Today on the blog, you’ll learn about Aliza Shatzman, a former lawyer turned co-founder of a non-profit called Accountability Project focused on creating change in the legal system.
Aliza shares the circumstances that led her to decide to leave the legal system and start The Legal Accountability Project. The Legal Accountability Project seeks to ensure that as many law clerks as possible have a positive clerkship experience while extending support and resources to those who do not.
Sarah and Aliza also discuss some popular topics on the podcast, like the dysfunction in law and what needs to change in the legal system. This is an extremely important conversation that everyone in the profession should be having, so stay tuned!
How Aliza Got Into The Legal System
Aliza went to law school to be a Reproductive Rights litigator. She wanted to be a trial attorney at Planned Parenthood after interning there during undergrad. She knew that she wanted to go to law school to advocate for issues she cared about, particularly women’s rights.
Early in law school, Aliza got the prosecutor bug. She spent her first summer of law school in the Office of Vaccine Litigation at the DOJ. The next year, she was in the U.S Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Illinois.
Toward the end of that semester, Aliza got to argue a supervised release revocation hearing. It was thrilling to stand up in front of a judge as a law student. After that, she got the prosecution bug and directed her career toward that.
Aliza’s Experience of Harassment In The Legal System
Aliza decided to clerk after law school as a crash course in trial lawyering. She selected the clerkship in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia or DC Superior Courts because she knew that DCA USA appeared before DC Superior Court judges.
She started clerking in August of 2019, but unfortunately, just weeks into the clerkship, the judge Aliza clerked for began to harass and discriminate against her based on her gender. He kicked her out of the courtroom and made frequent comments about Aliza making him uncomfortable.
The day Aliza found out that she passed the DC bar exam, which is a big day in any young attorney’s life, he called her into his chambers and began calling her “bossy.”
Aliza desperately wanted to be reassigned to a different judge. But, her courthouse didn’t have an employee dispute resolution plan that supported that option. So, she tried to stick it out, needing the clerkship experience for her future as a prosecutor.
Eventually, Aliza transitioned to remote work. The judge avoided Aliza for six weeks until he called her to say he was ending her clerkship. He went on to say that she made him feel uncomfortable and lacked respect for him.
Aliza responded by calling the DC Courts HR, who said there was nothing they could do. It took her a year, but Aliza eventually got back on her feet and even secured her dream job. She was offered a job as a prosecutor in the DC US Attorney’s Office.
Two weeks into training, Aliza learned that the judge had made negative statements about her during the background investigation. Those negative statements meant she couldn’t obtain a security clearance, which meant her job offer would be revoked.
Trying To Make A Change in the Legal System
At that point, Aliza hired attorneys and filed a complaint with the DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, the regulatory body for DC judges. In the summer and fall of 2021, she participated in the investigation into the now-former judge.
A couple of months into the investigation, Aliza found out that the judge was on administrative leave (pending an investigation) for misconduct when he made the negative statements. However, the damage was already done. Aliza was blackballed from what she thought was her dream job.
No Protection For Victims Of The Legal System
In addition to the fact that there is no protection for victims of the legal system like law clerks, there are no judicial accountability mechanisms for misbehaving judges. This type of power disparity is extremely problematic and dangerous.
The profession is often a toxic work environment in desperate need of protection and accountability mechanisms. The longer some of these judges are on the bench, the more we see those abuses of power.
The institutional structures in the legal system discourage reporting at all stages by all types of attorneys. This causes attorneys to either be driven from the profession or mistreated and unhappy in their work. Because of this, the legal profession is less diverse than it should be.
The Judiciary Accountability Act
During the investigation, Aliza stayed in touch with various congressional offices to advocate for the Judiciary Accountability Act. She was invited to submit a statement for the record for this house judiciary hearing, which launched the advocacy work that Aliza does now.
The Judiciary Accountability Act is a companion bill in the senate. Currently, the federal judiciary is exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, meaning that mistreated law clerks and federal public defenders cannot sue their harassers and seek damages for harm done to their careers, reputations, and future earning potential.
