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Litigation Journal

Spring 2022: Embracing Change

A COVID Clerkship

Djenab Conde, Angie Garcia, and Noel R Leon


  • In a videoconference grid, the judge was one of many tiny boxes on a screen.
  • Despite the challenges and frustrations of clerking remotely, the clerks found they were still doing justice.
  • They found there is more than one way to do that important work.
A COVID Clerkship Productions

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A judicial clerkship offers a rare immersion in the inner workings of a courthouse and one judge’s chambers. For one year, a handful of lawyers early in their careers experience how law is made and enforced, embedded among the humans whose writings and speech are doing the making and enforcing. We were part of that group in August 2019 as we entered our clerkships for the Honorable Victor A. Bolden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

We all were primed for the job by some version of the same story:

Clerking is an incredible opportunity to practice legal analysis and writing. You will learn a great deal about the practice of law in a short time. You will get broad exposure to different stages of criminal and civil proceedings. You will develop close relationships with courthouse staff and each other. The relationship you will develop with your judge is incredibly special and will endure throughout your lifetime.

But our 2019–2020 tenure was no ordinary clerkship year. The COVID-19 pandemic rocked our chambers just as it did the rest of the world. We had two totally different clerkship experiences. The fall and winter did not disappoint our lofty expectations. Thanks to those warm, joyful days of face-to-face interaction, we were able to nurture the personal connections we had formed in the fall, through the spring and summer isolation of our COVID clerkships.

After having experienced both in-person and virtual clerking, we found ourselves grateful for the bonds hewn through the day-to-day personal interactions that came from sharing the same physical chambers of the court. The pandemic proved that judges and clerks and the entire justice system can adapt and get the job of justice done, but we found that the virtual clerkship experience lost some of the human richness of the in-person one.

The In-Person Clerkship

Through the fall and winter of our clerkships, chambers was always a stimulating place. Judge Bolden created a warm and encouraging atmosphere. We usually began the day around the coffee maker and tea kettle, with either a discussion about something in the news or feedback on a draft order the judge had reviewed. We understood the quality and effort he expected of us, but he also welcomed varying thoughts and ideas. He encouraged us to think about the legal issues and to express our opinions, even—especially—if they contradicted his. We had ownership over our assigned cases and schedule. While there was always something that could be done (the work never ends), we had control over our time and what we worked on when. We gathered as a group for lunch at noon or shortly thereafter. Lunch discussion topics ranged from our favorite artists to Supreme Court cases. Judge Bolden shared stories, and we all learned about each other’s lives. There was a tremendous amount of laughter.

Chambers was a deeply collaborative working environment. We often discussed the minutiae of our cases, trying to glean something new from a co-clerk’s fresh perspective. We sought each other out as a sounding board. We also chatted about our cases over lunch and in the late afternoons when we gathered in the main room for a break from looking at our computer screens. These casual conversations, unbound by a particular objective or time frame or pressure, and in which all of us participated, often shed new light on a case or broke through a mental block. We also proofread every substantive order or ruling for each other before it was filed. Nobody is perfect (not even judges!), and a second or third set of eyes on documents ensured no little mistakes slipped through. The proofreading allowed us to learn the eventual resolution of the cases to which we were not assigned but with which we had become familiar through our discussions. It also sharpened our own writing and helped to create one cohesive voice for the court.

We also participated in the daily life of the Bridgeport courthouse. In the District of Connecticut, which also has courthouses in New Haven and Hartford, active judges get a budget for three staff. It is up to each judge whether to have a judicial assistant and two clerks or three clerks. We were a chambers of three clerks. We followed the same paths through the courthouse regularly, picking up chambers mail in the clerk’s office, delivering paper to be shredded, and visiting other chambers. We came to know and greeted the court staff we met on our way each day.

