidently lobbying my judges and persuading them in determining sentences in every criminal case or in meting out damages in discrimination lawsuits. The truth is that I was so completely intimidated by the process, my jurists, and the role that I was being asked to play that I was very nearly rendered silent by my fear.

But, in order to do the job, my voice as a black woman had to be heard in my written work, in all of the questions I asked on a daily basis, in my mere presence in chambers and seated at the clerk’s position in the courtroom. And now, I attribute the remarkable successes I have had in my career to my time as a law clerk, not simply for the prestige a clerkship carries and the path I have been able to take as a result, but also because of the training and mentoring I received from my judges at the time and since then.

I wish there were more minorities in the same pipeline, but I appreciate the reasons that there aren’t. For many of us, there’s that private-sector carrot dangling at the end of it all, replete with six-figure salary (in order to repay exorbitant law school loans) and perks galore—finally, the good life we’ve been striving for. Why put that off another year to … clerk? Compared to what law firms are paying these days, the law clerk’s salary amounts to free labor.

But making the investment could yield big dividends professionally and for the integrity of the justice system as well. It could mean more black judges deciding the fates of those of us entangled in the system. It means more black law professors sitting on admissions committees in law school. It means more black general counsels determining legal strategy for Fortune 500 companies.

And, at a time when black power is more visible than ever, it could represent yet another step to power.

Allison Brown, a former law clerk, is a practicing attorney and the founder and principal of Judicial Clerk Review, LLC.


At Judicial Clerk Review (JCR), we provide tailored support to law students and lawyers in applying for judicial clerkships. JCR offers a multi-level review and revision of written application materials and mock interviews. E-mail us today ( for a FREE consultation.

Of Law Firm Layoffs and Supreme Court Clerkships

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Last week was chock full of legal news. From the layoffs at Weil, Gotshal & Manges, to the monumental Supreme Court decisions, to the full line-up of Supreme Court clerks for the upcoming term, my head has been on a swivel and my heart feels like it’s in overdrive. So much drama.

Times they are a-changing, and change ain’t easy. As a country, we’ll weather this storm, these flurries of activity, and the law will be a critical guide for us along the way. As huge law school enrollments face an uncertain future, the professional opportunities for lawyers are changing to reflect societal need for more and more qualified attorneys. To interpret hefty court decisions such as those we saw last week. To develop policy and legislation that responds to those court decisions. To support community interests in contributing to public policy. Et cetera and so on.

Novice lawyers with no experience are struggling to find somewhere to get relevant experience. The Weil Gotshal layoffs and any future layoffs from other Biglaw firms will help contribute to the growing trend of judges hiring attorneys with experience, rather than law students straight out of law school, as temporary and permanent law clerks. The list of next year’s Supreme Court clerks reflects that trend too.

A word of advice to those who have been set adrift from their firms and those who have finished law school: find your voice, find your purpose. Lawyers with expertise are lawyers who are still coveted in the legal profession. That hasn’t changed. While the areas of sought-after expertise are constantly changing, it has always been true that lawyers who are experts in a particular area will get more attention than those who cannot.

Judicial clerkships are ideal positions for those folks who don’t quite know what they want to do as an attorney and for those who don’t quite have the necessary experience to hold themselves out as experts. Among the lawyers who argued the cases that the Supreme Court decided last week and the lawyers who still have a job at Weil, I’d venture a guess that ‘former law clerk’ is a title many of them share.


At Judicial Clerk Review (JCR), we provide tailored support to law students and lawyers in applying for judicial clerkships. JCR offers a multi-level review and revision of written application materials and mock interviews. E-mail us today ( for a FREE consultation.

Supreme Court Law Clerk Certainty Amid Rampant Public Speculation

So, here we are… with one more day left for the Supreme Court to hand down any decisions remaining from this term (unless the justices extend the decision date) and arguably the four most-anticipated cases still pending a decision from the Court. And, while those of us on the outside wait and wonder, law clerks not only have a front row seat to the action, they are likely sharing the director’s chair – making last-minute tweaks and mulling over last-minute compromises. Most of the clerks will probably get no sleep this weekend, nor, if it were me, in the days following the decisions’ release as they track the news coverage and discuss the fallout among themselves.