The Judiciary Accountability Act or the JAA would finally subject the federal judiciary to Title VII. It would also create real accountability for judicial misconduct by revising the definition of judicial misconduct in Title 28 of the U.S code to finally include discrimination and retaliation.
Additionally, it would specify that if a judge retires or resigns, the investigation into their misconduct won’t cease. If a judge steps down amid a misconduct investigation, the investigation ceases because the judges handling these investigations lose jurisdiction over them. That is how most of these notoriously toxic judges get away with misconduct.
How We Can Make Change In The Legal System
The toxicity and dysfunction of the legal system are hot topics on the podcast and blog. It’s important that the profession as a whole recognizes these dynamics and tries to make some sort of change.
There are so many things that need to change in the legal system, starting with the disincentive to speak out against workplace toxicity like harassment. No one should have to suffer in silence.
It’s really time for everyone in the legal community to stand up, speak out, and get engaged on this issue.
If you are a mistreated clerk and you have gathered the courage to file a complaint or speak out, you deserve support from the profession, not further victimization. It’s not a rite of passage to be harassed by a judge or partner.
How Aliza Broke Free From The Legal System
After her statement became public, Aliza began tossing around ideas for her next steps to continue advocating for law clerks. She was working at a different and more supportive law firm by then, but it wasn’t the kind of work Aliza wanted to do long-term.
About a month after her statement became public, Aliza quit her job in the profession and took some time to write, speak, and advocate. Then Aliza and her friend Matt decided to launch a non-profit called The Legal Accountability Project.
The Legal Accountability Project
The Legal Accountability Project addresses various issues related to clerkships and harassment in the legal system. Right now, they are focused on a variety of law school initiatives. Law schools innately push clerkships.
The initiatives that The Legal Accountability Project is working on include a clerkship reporting database, where law clerks can make reports about their experience. They’re also working on a workplace culture assessment initiative to promote healthier workplaces in the legal system.
Desperate To Leave The Legal System? Start Right Here!
If you’re sick of the dysfunctional ways of the legal system and you need out, join us at Former Lawyer. Here, you can get the support of people in similar situations, plus lots of helpful resources. One of those resources is the free guide: First Steps To Leaving The Law.
And, if you need something a little more personalized, you can apply for 1:1 Coaching With Sarah. Book your consult today, so you can leave the profession and find what you are meant to do!
Connect With Aliza:
Mentioned In This Article:
Sarah Cottrell: Hi, and welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast. I'm your host, Sarah Cottrell. I practiced law for 10 years and now I help unhappy lawyers ditch their soul-sucking jobs. On this show, I share advice and strategies for aspiring former lawyers, and interviews with former lawyers who have left the law behind to find careers and lives that they love.
Hello, everyone. You may notice that my voice is sounding a little scratchier than usual and that is because my family just got over COVID and on the tail end of COVID, I developed a sinus infection which is apparently a common thing but I am on the upswing and super excited to be back behind the mic.
I wanted to introduce you to the conversation that I'm going to be sharing today. Today, I'm sharing a really important conversation with Aliza Shatzman. Aliza shares her story, the circumstances that led her to decide to leave legal practice and found the new nonprofit, The Legal Accountability Project.
You know that we talk a lot on this podcast about the ways in which the legal profession needs to change and improve, and this conversation with Aliza is really important and contributes to that. I am very happy and excited to be able to share this conversation with you.
Before we do that, I'm just going to be super honest, this is really awkward for me because talking about compliments that people have given me is just challenging. This is why I recommend therapy among other things. I recently wrapped up with one of my one-on-one clients and one of the things that they said to me in our final meeting that I wanted to share with you in case you're someone who's been thinking about working with me one-on-one but you're not 100% sure if it is the right thing, it certainly is an investment which I completely understand, anyway, this person said to me, “Sarah, this is the best money that I have ever spent on myself.”
I just wanted to share that with you because if you are someone who is thinking about working with me one-on-one and has been contemplating it, I really encourage you to hop on the website and schedule a consult because working with people to help them figure out what it is that they truly want to be doing with their career, not only is it something that I love, but also it's something that I'm really good at.
