In Episode 15 of Lawyerpreneur, I speak with Steven Arango and Dani Barondess about an initiative they’re launching called Law Clerks for Diversity. They are developing a program that will pair former federal law clerks as mentors to law students to help create more diversity — gender, racial, and cultural diversity — in the federal judiciary.
Today’s show is sponsored by ALPS Insurance, the nation’s largest direct writer of lawyers’ malpractice insurance. Right now you can get 25% off one CLE seminar from ALPS. Go to alpsinsurance.com/cle and use promo code LAWYERPRENEUR upon check-out.
Law Clerks for Diversity with Steven Arango and Dani Barondess
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
Jeremy Richter: My guest today are Steven Arango and Dani Barondess. Steven went to Alabama Law and is now clerking in the Southern District of Texas, and Dani went to George Mason School of Law and is clerking in the District of Hawaii. They are among the founders of a new program called Law Clerks for Diversity. Welcome to Lawyerpreneur.
Steven Arango: Thanks for having us, Jeremy.
Dani Barondess: Thanks so much.
Jeremy Richter: All right. Steven, let’s start with you. I first saw a couple of tweets by you — I think it was last week about Law Clerks for Diversity. Tell me what it is and kind of the roots of the program. yeller in y’all are initiating.
Steven Arango: Yeah, absolutely. So the idea kind of came up. I’ve been mentoring law students around the country for about a year, year-and-a-half now that are trying to get federal clerkships. I’d say the numbers range from 25 to 35 students. And so after doing that for a while, it just kind of popped in my head that this is kind of a systemic issue that law students aren’t really sure how to navigate the process. They’re not sure who to connect with and how to create a better network so that they can get clerkships. And obviously there are diversity issues within the federal judiciary. So I thought what a great way to try to solve both these issues, and try to connect students with mentors to create a more diverse judiciary.
And diversity cuts more than one way. It’s not just racial diversity or law school diversity. It’s diversity of thought, diversity of background. Are you a first gen law student, associated economic status, stuff like that. So we kind of have this holistic approach at diversity. And so that’s kind of how it was born. And then I got connected with Dani who is our co-founder in this organization. And she’s just been phenomenal. She has kept me on the straight and narrow, not getting too sidetracked with logo design or “Hey, we should make t shirts.” She definitely has a good focus of the big picture stuff and making sure we’re staying on track. So, honestly after a day or two of kind of coming up with the idea, she jumped on board and like I said, she’s a co-founder and we wouldn’t be where we are today without her help.
Jeremy Richter: Alright, Dani, tell me what your role has been so far in what you’re trying to accomplish.
Dani Barondess: Yeah, well, other than just sort of inserting myself in this program, as Steven mentioned, which I’m happy he was receptive to, I have been sort of brainstorming with him about what the vision is for the project. I’ve been working with him on looking through the interest that we’ve had, which has just been overwhelming. Just such impressive people, current and former law clerks who very clearly want to share their knowledge and resources. So I’m helping him kind of look through those and sort of manage the interest. And then we sort of begin working on figuring out sort of what the program looks like after we have the participants. We don’t want to have all this interest and throw everybody to the wolves and not give them any guidance or anything to help them with the mentorship process.
So our vision, as Steven mentioned, is first and foremost a mentorship program, which, you know, is nothing particularly innovative in itself. But we think this sort of niche area of federal law clerks is an area where mentorship can be really beneficial and truly change the game on whether you end up getting an offer or not. So I won’t repeat everything he said, but we see the program involving this mentorship aspect. We hope to pair people partially based on sort of some shared characteristics, hopefully, so that we’re putting people who might have similar experiences or might have faced similar hurdles in their careers up to that point.
And then just providing that comfort level to be able to go to that person and get honest feedback and honest insight on the process. And then other resources like providing mock interview programs, having a resume or a cover letter bank, insight on how to choose a writing sample, how long should your writing sample be. Should it be a law review article, things like that. And then we see partnering with a lot of minority student organizations that have networks full of diverse students who may be really great candidates for federal clerkships. And then we see a clerk thing where people can have access to a list of people who have clerked, and who they’ve worked for. So those are some of the initial ideas and obviously, we’re open to some more as people can give their insight.
