Harvard Law School Gives Terrible Sexual Harassment Advice

So let’s say you want to be a law clerk. Why wouldn’t you? It’s an incredible opportunity, the prestige is unmatched in the legal world and it opens up all sorts of doors that might otherwise remain closed. The process can seem somewhat mystifying, but if you have an institution like Harvard Law School to walk you through the process (and you’ve got the grades behind you), it shouldn’t be too bad.

In the course of your quest to get a federal clerkship, you will likely look to your law school for advice on the proper way to proceed through the process. At Harvard, they even have a blog — only accessible to students, natch (wouldn’t want the proles getting their grubby hands on this valuable intel) — that offers advice to students seeking clerkships. Back in January they even tackled some of the thornier and timely issues, like how to deal with sexual harassment.

That’s where their advice goes off the rails.

It starts off straightforward enough — make sure you research anyone you’re interested in clerking with and listen to your gut when you interview with a judge. But what to do if a judge acts inappropriately in an interview or if the interviewee feels uncomfortable? Well, this seems like some questionable advice:

Most importantly, trust your instincts at the interview/offer stage, which may reveal first-hand insight you could not have discovered during your advance research. If anything during an interview makes you uncomfortable about the prospect of working for that judge, politely withdraw your application (ideally) or decline an offer (if necessary because you received the offer during the interview). Phrase your decision as you think the judge would be better served by someone else.

Let’s say a judge did cross the line with a clerkship applicant. Do you see how that advice puts the onus on the person who has been victimized? Their words make it clear the most important thing to the school is making sure the judge isn’t upset about the rejection (be sure to be polite), there’s not even a word about how the applicant might feel after a powerful judge has taken it upon themselves to act inappropriately with them. And the recommended phrasing of the declination of a job as a “fit” issue, when the real issue is harassment seems to be underplaying it in the extreme.

Listen, given the relative power positions between a federal judge and an ambitious law student, there is no “good” way out of a terrible situation like that. Especially not in a way that doesn’t blow up the prospective law clerk’s entire career before it has a chance to really get started. But one of the few institutions powerful enough to go toe-to-toe with a federal judge is Harvard MF Law School, and there’s no mention of the school’s role at all or what they might do in the face of students complaining to them about sexual harassment by a judge. Is the school’s plan really to just sit on the problematic behavior and do nothing about it? The only thing HLS officially advises is this mealy-mouthed statement:

Also, please always complete an interview evaluation form, so that future HLS applicants can benefit and learn from what you learned from your interview experience, whether positive or negative.

No support of the student is offered by the school and they’ll take no action based on whatever information they might have. The only proactive steps/resources the school provides are what law clerks can do — once they’ve left school and are working for a judge — to report harassing behavior. But when it comes to the issue of sexual harassment by federal judges it seems the school — one of the largest feeders of clerks in the country — simply thinks it’s someone else’s problem.

Read the full HLS post on the next page.


headshotKathryn Rubino is a Senior Editor at Above the Law, and host of The Jabot podcast. AtL tipsters are the best, so please connect with her. Feel free to email her with any tips, questions, or comments and follow her on Twitter (@Kathryn1).

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