Again, it's so awkward for me to talk about it, but if you're someone who has thought about working with me one-on-one, hop on the website, on the Work With Me drop down, click the button and schedule a consult call and we will talk. Let's get into this really important conversation that I had with Aliza Shatzman.
Hi, Aliza. Welcome to The Former Lawyer Podcast.
Aliza Shatzman: Thanks for having me on the show.
Sarah Cottrell: We're going to talk about some really important things today but before we get into all of the details of that, I would love for you to just introduce yourself to the listeners.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. My name is Aliza Shatzman. I am the President and Co-Founder of The Legal Accountability Project. We are a non-profit that seeks to ensure that as many law clerks as possible have a positive clerkship experience while extending support and resources to those who do not.
I graduated from Williams College in 2013 and from Washington University School of Law in St. Louis in 2019. At WashU, I did several different internships and various components of the justice department, and then after law school decided to clerk in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia or DC Superior Court because I wanted to be a homicide prosecutor in the DC US Attorney's Office and DCA USA's appear before DC Superior Court judges.
Sarah Cottrell: We will definitely talk more about all that transpired there, but let's talk a little bit about your background first of all because where we typically start on the podcast is what made you decide to go to law school.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. I went to law school because I wanted to be a Reproductive Rights litigator. I wanted to be a trial attorney at Planned Parenthood. I had interned there during undergrad and I was just really moved by the personal stories I heard. I knew that I wanted to go to law school to advocate for issues that I cared about, particularly women's rights.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. When you got to law school, you went with this very specific goal. Did that continue throughout your time? Were you like, “I'm here and I'm doing it”? Talk to me about that experience.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. I went into law school knowing I wanted to be a trial attorney, that I wanted to be in court on my feet every day. Pretty early in law school, I got the prosecutor bug. I spent my 1L summer in the Office of Vaccine Litigation at DOJ, and then just did a couple more different DOJ internships, but my 2L spring in the U.S Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Illinois.
Toward the end of that semester, I got to argue a supervised release revocation hearing and it was just such a thrill to stand up as a 2L and say, “Aliza Shatzman, your honor, for the United States.” Then I just really, from there, did a couple more DOJ internships, got the prosecutor bug. I always knew that I wanted to be a trial attorney, but I think the issues I wanted to advocate for evolved over my time in law school.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Let's talk a little bit about, well, I was going to say what led to the founding of the nonprofit but I feel like that's a bit of a too large question, so let's back up a little bit. For the listeners, can you set the stage for the experience that ultimately led to you founding the nonprofit and we can walk people through your experience and what happened?
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. I decided to clerk after law school because I wanted to get a crash course and trial lawyering. I selected my clerkship in Superior Court of the District of Columbia or DC Superior Courts because I knew that DCA USA has appeared before DC Superior Court judges. I started clerking in August of 2019, clerk during the 2019-2020 term, and unfortunately, pretty much just weeks into the clerkship, the judge for whom I clerked began to harass me and discriminate against me based on my gender.
He would kick me out of the courtroom, tell me that I made him uncomfortable and he just felt more comfortable with my male co-clerk. He told me that I was bossy, aggressive, nasty, and disappointments. The day I found out that I passed the DC bar exam, a pretty big day in any young attorney's life, he called me into his chambers, got in my face and said, “You're bossy and I know bossy because my wife is bossy.”
I was just devastated. I cried on the walk to work. I cried myself to sleep. I wanted to be reassigned to a different judge but my courthouse didn't have an employee dispute resolution plan that might have enabled me to be reassigned. So I tried to stick it out because I knew that I needed this year of clerkship experience in order to be eligible for my dream job as a prosecutor.
We eventually transitioned to remote work. I moved back to Philly to stay with my parents. The judge pretty much ignored me for six weeks of remote work before he called me up and told me he was ending my clerkship early because I made him uncomfortable and lacked respect for him but he didn't want to get into it.
I called DC Courts HR and they said there was nothing they could do because HR doesn't regulate judges and judges and law clerks have a unique relationship. They asked me didn't I know that I was an at-will employee.
It took me about a year to get back on my feet. I eventually secured my dream job as a prosecutor in the DC US Attorney's Office, moved back to DC. I was two weeks into training when I received some pretty devastating news. I was told that the judge had made negative statements about me during my background investigation, that I would not be able to obtain a security clearance, and that my job offer was being revoked.