Jeremy Richter: So, after I came across Steven’s tweets and the idea for the program, I went to Google and looked up “law clerk diversity,” I think is what I’ve typed in there. And there’s articles over the last five years saying, “Hey, this is a problem. This is a problem. Here’s what we’re seeing,” but there weren’t a lot of solutions. But here y’all are with a solution. Or at least part of the solution. And it’s certainly going to take a lot of involvement from a lot of people. But what was it as y’all went through the application process and got into your federal clerkships that caused you to realize, as you look around that there’s a diversity issue here. And like you said, whether it’s diversity of thought, or gender, or race, whatever the particular diversity is, what was it that stood out to you like, “Hey, this is an issue”?
Steven Arango: Well, I think it’s — you can look at articles and obviously the statistics back those up and Dani and I are not experts on either of those things, but it’s somewhat intuitive as well. When you review applications or you talk to people or talk to Career Services Offices in law schools, they basically all echo the same thing that if you’re not in the top 5%, or you don’t really go to a T-14 school, you might get lucky, but it’s going to be really tough.
And so what happens is that people again, from diverse racial backgrounds, socio-economic or diverse law school backgrounds, they don’t have the help there that is needed to get a federal clerkship. Or they don’t have the understanding or the resources. So it’s almost a cycle that’s created by the institution. Judges are hiring from T-14 schools, which again, there’s nothing wrong with it. But there are obviously incredibly qualified candidates that don’t go to Top 50 schools or Top 75 schools. So when you have that type of institutional hiring process, and then professors and law schools start to feed into it and say, “Well, you know, we are we’re ranked number 60 and you’re in the top 20%. You’re a great writer. But most federal judges don’t hire there. So why don’t you look elsewhere?”
And so again, that kind of institutional system just continues to feed off each other. And Dani and I hope to be that kind of pause button on it to say, “Whoa, let’s stop this cycle, because there are incredible applicants out there from entirely diverse backgrounds that should be and can be hired, that you’re missing out on.” And not only is that going to benefit that individual, it’s going to benefit the legal community, and it’s going to benefit our country as a whole.
Jeremy Richter: That’s good. What is it that you’re looking for in mentors, because I’m sure that you’ve got to be selective and it’s got to be something more than you’ve been a law clerk before. So what is it that you’re looking for from people who want to get involved, to be able to have input and provide some guidance to people who need it?
Dani Barondess: I guess I’ll take that one to start. Yeah, I mean, I think as I mentioned, we’ve had sort of overwhelming interest by current and former law clerks wanting to share their knowledge, their connections, their networks. And I think that’s, in my experience, not surprising. I think a lot of lawyers really like of pass on their knowledge and they’re excited to talk about themselves and their own careers, about how that worked. And then they can pass that on to younger generations, which I think is great and should be — I think we can make fun of it, but it should really be used. I mean, that should be so, I think so. Yeah, I think I think part of the thing we’re looking for when we’re looking at the mentors, is — it’s great if we can have a good chunk of people who have faced these types of barriers themselves because they can provide particular insight on how they overcame those barriers and really be relatable for students who feel like it’s just such an uphill battle. And another aspect is just sort of fresh ideas.
We can’t take credit for the idea of a mentorship program or for the even for bringing up the idea that diversity in federal law clerks is a problem. As you mentioned, there are tons of articles on it. But I think people who are really willing to kind of focus on their issues spend their time. I think probably a lot of us can think about other mentorship programs, we’ve been a part of where it’s sort of a formal pairing and then it just fizzles out if there’s not really an organic connection. But we hope to be able to put people together who have some shared characteristics, and then sort of give them the guidance to continue fostering the relationship. As long as it takes and hopefully then it organically lasts longer than that. So yeah, I mean, as far as mentors, I think we’re looking for people who have a demonstrated interest in giving back to the legal community. People who care about these issues, people who are willing to give more give time to the issues and really share the knowledge that they have. And yeah, I think that’s sort of the starting point.
Steven Arango: And something Dani touched on that I think we’ve both seen in the applications — we’ve received almost 150 applications within a week, from mentors and applicants — is the passion behind it is that people don’t want to just sign up because this is a checkbox that they can put on their law firm website or they can say they’ve done this in their free time. People are truly interested in helping others. And that’s what’s really great about programs like this, is that you get to see that passion and work within — I think Dani and I both agree on this — we hope that this organization becomes a moot point, at some point. That the diversity becomes second nature, that every background from whether law school, racial, it’s just this kind of organization is unnecessary. And so that would be our hope that this becomes second nature and then Law Clerks for Diversity was an afterthought.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, you problem-solve yourself out of existence.