A lot of people work in a federal courthouse. In addition to their law clerks and judicial assistants, each judge has a dedicated courtroom deputy and a court reporter. Other people in the clerk’s and marshal’s offices keep things running, including case administrators, staff attorneys, security officers, and librarians. There was a spirit of community among people working for justice, even if we didn’t know them all by name. There were a few shared meals or holiday gatherings for the whole Bridgeport courthouse during that fall and winter, occasions that reinforced the sense of community and our common goals.

We got to sit in on lots of court hearings. Being able to observe a wide range of court proceedings was one of the best parts of in-person clerking. A lot happens in a district court, involving both criminal and civil matters. Our chambers alone had a packed calendar. Sometimes we were too busy working on our own cases to attend each other’s routine proceedings, like a criminal defendant’s change of plea. We always made time to attend any of the judge’s proceedings that were not run-of-the-mill. When we had the time, we also attended proceedings in other judges’ courtrooms. This gave us the opportunity to observe the interactions of judges other than our own with the attorneys appearing before them.

After each hearing, we compared notes on who we found particularly persuasive in person, as opposed to just based on their briefs. We remarked on when we thought an attorney could have given a stronger answer to one of the judge’s questions.

It was fascinating to watch the ways that attorneys argue and converse with the judge. We enjoyed listening to the judge’s questions, thinking through why he asked them and discussing with him afterward his thoughts on the answers that counsel provided. It was an invaluable education to see the range of styles, tones, types of answers, and body language featured by all kinds of attorneys in all kinds of cases.

Just going into the courtroom was special. As young women and women of color, we loved walking out of the same door as the judge and taking our spots on the side of the courtroom. It isn’t often that people in the courtroom reflect the country’s diversity, so we felt pride that our chambers contained a range of ethnicities.

We were keenly aware in those fall and winter clerkship days that we had an opportunity that would not come again in our careers. We had six beautiful months of it. For that, we are immensely grateful.

Everything changed in March 2020.

Going Virtual

On Friday, March 13, 2020, we gathered around Djenab’s desk. It was a fairly typical place for the judge and clerks to gather, to discuss scheduling or juggling cases or to get one another’s opinion. But this time was different. We were gathering to discuss whether we should come into work the next week. The novel coronavirus was spreading. Fairfield County, Connecticut, was emerging alongside New York City as the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States. There were attorneys and courthouse staff who commuted daily from the city. “Flattening the curve” was a phrase on everyone’s lips, and the idea of a short, but stringent, lockdown was on everyone’s mind.

In this moment, the decision was again a collaborative one. We discussed our preferences and concerns, and what was needed for hearings the following week. As a chambers, we decided not to come in the entire next week. There was no expectation of being out of the courthouse longer than that.

Shortly thereafter, the chief judge issued the first of a series of orders closing the courthouse, and pandemic life began to sink in for us as it did for everyone else. We did not have essential jobs requiring our physical presence to keep society running, so we would be staying home indefinitely.

When we first went virtual, there was initial excitement about being able to work from home. The judiciary, like many government institutions, was a little behind much of the rest of the white-collar workforce when it came to flexible schedules and remote work. Those first weeks, we had no idea what we were in for—and no idea what we would be losing, collectively and individually.

Our initial experience was that working from home wasn’t that different from being in chambers. The researching and opinion drafting was substantially the same. It was a scary break from routine but not entirely bad. We rescheduled hearings, thinking that we’d return to the courthouse relatively soon. We relished not having the stressful commute on I-95.

As the days and weeks dragged on, though, we found that the work environment was completely different. The solitude of our homes was markedly different from the convivial chambers where we first worked together. We made efforts to maintain the opportunities for informal connection, such as scheduling a telephone lunch date together once a week. We all still felt a sense of closeness with each other and Judge Bolden, but asking questions and discussing a case on the phone didn’t feel the same as face-to-face. When in chambers together, if you heard a discussion that piqued your interest, you just walked out of your office to join in. That didn’t happen anymore. It couldn’t happen anymore. We had less exposure to cases and legal issues beyond our own assignments. It also became harder to help each other. In chambers, we were immediately available to ask each other quick questions or to share thoughts on passages we were drafting. Not working in offices right next to each other, we found that was no longer as easy.