At that point, I filed a complaint with the DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure, the regulatory body for DC judges. I hired attorneys and in the summer and fall of 2021, I participated in the investigation into the now former judge. We were a couple months into the investigation when I found out that the former judge was already on administrative leave pending an investigation into other misconduct. He'd already agreed to take leave at the time he filed the negative reference with the DC US Attorney's Office.
I eventually saw the reference which was outrageous and inflammatory, but by that point, the damage had been done and I'm pretty much blackballed from what I thought was my dream job in the DC USAO.
Sarah Cottrell: There are so many things about your story that are outrageous and yet I think any of us who have spent any amount of time in the legal profession know that—we talk on this podcast all the time about some of the ways in which lawyers can be abusive towards other lawyers and are, and it's just accepted, swept under the rug, etc—we all know that that happens with judges as well.
I think one of the things that you're trying to highlight is how especially devastating it can be when you end up in a situation like this with a judge because even in another situation, even if ultimately people don't decide to press for accountability because of lots of bad incentives, it's even worse in the situation with a judge because, generally speaking, there aren't mechanisms in place for that accountability.
Aliza Shatzman: That's true. In addition to the fact that there aren't workplace protections for law clerks, nor are there judicial accountability mechanisms for these misbehaving judges, there's just an enormous power disparity between fresh out-of-law school clerks and life-tenured or senate-confirmed judges.
When I'm talking to non-attorneys about what a negative clerkship experience is like, we are talking about fresh out-of-law school clerks working long hours behind locked doors with these judges on whom we are totally dependent for our next jobs for our careers and a negative reference or even a lukewarm reference from a judge can really just destroy a law clerk's career.
That's one of the things I'm trying to highlight is these enormous power disparities. I think they're extremely problematic and dangerous. It's really a particularly dangerous work environment and we need, at a minimum, the same legal protections as other industries.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think that some people, I would say, maybe more so people who are not in the legal profession might have this sense of, “Oh, but it's more likely in a situation like this that the person, the judge would be a person of integrity,” but I think one of the many problems with a situation where someone has a lifetime appointment and the level of power that you do have over not just your clerks but in general is that it can very easily be misused, and in a certain sense, that level of power can have a warping effect.
Aliza Shatzman: Absolutely. I think the longer some of these judges are on the bench, the more we see those abuses of power or the potential for the abuse of power. It's not all judges. I've had judges reach out to me who say they support me and like, “You would have been treated better in our jurisdiction,” and all kinds of things, it's not all judges, but judges are just humans, some are good, some are bad, and the ones who are bad, we need accountability mechanisms in place to ensure that they are no longer judges.
Sarah Cottrell: Yes, totally. I think that is a really important point, we're certainly not saying every judge is like this and it's all terrible, but the problem is that if you do have an experience like this, if there is no recourse, if there is no way to access any protection, think about it, I've heard so many stories from people, not clerks, just lawyers, who were in a law firm setting and had a very abusive boss.
So many people, even in that setting where you do theoretically have recourse, elect not to do anything because they're advised by other people like, “Well, if you do that, your career is over because this person has a lot of influence in the local bar or whatever.” There's already, just in general, this situation because of the nature of the profession that creates a place that isn't necessarily safe for people who are victims of abuse.
Abuse is very normalized in the workplace honestly in the legal profession, again, we talk about it on the podcast a lot. But it just takes that reality, the reality that there are many people in the legal profession in general that are experiencing abuses and have not pursued recourse because of potential career implications and it just amps it up to an extreme degree.
Obviously, your story, well, I think many people might say, “Oh, it's an outlier” or “Oh, that's particularly bad,” but the thing is there are so many other situations that we don't even know about because of the exact dynamics that you're talking about.
Aliza Shatzman: Absolutely. They're just institutional structures in the legal community that discourage reporting at all stages by all types of attorneys. It's very sad. Attorneys are either driven from the profession or just mistreated and very unhappy in their work. I'm really just hoping that my story is one of empowerment that folks in the legal profession and others as well feel empowered to speak out, to file complaints, to stand up for themselves.
