When judges compete

All open hiring processes are competitive, even when the future employees are expected to work as professionals in a relatively non-adversarial setting. So this article from the New York Times describes an intriguing attempt to regulate an adversarial processes, “Judges compete for law clerks on a lawless terrain“:

Federal judges are entrusted with interpreting and applying rules fairly and consistently. Except, it seems, when it comes to hiring their own staff.

The judges compete aggressively each year to recruit the best law students to work for them as clerks, prestigious positions that involve research, counsel and ghostwriting. But the process has become a frenzied free-for-all, with the arbiters of justice undermining each other at every turn to snatch up the best talent.

Based on rules that were intended to curtail shenanigans, judges hiring for the 2012 season were supposed to begin interviewing third-year law students no earlier than Thursday, Sept. 15 at 10 a.m. But somehow, at the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, most of the interviews — and job offers— had already concluded by 9:45 a.m.

Indeed, hoping to leapfrog their peers, most judges actually began interviewing hours (if not days or months) earlier.

While everyone in the process seems to agree that the competition for recruiting clerks is somewhere between “frenzied” and “insane,” there is not even consensus on whether it can be improved through “NCAA-like” recruiting regulations.

“I’m not into cartels or collective action or things like that,” says Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, who has vocally criticized efforts to regulate the recruiting process. So when does he start recruiting? “At birth,” he says.

There have been several attempts to levy self-enforced rules, similar to those used by the N.C.A.A. for recruiting young athletes, with the most recent system created in 2003. While none of the students interviewing at the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan that Thursday wanted their names published for fear of jeopardizing their careers, many expressed frustration with the process.

“It’s insane and has been driving everybody nuts for years,” said one student from a top 20 law school who had three interviews in New York that day, and three others across the Midwest this week. “But I don’t really see any way to fix it.”

If largely self-enforced rules can’t hold because the professionals themselves aren’t willing to be self-regulating, the options seem limited. When is the last time you saw judges involved in a prisoner’s dilemma?

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