Court staff attorneys, clerks lack diversity

first_img March 1, 2006 Regular News Court staff attorneys, clerks lack diversity Mark D. Killian Managing Editor When the Supreme Court’s Committee on Fairness and Diversity surveyed the state’s judicial staff, it said what it found was disturbing — “there were only one black male and one Asian male staff attorney in the entire courts system.”The committee recently filed a plan with the court to promote greater diversity of judicial staff attorneys and law clerks, said 11th Circuit Judge Gill Freeman, the panel’s chair. According to the 2004 data collected by the Office of the State Courts Administrator, 82.8 percent of the state court system’s clerks are nonminority attorneys.The committee hopes to promote more diversity by:• Increasing the number of minority applicants through enhanced outreach methods.• Promoting the status of the clerkship position by projecting a positive image of judicial clerks.• Improving the overall recruitment and hiring process by making it “more user-friendly and less arduous.”Judge Freeman said the issues contributing to the dearth of minority representation in judicial clerkships include a lack of diversity in the applicant pool; insufficient value attributed to the clerkship position; lack of uniform hiring guidelines; and a comparatively low entry-level salary.“The pay is so low that we need to find ways to make it feasible for those who would be interested in this kind of job to be able to take it on,” Judge Freeman said.The current salary of an entry-level appellate law clerk is a little more than $43,000 (with bar passage, or just under $39,000 without), with merit-based salary increases capped after five years.“Nevertheless, judicial clerkships — which are a form of public service — should, like other state government jobs, make one eligible for financial assistance, loan forgiveness, or deferral plans,” the report said. “Such assistance might facilitate applications for those who could not apply due to the financial factor, thereby promoting diversity of the applicant pool and expanding the availability of clerkships to all who are otherwise qualified.”A National Association for Law Placement study found the disparity in minority law clerks did not result from a difference in the success of their applications, but rather a lower application rate of the minority students.“As a result, more outreach efforts to minority law students and practicing attorneys are needed to increase their awareness and attendance in clerkship programs, and to reassure them that they are welcome in, and vital to, the courts system,” the report said.Thus, according to the report, outreach efforts must target law students interested in judicial clerkship opportunities as well as practicing attorneys who may be looking for a career change.“These individuals are especially important in the overall goal of diversifying the applicant pool,” the report said.To raise the profile of clerkships, the panel also advocates greater promotion of the importance and value of judicial clerkships, such as the unique opportunity to experience the judicial process from a judge’s perspective, the ability to broaden understanding of procedural issues, and to develop a sense of what is, and is not, effective advocacy. The clerkship experience also provides “ideal” mentoring opportunities, the report noted.“As one state judge put it, ‘If law clerk and staff attorney job tasks are widely misunderstood or unknown, it is likely that candidates will remain dissuaded from applying for open positions,’” the report said.The committee said the particular criteria used by judges seeking to hire clerks, including class rank, discourages many minorities from applying.“Yet, former and current clerks who did not rank in the top 10 percent of their law school classes, but exemplified the qualities necessary to succeed as a law clerk, have performed exceptionally well in their positions,” the report said.Judicial internships and externships can also contribute to an increase of minority applicants.“The consensus has been that the experience of working for a court often creates new opportunities for students that they might otherwise not have,” the report said. “In fact, former judicial interns who performed extremely well have secured permanent clerkships upon graduation. Additionally, judicial internships offer educational benefits to those who take advantage of them. For example, because judicial interns often perform the types of activities carried out by clerks, those who participate in externship programs often significantly improve their academic performance and raise their grade point averages because they develop practical insights and a solid understanding of the law and the process of its application in actual cases.”Other recommendations to promote and ensure diversity of judicial staff attorneys and law clerks include:• Creating a judicial clerkship Web site that, among other things, highlights judges who were former judicial law clerks.• Encouraging judges to participate in school or bar-sponsored clerkship programs as panelists or guest speakers.• Circulating notices through a range of minority lawyer networks, including the law school networks to attract law students, and bar association networks to recruit practicing attorneys looking for a change.• Establishing a “statewide recruitment coordinator” position and/or designate a person in each court who will be tasked with coordinating recruitment efforts.• Using the law schools’ Web site to promote the value of judicial clerkships.• Adopting as a priority encouraging more minority students to apply for judicial clerkships by offering specialized programs, resources, and counseling.• Providing an introduction or overview of clerkships to first-year law students and periodic specialized support programs for minorities on clerkships.• Requesting The Florida Bar sponsor scholarships for students who wish to provide public service by participating in a judicial internship. 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