Steven Arango: Exactly. Yeah.
Jeremy Richter: Well, I’d like to hear from both of you on this next question. Why did this become an important issue for you? Not only do you get involved, but to be a problem solver and initiate a program that is geared towards solving the problem.
Steven Arango: Dani, you want to start with that one?
Dani Barondess: Oh, sure. Yeah. So as I touched on earlier, I sort of, you know, reached out to Steven, when I saw his idea, and it came at a time when I was kind of looking for some way to give back. You know, as you mentioned, I’m in Hawaii, which is amazing. It has a lot of perks, but it’s also a little bit isolating from the mainland. And I was in Washington, D.C. before this, where everywhere you look, there’s a lawyer and there’s a lot of those opportunities. So I had been sort of looking for something to really kind of put some energy into outside of just work. And so that’s part of the reason. And then, you know, I think diversity in general has always been problematic within the legal profession as a whole. And I think this is sort of a small area that I, now that I am a law clerk have a direct connection with and care about. And I see how much law clerks do and how important their role is. And so to me, the diversity initiatives that are coming in waves across the country in various contexts is so important. And I think this is just sort of a small way that I can use a little bit of my experiences to improve the world and the profession.
Steven Arango: Yeah, I think Dani nailed that and just from a little bit more personal narrative on my side and like I said, mentoring students over the last year, year-and-a-half, I’ve seen these issues pop up with a lack of institutional knowledge, a lack of understanding of how the process works. And if Dani and I can help just even one or two students to get federal clerkships, that’s better than nothing. And so change doesn’t always happen wholesale overnight. Very rarely does that ever happen. They’re incremental changes. And so, again, this organization is just starting. We hope it continues to grow and grow and grow. And like you said, you know, we solve the problem, so, you know, makes our organization obsolete.
Steven Arango: But on top of that, my father’s from Caracas, Venezuela. He immigrated here, went to med school. My mom’s side of the family is from Italy and Spain. So we’re all very loud, we love food, and we shave at least three times a day. That’s kind of the extent of our family. And so obviously, a very diverse culture, diverse background. And, you know, again, diversity comes in all shapes and forms. It just makes organization, industries, and everyone better around them. And that’s just something that I grew up with. And I hope that our organization can help accomplish.
Jeremy Richter: So Steven, was there a tipping point for you or some particular event that catalyzed you to get this rolling?
Steven Arango: I don’t know if there’s a particular event. Recently, I’d say over the last three or four months, I’ve had more people reach out on LinkedIn or email asking about clerkships especially because now OSCAR just opened, and judges are looking at clerkship applications. So I’ve seen the people’s interest in clerking kind of peaked as well. And I just finally, just one day it kind of struck me that this isn’t just a problem with one or two people. You know, like myself, I didn’t learn about clerkships until my second year. This is something that is across schools from T-14 schools to unranked schools, from all different backgrounds, that clerkships are not talked about enough. There’s not a great institutional understanding. And again, we have this cycle of creating this idea that if you’re not at a T-14 school, if you’re not a top 5%, you wouldn’t make a great law clerk. And all those things can kind of intersect and go together.
So it just occurred to me, what if we made an organization out there? I mean, I remember when I was applying for clerkships, I looked at LinkedIn, hey, is there a judicial clerkship network? Is there an organization that can help? And there are definitely — I know the ABA has a clerkship program. But this is such a large and significant issue that more than one organization can exist in the space. So long answer short, I don’t know if there was a specific event, I think just over the last year, year-and-a-half, this is kind of built up and I finally thought, you know what, maybe we should do something about it.
Jeremy Richter: Have you developed — and I know it’s still early on, you’re working on all of the programming — have you developed a specific structure for the mentoring relationships or anything of that nature yet?
Dani Barondess: We’re still in the working phase, and we’re going through, we’re creating, like I mentioned sort of an initial — I envisioned sort of almost like a packet, sort of like a guidance, just to start. And then eventually once we can figure out how to make a website and two other things that neither of us are super in the loop on, have a have a way to basically, for the mentors provide sort of some guidance. We suggest having an initial zoom call with your mentee, here are some questions that you can talk about to get the conversation sort of rolling, what are they looking for, what’s their timeframe? Do they have geographical limitations, things like that. And then giving ideas for continued — it’s hard right now, because obviously, nobody’s really meeting, and it’ll be difficult to know if and when that changes. And there may be somebody in the West Coast is paired with somebody on the East Coast, that may be a non-issue anyway.