We have a less diverse profession, well, the legal profession because of harassment and misconduct in the judiciary and harassment by other legal employers. I think just in the larger workplace in general, people are either driven from their professions or suffering in silence, both of which are extremely troubling.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think also in the legal profession, there is this, for whatever reason, despite the fact that so many of us went to law school because of concerns about the well-being of all people, justice, and all of these sorts of things, I think that there is something about the training you experience in law school or the experience of practicing law that when you hear someone's story like this, there's so much cognitive dissonance that people want to explain it away.
Aliza Shatzman: Absolutely. There's this weird culture of deifying judges and disbelieving law clerks. I don't know how it happens. I was talking with my co-founder about this last week. I asked, “At what point do you think we were taught in law school to deify judges?” He said, “I don't know.” But it was just pervasive among the legal community from as early as when we were 1Ls. Just the idea that judges can do no wrong, that they are just accountable to no one, it's pervasive.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think when there is/are abuses which, again, there will be because we’re human beings, not having a way to address it just compounds the issue. First of all, you go through this horrible clerkship experience, the judge says various extremely inappropriate things and treats you in extremely unacceptable ways, and then you recover from all of that as anyone would need to do, you actually get the job that you ultimately were hoping to get, you're in training, and then you lose this position that was your dream job because of this.
I know you talked a little bit about the investigation, but talk to me about the process after that point of what happened next.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. I filed this complaint, I hired attorneys, I participated in the investigation in the summer and fall of 2021. DC judges are regulated by the DC Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure. Those are the folks who investigated my complaints. This was just a really devastatingly painful experience. They said things to me like, “You must have done something wrong because the judge hired you in the first place.”
There were really no rules and procedures in place for handling this judicial complaint. It was enormously painful. It was a very isolating experience. Most of my interactions during that time were with my attorneys and I was just having a very difficult time with it. I eventually found a new job at a law firm where I worked for a few months and they were very supportive as this investigation was continuing to go on.
During this time, I stayed in touch with various congressional offices with whom I was talking about the Judiciary Accountability Act which is the bill I've been advocating for. Then ultimately, I was invited to submit a statement for the record for this house judiciary hearing which launched the advocacy work that I'm doing now.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Talk to me a little bit more about that hearing and the legislation and how it relates to your experience.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. Yes, the bill I'm advocating for is called the Judiciary Accountability Act, that's H. R. 4827 and S.2553 is a companion bill in the senate. Currently the federal judiciary is exempt from Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, meaning that mistreated law clerks and also federal public defenders cannot sue their harassers and seek damages for harm done to their careers, reputations, and future earning potential.
The Judiciary Accountability Act or the JAA would finally subject the federal judiciary to Title VII. It would also create real accountability for judicial misconduct by revising the definition of judicial misconduct in Title 28 of the U.S code to finally include discrimination and retaliation.
It would also specify that if a judge retires or resigns, the investigation into their misconduct won't cease, and then it also creates some data collection provisions. It would finally force the judiciary to conduct a workplace culture assessment, which they've been notoriously unwilling to do, and it would force them to collect and report some data on the outcomes of judicial complaints and also diversity in clerkship hiring.
I submitted a statement for the record for the House Judiciary Subcommittee Hearing on this topic in March of 2022. The intent of my statement was to lend my support to the legislation and also to advocate for an amendment to the bill to cover the DC courts which is where I clerked. The DC Courts are an Article 1 Court, which means they were created by congress but the judges do not have life tenure.
I've been speaking with judges, scholars, and congressional offices about this, it's a gray area as to whether Article 1 judges are covered under Title VII, we believe they are not and that's why they need to be covered under this legislation.
Sarah Cottrell: Okay. Just for people who are listening in terms of time reference, we're recording this podcast episode at the end of May 2022. That was roughly two months ago, is that right?
Aliza Shatzman: Yes.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I just want to circle back on one thing. I'm sure many people who are listening are aware of this, but can you talk a little bit specifically about the piece of investigations continuing beyond resignation or retirement? Because I'm aware why that is an issue, and I'm sure many people are, but not everyone may understand why that is so important.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. Right now, if a judge steps down amid a misconduct investigation, the investigation ceases because the judges who are handling these misconduct investigations lose jurisdiction over them. That is how most of these notoriously misbehaving judges get away with misconduct without being investigated.