In those four cases that already have caused so much buzz, the Supreme Court will decide the fates of affirmative action in higher education, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Defense of Marriage Act, and California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage. It is the kind of high drama that is exciting to watch and yet will have very real impacts on how many of us will go about our daily lives. There have been lively protests on both sides of the issues at hand. Articles and commentary about the cases abound, with pundits and scholars rehashing the oral arguments and dissecting every raised eyebrow and vocal intonation from the Justices. Many have quietly ruminated over how their own lives will change with a Supreme Court decision that upholds current law or invalidates it. And now there is nothing left for us but to wait, saving our energy for the frenzy of the week ahead…once we know. Other than the Justices themselves, and perhaps their spouses and significant others, there are only 36 people right now who know – the Supreme Court law clerks who have at least some degree of certainty what Monday holds.

And so for now, I’m happy just to speculate as to how exactly the law clerks are spending their time while the rest of us sit and wait.


At Judicial Clerk Review (JCR), we assist law students and lawyers in applying for judicial clerkships. Don’t be overlooked or discarded. E-mail us today ( for a FREE consultation.

When Law Clerks Know Too Much

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

Judge Joan Orie Melvin (right) is on trial for improper use of state-funded employees on state time to campaign for state Supreme Court.

Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin‘s former law clerk testified against her on Friday. Justice Orie Melvin is on trial for improperly using state-funded staff to assist her campaign bid for the state Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009 when she was a Superior Court judge. Former law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski — who by the way is married to an Allegheny County court judge — testified that, in 2003, she expressed to the judge her discomfort with the fact that state employees were doing campaign work on state time. Sasinoski said she was fired shortly after that conversation.  

Justice Orie Melvin’s sister, Jane Orie, a Republican state senator in Pennsylvania, also has been charged with improper use of state-paid staff to assist with the judge’s campaign. One of Senator Orie’s former interns, Joshua Dott, testified that he spent at least 25% of his time working on the judge’s political campaign at the senator’s direction.

This story will certainly add fuel to the national discussion about the propriety of state elections processes to select an impartial judiciary. Institutions like the Brennan Center for Justice, for instance, promote judicial independence and focus on eliminating special interest influence in the judiciary. Judicial objectivity is a necessity as judges carry out their roles as neutral arbiters for parties that must stand on equal footing before them.

What is for sure is that law clerks are an integral part of a judge’s staff and, as would-be officers of the court themselves, must uphold basic ethical and moral standards, especially as they consider future professional opportunities. 99.9% of the time, law clerks are learning by example the highest standards of conduct in the legal profession from their judges. Cases like this one are, thankfully, rare.


Allison R. Brown, Esq. is the founder and principal of Judicial Clerk Review. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Howard University. After graduating from law school, Allison returned to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, and served two judicial clerkship terms – first for the Indiana Supreme Court and then for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Allison has worked as an associate at the law firm of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C., and as a Trial Attorney for the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section. Currently, she is also the President of Allison Brown Consulting (ABC), an education equity advisory group in Washington, D.C.

“Kissing Judge” in the Philippines granted clemency by the Supreme Court

In international law clerk news, the Philippines Supreme Court in Manila has granted clemency to naughty boy Judge Hermin Arceo.  The Filipino judge had been released of his duties in 1996 after his then 29-year-old female clerk filed a complaint against him alleging that he sexually harassed her as well as female witnesses and other female employees.  In its 1996 opinion relieving Judge Arceo of his judicial duties, the Supreme Court included the Investigator’s detailed description of Judge Arceo’s bad behavior, which primarily targeted his clerk and his stenographer and included physical sexual assault and sexually suggestive behavior.  To wit:

  • he once invited his stenographer into his private office and, when she arrived, he stood in front of her wearing only his underwear;
  • he repeatedly pressed his bottom half against his clerk as she was walking out of the office door
  • he made a lewd sexual gesture to his clerk in front of her fiance;
  • he repeatedly kissed female employees against their will;
  • he showed a sexually explicit film to female employees in chambers and teased them about it;
  • he wrote his clerk a long and sexually explicit love poem;
  • he locked his clerk in his office and forced himself on her though she ultimately fought him off of her;

The Supreme Court dismissed Judge Arceo from the bench for “gross misconduct and immorality prejudicial to the best interests of the service” and barred him from future government service.

Last week, Judge Arceo, now 71, was granted clemency and may return to government service.  There is no word in the article of the whereabouts or well-being of the former clerk who was brave enough to come forward on her own behalf and on behalf of her female co-workers.  I’m hopeful that she is doing well and that Judge Arceo will exercise good judgment and refrain from seeking another seat on the court.  What do you think?