But other than that, I think we see eventually also having broader panels where the participants can log on and hear a few of our law clerk mentors discuss their own experiences. And then an access to a comprehensive sheet where all of the law clerks and the judges they work for are listed. I think one of the big things that we’re really sort of right now in the brainstorming phase on and which we welcome all any and all feedback on is how to foster that mentorship relationship in a way that is somewhat structured and doesn’t sort of let it fall to the wayside, but it’s also not — we still want that organic factor as well.
Steven Arango: And one thing that Dani touched on as well, to give you a more specific example, we’ve had people from, let’s say, Harvard Law that clerked at SCOTUS, which is absolutely amazing, and we welcome all those people to please apply for mentorships or anything they want. But if we have a student that applies from let’s say a 75th ranked law school, and they want to clerk at the district court level, it may not make sense to pair that person, not that neither could benefit from each other or offer insight. But it would make more sense maybe to group them with someone that clerked at the district level that went to a law school ranked within the 75 to 45 range or something like that, because they’re going to have those connections. The judge that the mentee worked, or excuse me, the mentor worked with is obviously okay with having people or excited to have people from law schools that aren’t in the Top 50 or whatever. So those types of things will also play a factor in our pairings.
Dani Barondess: I was just going to, sort of on that same point just mentioned that I — which I sort of said in a long winded way that we do visualize this as beyond just the mentor-mentee relationship. So even though I agree completely with Steven, that we’re not going to pair a double Harvard person with somebody at a lower rank school necessarily, that’s not to say that the mentee at a lower ranked school is not going to benefit from connections, insight from that other person — it just may not be that that’s the sort of micro-relationship that we are going to really push.
Jeremy Richter: Yeah, that makes sense. You want to put everybody in a situation that’s going to most benefit them, regardless of every relationship could be of some benefit.
Steven Arango: Exactly, exactly.
Jeremy Richter: What have y’all been doing to and obviously, you’re on this podcast today — I saw on Twitter that y’all recorded a podcast interview yesterday with, was it somebody at Above the Law?
Steven Arango: That’s correct.
Jeremy Richter: And so what else y’all doing to get the word out? How are you getting communicating with law students who are, you know, interested?
Steven Arango: Well, Dani just wrote a fantastic article that should be coming out later this week with the ABA blog. So we can pass that along for your listeners that are interested. And you know, I believe we’ll continue to reach out to other podcasts. We’ve had other people reach out to us like yourself, Jeremy. We welcome those, you know. We’re happy to make the time if we can. And just again, word of mouth has been wonderful — people sharing the Google Doc sharing information on LinkedIn or any other social media sites about the program, because that’s the way people are going to learn about it. Not every law student has a LinkedIn. Not every law student listens to podcast. So we truly just want people to spread this to their network as wide as possible so that we can get the most applicants and put together an amazing pilot program.
Dani Barondess: I also shared it with my alma mater, our clerkship contact. And then there’s a career services contact, who works closely with diversity groups. So you know if there any other law schools or career services contacts listening who are interested, they should reach out to us because we’re happy to connect in that way as well. I think that’s a good way to reach students who aren’t looking at #LawTwitter every day.
Jeremy Richter: This is a good time to tell people where they can find each of you individually and find more out about Law Clerks for Diversity.
Steven Arango: So we just established our email. So it’s email@example.com, spelled exactly like it sounds. And then we also have a Twitter page, @Clrks4Diversity. And you can find us on Twitter (Steven and Dani), and then if you go on there, or if you email us, we can send you the Google Doc for the form. Hopefully, we’ll have a website up and running in the next couple of weeks or months. And that’s kind of on our to do list of what’s up next.
Jeremy Richter: All right, well, thank you for your time. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, and I hope the best for the program and that it is something that — well, I would say lasts for a long time, but that’s not really what you want, ideally — as long as needed anyway.
Steven Arango: Exactly, exactly. Thank you so much for having us, Jeremy.
Dani Barondess: Yep. Thanks very much. This was great.
Jeremy Richter: Thanks for listening. And I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s show. Please take time to rate and subscribe it whatever pod catcher you’re listening on. And if you want more from me, you can find me at jeremywricher.com. You can also find me on Twitter at @richterjw. And if you want the extra audio and benefits available at Patreon, you can become a patron at patreon.com/lawyerpreneur. Thanks for listening.