For example, Judge Kozinski stepped down amid a misconduct investigation, and that investigation ceased. Something really important that is not addressed by this bill is the fact that if these judges retire rather than resign, they can continue to collect a lifetime pension, collecting taxpayer dollars after committing misconduct. This legislation is really important in that it would enable some of those misconduct investigations to continue.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think your story and your experience illustrates why these kinds of things are so important. Can you tell me, in terms of where things are with the legislation currently, what is the current status here in the end of May 2022?
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. The JAA in the house has about 21 co-sponsors, the senate bill right now has about 6 but we are hoping to get more, hoping there's going to be a senate hearing in the next couple months but that's not confirmed yet. It's definitely an uphill battle because the judiciary is a small but mighty lobby. I think law clerks are a less powerful lobby but I'm trying to be a voice for them and to share my personal story as a way to advocate on this issue.
This bill should have bipartisan support, both Democratic and Republican judicial appointees harass their clerks, both liberal and conservative clerks face harassment and retaliation. I'm trying to go to every congressional office that will engage with me to talk about this bill and I'm speaking with everywhere from the most progressive to the most conservative offices right now to talk about why this bill is so urgently needed.
It's an uphill battle but I am cautiously optimistic. I know that congress has a lot of issues requiring their attention but law clerks, judiciary employees, and federal public defenders just cannot wait another year for such urgently needed reforms.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think one of the reasons that I wanted to have you on the podcast is because we do talk a lot about some of the real dysfunction, abuse, and problematic incentives in the legal profession. To me, this is just such a clear microcosm of so many of those things.
Because if you are a clerk who has gone through three years of law school, spent the money, you have the student loans, you're headed towards a career as a lawyer, and even if you are a clerk who has moved on and now you are a lawyer and you're working, the incentives to actually address this to expect it to somehow be addressed by the people who might be victimized alone is just, like your experience shows, you literally would be asking people to put their careers on the line when there isn't even a way to do something, at least, at this point.
I think that it is really important that we, as a profession, even though I am no longer a practicing lawyer, are aware of these dynamics and the ways in which people are predisposed to want to self-protect. I think, Aliza, the service that you are doing to what I'm sure is countless people who have experienced something like this and not had any recourse is so important. I think it needs to be a part of the conversation that we have about these extremely problematic dynamics in this profession.
Aliza Shatzman: Absolutely. I think there's just an enormous disincentive to speak out to file a complaint. The headwinds are enormous. I'm really just concerned that so many people are driven from their dream jobs or driven from the profession or they just continue to suffer in silence. As I'm sharing my story and encouraging people to speak out and stand up for themselves, I know that I'm also talking about these really terrible things that happen to me and I'm also speaking as someone who's no longer a practicing attorney.
I imagine people hearing my story must feel maybe both empowered but also must realize that while speaking out could cost me my job, could cost me my legal career entirely. There are a lot of headwinds.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Just as a profession, I think we need to look at the reality that what happened to you was, like you said, the job that you wanted, the job that you spent these years working towards was taken away from you, to the point where some might say, “Oh, essentially, you had nothing to lose at least on the legal career front.” But, hello, do we want people to only be advocating for this when they literally have nothing else to lose in terms of their legal career? That is such unjust and unfair. I think every lawyer, or former lawyer, should care about whether something is just and fair.
Aliza Shatzman: Absolutely. It's really time for everyone in the legal community to stand up, speak out, and get engaged on this issue. I really hope my story is one that galvanizes people to advocate for this legislation and also just support clerks. If you are a mistreated clerk and you have gathered the courage to file a complaint or speak out, you deserve support from the legal community, not further victimization.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. There's this norm in the legal profession, whether we're talking about clerkships or other sorts of employment at law firms, that's like, “Oh, will you tolerate this mistreatment?” and “That's like the dues that you pay in order to get the things that you ultimately get as part of this job,” that is sick. That is a sickness.