The district was not set up with Zoom at first. Those first few weeks, we either canceled proceedings or converted them to phone conferences. We soon realized that we could not keep postponing the proceedings that we didn’t want to have over the phone. We were pleasantly surprised by how the District of Connecticut was able to respond and how quickly it implemented changes. Our courtroom deputy and the rest of the clerk’s office and information technology department worked extremely hard to get the court set up with Zoom, trained all staff and judges, and put in place new virtual courtroom protocols. It took a while to get everyone comfortable using Zoom, but once we got acclimated, we were able to conduct all of our proceedings except jury trials (which did not resume until after our clerkships ended).

The Difficulties of the Online Courtroom

By about mid-April, we resumed “in-person” proceedings in grids with equally sized and positioned talking heads instead of the theater of the courtroom, where everyone occupies a familiar position that defines their relationships with one another. Judge Bolden’s courtroom in Bridgeport looks like many federal courtrooms—filled with dark colors and lots of wood paneling. Judge Bolden sits elevated on a platform, above eye level, and directly under the crest of the court. Even before he takes the bench, the surroundings convey the importance and requisite solemnity. We sat to his right, opposite the jury box. All the designated “spots” are visual cues to each person’s role, and the judge’s elevated seat cements his stature as the person in charge.

In the videoconference grid, however, the judge was one of many tiny boxes on a screen. We clerks rarely appeared on screen, no longer representing visually our diversity. We now had to check which individuals were attorneys representing which parties, something we knew immediately in the courtroom because of where they were seated. We wondered what effect the removal of these visual reminders of the power structure and hierarchy of the courtroom had on the other participants. In particular, for criminal defendants, who often appeared through a phone in someone’s living room or the detention center, did the process feel real or too abstract? Despite the judge appearing as one of many tiny squares in a grid, he still had the power to make decisions about their liberty.

And what about the clients, victims, and the public? Did they gain the intimacy that we had lost by not being in chambers? On the other hand, the increased accessibility of Zoom meant that more clients and victims were able to participate in hearings. In the physical courtroom, it was almost guaranteed that the only people who would be present at a civil hearing were attorneys. For a criminal hearing, the defendant would appear with maybe a few family members. Traveling to the courthouse, going through security, and finding the right courtroom might be intimidating to those unfamiliar with the setting, not to mention prohibitively difficult for those who live far away, who have limitations on their mobility, or who do not have access to public or private transportation methods. With Zoom, it was much easier. Many joined on their phones or with their video off. This became especially salient during a hearing on a motion to reduce a sentence of life imprisonment under the First Step Act. It was our largest Zoom courtroom, with about 20 victims appearing, many of whom spoke at length about how they were affected by the crimes at issue.

We take pride in being part of a demonstration of adaptability from the judiciary, an institution marked by notorious inflexibility. But far beyond that, our biggest takeaway for our clerkship year is that shared humanity and justice can make the leap from physical to virtual space.

We built bonds during those first six months of our clerkship when we spent more time with each other than anyone else in our lives. We saw how important face-to-face communication is to making a human connection. But even as we lost the ability to be physically together, we learned the importance of holding space for each other and for those interacting with the judicial system. In the remote environment, we became much more acutely aware of the ways—both physical and not—a court serves as an opportunity for representatives of the justice system to hold space for the parties. It’s an opportunity for parties to say, often through their counsel, what they need to get off their chests and for it to be heard by an institution that has the power to set things right—or to at least bring a conflict to closure. And the conflicts were not abstract. We, as representatives of the court, worked through matters that were crucially important to the people most affected by them, and we worked to hold the space that those people needed. We loved that role, which did not change between in-person and remote work. Despite the challenges and frustrations of clerking remotely, we were still doing justice. There is more than one way to do that important work, we learned, and we came away grateful for the entire spectrum of experiences we had.