January 23, 2017 Articles

A Federal Judge’s Guide to Chambers Etiquette

Follow these practical tips for success as a judicial intern.

By the Honorable Barbara M.G. Lynn

Congratulations, you have secured an enviable position as a judicial intern! The experience is likely to be one of the most meaningful learning opportunities you will have during law school. A key to making a good impression on the judge and the other people you encounter during your internship is to observe basic rules of chambers etiquette. While every judge is likely to have his or her own chambers rules and policies, the following general tips will start you on the path to success.

Learn the Communications Protocol in Chambers
The judge is extremely busy. Her day is generally packed with trials, hearings, meetings, preparing for all these activities, and drafting opinions and orders. Learn and respect any chambers protocols for communicating with the judge.

Ask whether the judge prefers to discuss assignments directly, in a face-to-face meeting, or by email, or whether she prefers to route communications with interns through the law clerks or other chambers staff. If you are going to be communicating directly with the judge about your assignments, find out what time of day the judge seems to have the most downtime and arrange to meet with her then. Knock on the door or otherwise announce yourself before you come in.

When you do get the opportunity to meet with the judge, have your presentation or questions planned in advance. Be as concise as possible and get straight to the point.

Listen to the Judge
Always listen carefully to the judge's instructions and questions. Try to understand why the judge wants to know something and address that concern. Do not wander off on tangents unrelated to the assignment.

Understand the Nature and Scope of Your Assignment
Before you begin any assignment, be sure you know the parameters of the work product the judge expects you to produce. It is very likely that you will be asked to prepare a legal memo. But, you could also be asked to draft a section to be included in an opinion or a scholarly article. Be sure you understand which legal issues you are expected to address in your research or written work product. If your research takes you down an unanticipated path, communicate that to the law clerk or the judge before you go too far.

Appreciate Your "Audience" and Its Demands
Even if you are getting your assignments from a law clerk, the judge is always part of your audience. Depending on the assignment, other audiences may include the parties, a reviewing court, and other judges on the same court. Avoid the temptation to be condescending, mean-spirited, overly clever, or cute in your writing.

Incorporate the judge's style requirements into your written work product. To find out what these requirements are, ask if there is a chambers style guide; if not, review the judge's published opinions and other orders.

Know When to Ask Questions
Don't expect the judge or his law clerks to provide a primer to you on the substantive law. Do research on your own, and ask questions about the law after you've discovered what you can on your own.

When you do ask questions, be prepared to ask all your questions at one time.

Observe Deadlines
When the judge assigns a deadline, she expects you to observe it. If a project is taking more time than you think the judge anticipated, let her know in advance of the deadline. Your completion of an assignment may affect other projects underway in the judge's chambers. Never just let a deadline pass unsatisfied.

Proofread!
The written work you submit to the judge may be a "draft," but it should be your final, polished work product. Mistakes are embarrassing.

Be On Time
Know the office hours for the judge's chambers and understand what hours you are expected to work during your internship. If someone doesn't tell you the first day, ask.

Most judges have a policy on taking time off during your internship. Know the judge's policy before planning any appointments or vacations.

Use Court Email and the Internet Appropriately
You should use the computer resources provided during your internship only for work-related purposes. Don't send any email that you would not want the judge or his staff to read. Reserve your personal communications for your personal email. Avoid using "reply all," and be very careful about forwarding emails, especially from the judge.

Be aware that the court may monitor the sites you visited and the amount of time you spent online. Don't stream music or video.

Be Discreet and Respect Issues of Confidentiality
Take time to review the Code of Judicial Conduct for Judicial Employees. Don't talk about a case outside chambers—including in the courthouse elevators or restrooms. Preserve chambers confidentiality and guard the judge's deliberative process. Avoid conflicts of interest. Know the judge's policy about extracurricular legal activities, and disclose activities involving law firms to the judge before you participate.

Dress for Success
Assume the judge has a dress code and that you will be required to wear business attire. This means suits for men. It's best to start off with a white shirt and conservative tie. Go with something bolder if you observe that blue or striped shirts and more stylish ties are acceptable. For women, suits, dresses and jackets, or professional separates are appropriate; refrain from wearing low-cut blouses or short skirts.

If the judge permits business casual attire in chambers, this generally means khakis or trousers and long-sleeve, collared shirts for men. For women, it means dresses, skirts or pants, and a blouse or sweater. No sandals or flip-flops!

Courtesy Counts
Judicial chambers are a very intimate place to work. The judge's staff is small and close-knit. Be courteous and respectful. Don't ask the judge's secretary or judicial assistant, courtroom deputy, or law clerks to do errands or other work for you.

In addition to these tips, remember to show your enthusiasm about your internship. Watch as many courtroom proceedings as you can. Socialize with the law clerks, and accept invitations to accompany the judge to law-related events whenever possible.

Keywords: litigation, Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, JIOP, chambers etiquette

The Honorable Barbara M.G. Lynn – January 23, 2017