Aliza Shatzman: Yeah. One of the other things I've found concerning is that I've received more support, I don't know if it’s concerning, I've received more support from men than from women. It seems like a lot of female attorneys are the ones saying things like, “The right professional decision would have been not to report the misconduct,” or “You must have done something wrong. The judge hired you in the first place.”
That's deeply troubling. I think there should be more solidarity among female attorneys that just because other people experience it doesn't mean everyone should. It's not a rite of passage to be harassed by your boss.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I could not agree more. I literally could not agree more. We talked about the legislation and then you also mentioned that you're no longer practicing. Let's talk about what happened in terms of your career and the direction that you're headed now after this experience.
Aliza Shatzman: After my statement became public, I began tossing around ideas for what I could do next to continue advocating on this issue and advocating for law clerks. I was at a law firm and my employer was fantastic, she was very supportive of me but it was definitely not the kind of work I wanted to do long term so I began speaking with my friend, Matt, a WashULaw classmate, about some advocacy projects and eventually we decided we wanted to launch a non-profit.
About a month after my statement became public in mid-April of 2022, I up and quit my job at a law firm and I decided I was going to take a couple weeks to write, speak, and advocate, do some research, figure out how I could advocate on the issues I care about. Then Matt and I decided to launch this non-profit called The Legal Accountability Project to address various issues we think need to be addressed related to clerkships and harassment in the legal profession.
Sarah Cottrell: Tell me a little bit more about just what The Legal Accountability Project does, what you're hoping to do, and all of those things.
Aliza Shatzman: Sure. We are working on a variety of initiatives focused on law schools. I think—and I've written and spoken about this—law schools right now are part of the problem but they can be part of the solution. I think the issue with law schools is that they are incentivized to encourage as many law students as possible to clerk, it contributes to both their formal rankings and to informal perceptions about the law schools.
Really, one aspect of my story is that some folks at my law school were aware of the judge's misconduct at the time I accepted the clerkship. I don't say that to point the finger at my law school because I enjoy my time at WashU and I'm working very productively right now with them on some reforms, but I think a lot of law schools are aware of the scope of the problem and kind of are burying their heads in the sand in terms of whether they want to address these issues.
Some of the initiatives that I am working on right now are (a) clerkship reporting database, a centralized one where we hope every law clerk will report on their clerkship experience, either positive or negative. It will be a way for prospective clerks to know to look out for judges with a history of misconduct. The other major initiative we are working on is a workplace culture assessment.
The federal judiciary has been notoriously unwilling to conduct such an assessment and that would elucidate data on the scope of the problem of judicial misconduct, the types of clerks facing mistreatments. I think that's the first step to crafting effective solutions. The third initiative we're working on is fall programming with law school affinity groups. We have a bunch of events already scheduled for this fall. We'll be traveling all over the country. I'll be sharing my story, talking about the scope of the problem, proposing solutions.
I'm not out there discouraging anyone from clerking, I'm encouraging people to find clerkships where they'll have a positive experience and also highlighting the resources that I feel are necessary for folks who have negative experiences. Those are the few of the things we're working on right now.
I'm having a lot of productive conversations with law school deans and administrators. We're trying to find partners for our pilot programs in the fall. I've been really heartened by a lot of my conversations with people. They're very willing to engage. They're concerned about the problem. I feel really optimistic about the future.
I wake up every day at 5:00 AM, shoot out of bed just ready to hit the day, I'm just very excited about what I'm doing now. That's not something I can say about the way I felt when I was practicing law.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think you mentioned there were people at your law school who are aware of some issues with the judge who you clerked for. To your point, I think that is often the case in most law schools, I'm not saying everyone knows every single judge who could be problematic, but I do think that part of the issue is, to your point, not to point fingers, but the normalization of bad behavior in general in the legal profession I think, I don't know if I would say trickles down or trickles up, to this experience of mentally minimizing the reality of what it is to work for any employer including a judge who is problematic in some way.
We know this because any of us who are in the legal profession, there are judges in particular that large swaths of people have some sense that working for this person might not be the best experience. But I think that law students, even if you know that on some level, the fact that nothing's being done about it and that it’s just a fact that people know but it people are still continuing to take those positions can create this sense of, “Well, it must not be that bad.”
