An Open Letter to Christine Jolls


Christine Jolls Gordon Bradford Tweedy Professor of Law and OrganizationYale Law SchoolP.O. Box 208215New Haven, CT 06520-8215cc: Harvard Law Record


January 23, 2007

Dear Tweedy Yale,

Many thanks for your note of January 5, 2007 asking me to participate in the study you, along with Christopher Avery, Alvin Roth, and the inflatable Richard Posner are conducting on clerkship hiring. I write to express my dismay that your first pleonasm came before your first sentence. “Dear Third-Year Law Student at Harvard Law School,” you wrote.

It was there that my heart gladdened that this soubriquet, and all that followed, appeared with the Yale Law School arms affixed to your dioxin-white copy paper.

When you wrote, in the second paragraph, that you would be grateful if those who did not apply for federal clerkships, “before simply discarding” your letter, “would check ‘no’ in response to the first question in [sic] the attached survey,” I was struck that a literal observation of your instructions would tell some Harvard Law law students to check a box, then discard the survey. And my heart bled to see you write “east coast” in lower case. As a quick look at Wikipedia makes clear, the geographic region you intend is the East Coast. What you have written in haste suggests only the following:

The term ‘east coast’ has been popularized in rap music culture, where east coast is a genre of hiphop music, which traditionally comes from NYC, Boston, DC, Baltimore or Philly. Being the birthplace of the music, the style has more sampled sounds and deeper lyrics than other styles of rap. (last visited Jan. 23, 2007).

Your cover letter refers to the University of Chicago Law Review once in italics, once not. Your survey begins with a promontory pleonasm of its own, a reference to “the attached cover letter.” (Thank you for attaching the cover letter; had you not, you would have had to send your cover letter under separate cover.) “Preaddressed” then shows up bereft of the hyphen you gave it in your “attached cover letter.”

Why do I dwell on this, why do I niggle? Because, my most estimable Tweedy Yale, three years as a Harvard Law law student have demonstrated to me – demonstrated to me beyond all question – that those uncareful in their consistency and grammar and usage and spelling and punctuation are uncareful in thought. Their work is consigned to the dustbin, if not of history, then of bad drafting, a landfill of ideas leaching toxic waste into the seven seas of bad data. It was not long before I arrived at your Question 7.

How many invitations to interview have you received? (For purposes of this question and all remaining questions unless specifically stated [pleonasm] otherwise, “interview” means either an in-person interview or a conversation other than an in-person interview if such conversation led to an offer of a clerkship.

Here I looked up from sucking the flesh of a rainbow trout off its vertebrae to cry, to cry out – Quelle horreur, ma chère Tweedy! Your definition is recursive: An interview means an in-person interview! You carry me back to my youth with the federal income tax: Income – what is income – income is all income, from whatever source derived. Even from the Yale Law School.

Let us continue and try to parse what we can of your travesty of drafting. “How many invitations have you received” to interview in person or, if interviewing by phone, if the conversation led to a job offer? In other words, a survey-taker taking your definition seriously would count all in-person interviews, but only phone interviews leading to an offer of a clerkship. Sit down with a judge in person, she rejects you, it counts as an interview. Judge says let’s do a phone interview, she does the exact same interview, she rejects you, it doesn’t count as an interview.

Perhaps you intend this bizarre definition, perhaps not. What is certain is that it is expressed so cryptically, and it is so counterintuitive if it means what it says, that respondents will answer countless different questions. Some will read your sentence twice and obey its definition; some will read your sentence twice, find it a pitiable imposture at precision, and ignore its definition; most will read half of it, then use an I-know-it-when-I-see-it understanding of the meaning of “interview.” What is clear — your data is corrupt, your study lost.

Thank you again for the use of the Yale Law School insignia.

On the remainder of the survey, I shall note two items only. “Do you feel that some particular third party,” you ask, “such as a professor or a clerk…played an unusually important role in helping you obtain interviews or offers?” (Emphasis added.) This begs the question of what unusual means. You are attempting to discern two things, I think: whether professors and clerks play, first, a large role in clerkship applications, and, second, if the role that they play is excessively large. Unfortunately you have injected into your survey a confused version of the questions you will later purport to answer. To put it another way, you ask:

Was the role significant?


Was the significance unusual?

This answer will be based on the individual respondent’s view of average significance – her hunch about how everybody else is answering the question – and her quasi-moral assessment of meritocracy and personal connections in American life.

To put it a third way, students such as myself who think that professors and clerks have long played a large role in clerkship applications will answer no to your question. Yes, Charles Fried personally instructed Antonin Scalia to give me my clerkship, and I didn’t even interview, or perform a successful non-in-person telephone conversation. I do not find that unusual; most conservative government positions are kickbacks and paybacks. My friend Horribilicribrifax, by contrast, is a pinko naif. He got a recommendation from Prof. Hogwarts, who thinks highly of him and said as much to Judge Neuschwanstein personally. He thinks that Prof. Hogwarts played an unusually important role.

The data is corrupt, the study lost! My thanks redoubled for the use of the Yale Law School insignia.

You will say, perhaps, that these criticisms are unreasonable, even mean-spirited. No, I reply, they are calm, and careful, and most eminently necessary. Too often in our age, it is not skill or insight but fashionable academic methods that lead to tenure, to the enshrinement of canting dilettantism and jargon in lieu of thought. There is contemporary literary criticism, to name only one field razed by nigh-atomic intellectual devastation. The domains of law are themselves threatened. Literature departments at our nation’s universities embrace gibberish when it is expressed properly in broken French. Our law professors, by contrast, get their jollies (find their jouissance) by putting on airs of quantitative rigor. They put on the feathery sequined costumes of the pageant of law and economics – every night the fat business bosses sit in the front row, chomping cigars, shouting “Bravo, bravo!” tossing out Olin Foundation grant monies like so many white roses – and yet the players can’t get their lines right.

One particularly infamous such hoofer is your own Richard Posner, whose opinions express theories of the case ten parsecs out from the plain facts. And I dare say that you and Judge Posner and your co-authors are so secure in the anticipation of working out percentages and margins of error that, in your excitement for precision, you have forgotten all need for accuracy.

I have spoken. I am sending these words also to the Harvard Law Record, with the request that they appear in those pages. Since you acknowledge in your “attached cover letter” that you are “highly sensitized” (sic, sensitive; see generally Fowler’s Modern English Usage) to confidentiality concerns, you will forgive me that I must sign myself

most sincerely yours,