Aliza Shatzman: Right. A couple of things there. First of all, I think the issue is that law schools, while they're aware of the scope of the problem, I've definitely had some troubling conversations with folks who say, “Well, we don't warn students about misbehaving judges because it's a he said she said. This person had a bad experience but this other person had a good experience and I don't want to be the one playing telephone here.”
Those conversations are concerning. They also inform my advocacy work but they trouble me. We also know that sometimes, these notoriously misbehaving judges are also the feeder judges to higher level clerkships. What happens is women and non-white folks are discouraged from applying, it's white men who take those clerkships.
They go on to the higher level clerkships and it really forecloses important professional opportunities for some already marginalized groups which is ultimately a pipeline issue because we know these clerkships are the way to get the fancy job as a prosecutor, a public defender, or a Biglaw partner, which ultimately, those folks become our US attorneys, our federal defenders, and our judges. It's an enormous pipeline issue as well.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah, 100%, and agreed that is extremely troubling. Yeah. I'm going to refrain from an entire rant on that topic.
Aliza Shatzman: I was going to say the other thing about this centralized clerkship database that I am working on getting off the ground is that it would deal with this issue with what law school officials refer to as institutional knowledge, the idea that we at this one law school know about these misbehaving judges and we believe we're effectively warning our students. Well, okay, that's fine, but what about the law school down the road which is not benefiting from your institutional knowledge and where all those clerks are walking unwittingly into hostile work environments?
It shouldn't be this silo effect where some but not all clerks benefit from institutional knowledge. If people in the profession are aware of misbehaving judges, that data should be somewhere public for everyone to be made aware. If we're not warning everyone about these misbehaving judges, people will keep applying, keep being harassed, and it's an enormous problem.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. I think the reality that the people who can talk publicly about this are people like me who have left the law and are like, “I have no legal career to destroy because I do not want to be a lawyer,” that is, in and of itself, so problematic given that our profession, again, literally justice, fairness, these are things that should be important and are important to many of us, should be important to all of us.
I really appreciate the work that you're doing, Aliza. I would just love if you have anything else that you want to share that we haven't talked about yet, feel free to do so now.
Aliza Shatzman: Yeah. I guess I just wanted to say that the issue of harassment in the judiciary is pervasive and persistent. For every law clerk who speaks out, there are so many who are suffering in silence in federal and state courthouses across the country who will never be able to speak out. I receive messages from people every day on this subject and I'm advocating for them. It's really just time for every attorney, everyone who cares about this issue, who cares about justice, to get engaged, to stand up, and speak out.
I am very grateful for the assistance my attorneys provided to me. It is enormously difficult for law clerks to find legal representation when they are seeking judicial accountability. For anyone who is inspired or galvanized by my story and others like it, if you want to offer to serve as pro bono counsel for law clerks, that's enormously important.
If you want to call your members of congress and tell them to support the Judiciary Accountability Act, that is enormously important. We just need everybody to be engaged on this issue.
Sarah Cottrell: Yeah. Really, this is so important. I think for anyone who listens to the podcast, they are people who care about these problematic dynamics in the legal profession. Hopefully, this can be one of many steps towards making the profession a safer and more humane place to work.
Aliza Shatzman: Absolutely.
Sarah Cottrell: Aliza, if people want to connect with you, learn more about the non-profit, where can they find you online?
Aliza Shatzman: I am on Twitter, my handle is @AlizaShatzman. You can find me on LinkedIn, Aliza Shatzman. My email address is on there and I hope people reach out. If you want to learn more about The Legal Accountability Project, our website is legalaccountabilityproject.org. Please, reach out, sign up for more information.
Sarah Cottrell: Great. Aliza, I really want to thank you for coming on the podcast today. This is a really important issue and I’m really just grateful for the work that you're doing.
Aliza Shatzman: Thanks for having me on the show.
Sarah Cottrell: Thanks so much for listening. I absolutely love getting to share this podcast with you. If you haven't yet, I invite you to download my free guide: First Steps to Leaving the Law at formerlawyer.com/first. Until next time, have a great week.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.