AUTHOR, AUTHOR: Q&A With Saira Rao

BY MAVIS LINNEMAN BOOK CRITIC Last week, TV producer-turned-lawyer-turned-author Saira Rao published her first novel, Chambermaid. It is the story of law student Sheila Raj’s clerkship (a must-do for all law students) with a revered 3rd Circuit judge in Philadelphia. Her dream come true turns into her worst nightmare when she realizes the judge is an insufferable tyrant who can’t even get her name right and who could care less about clerks or her regular employees. Think The Devil Wears Prada in judge’s chambers. As Laura Weisberger did for fashion assistants, Rao sheds light on the exacting and often outlandish environment of not-much-talked-about legal clerkships. Rao talked to Phawker about clerking in Philly, the shroud of secrecy surrounding judges and the upcoming television show inspired by the book. Saira Rao will read from Chambermaid at 7 p.m. TOMORROW, July 24, the Rittenhouse Barnes & Noble.

Phawker: What made you want to write this book?

Saira Rao: I clerked in Philly in 2002. Let me take a step back for those not in the legal profession. Clerking is basically like the golden, the brass ring of the legal profession and law school people will claw each others’ eyes out to get clerkships. Everything is incredibly hierarchical. Federal are better than state, court of appeals are better than district courts. Basically, I made all sorts of promises with the devil and got a clerkship and was so super-excited. I thought it was going to be the best experience of my life, like everyone had said. Really, I have to say, when I got to Philly, when I started working, I was shocked for lack of a better word. Totally, absolutely shocked. And this coming from, I was a television news producer before I went to law school; I was on South Beach covering drag queens and stuff. And to then find something even more bizarre in the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, I was stunned.

I actually went back and went to NYU … to the clerkship office and went back to the binder that I had flipped through to make sure every judge was as stellar as I remember them saying they were; it was glowing review after glowing review. And over the course of the year, I started talking to more and more law clerks. And it was a hush-hush thing where lots of people were pretty stunned by their experiences with everybody from their judgeschambermaid.jpg to their co-clerks to just the work in general. When they finished their clerkship years, I got back in touch with them and I said “When you filled out your questionnaire for your respective law school, what did you say?” They said, “Oh well, it was the best experience I ever had.” It’s a total lie kind of thing.

So, I started thinking about it and I got really upset because Congress gets raked over the poles — there’s big transparency there. And the same goes for the president, and for good reason. What I couldn’t understand for the life of me [was] why federal judges, the third branch of our federal government, why did they enjoy a level of secrecy and no accountability whatsoever when nobody else does? They’re the only counter-majoritarian part of the federal government. They’re nominated and then confirmed. There’s no vote. They also enjoy life tenure and pretty fat salaries. I got really fascinated by this subject matter and hence, Chambermaid was born.

Phawker: Why do think there’s this secrecy around clerkships?

SR: I think judges are so revered in the legal profession, really in law school. It’s funny. People mock partners in law firms all the time. It’s the fun pastime. It’s such a stereotype that partners are these crazy people. People even poke fun of professors behind their back. Judges are really sacrosanct and people, for whatever reason, will not criticize them. Take for example Clarence Thomas. Prior to him being confirmed, we learned all sorts of sordid details about him. There’s a new book out about him now. In the years following, no one says anything about him. There’s sort of this silence. Maybe there’s a sense that they’re on the bench, there’s nothing we can do really to remove them, so at this point, why not just give them tremendous respect because they’re making these all these huge decisions and who are we to judge them?

Phawker: Do they usually yell, “I AM A FEDERAL JUDGE!”

SR: You’d be surprised how many of them do.

Phawker: How much of the book is actually drawn from your personal experience?

SR: I don’t think that I could have written the book had I not clerked, because nobody is allowed in the federal chambers except for a few, select group of people. I can assure you I will never be invited back into a federal chamber again. In terms of fact versus fiction, I got some of my ideas from things I witnessed and people I met, but for the most part, it’s fictional.

Phawker: Do you think this is a very accurate view of what clerkships are?

SR: I think that’s its one person’s story. I talked to scores of law clerks before I started writing this and I don’tsaira_biopicsepia.jpg think that Sheila Raj’s experience was unique to just Sheila Raj. There are lots of law clerks who had even more bizarre things happen to them than what Sheila Raj experienced. It’s interesting; a lot of people said some of these characters are caricatures, it’s so ridiculous, it’s so over the top. I can tell you right now that’s its not over the top. In fact, some law clerks who are in Philly now have called me and said, “The only criticism we have is that it didn’t go far enough. You didn’t pick as bizarre a scenario as it actually is.”

Phawker: Were all the law clerks really as catty as you portrayed them?

SR: I actually went back to Philadelphia. The law clerks of Philadelphia invited me to a clerkship happy hour. I have a chapter in my book about that. It’s very funny. I think every profession has these people — journalists, doctors, lawyers. There’s always going to be a group of people who think they’re totally fabulous and fantastic and have very little sense of humor about themselves or what they do. They’re plenty of law clerks just like that. They’re plenty of journalists, bankers and doctors as well.

Phawker: What made you switch from producing the news to law?

SR: It’s funny, I felt like everything was very reactionary as a journalist. You as a journalist would probably laugh at the fact that I would call myself a journalist in TV, because I know that most people don’t find the news to be terribly journalistic. I felt like it was really reactionary — like I was kind of like a professional gossip, which is not bad, it’s really fun and I had a great time. [But] I really wanted to do something, this sounds like such a cliche, and I wanted to affect change. I found myself working on Wall Street after law school so, so much for affecting any change.

Phawker: What did you think about Philly when you lived here?

SR: I love Philly. I actually think that was the most positive thing that happened in my clerkship for me. I got to live in a city I probably never would have. The restaurants are amazing. It was such a livable city. You could walk everywhere. …

Phawker: Is it true that the book is going to be a mini-series?

SR: It is slated to be a regular television series. The contract is in its final stages now and hopefully it’s actually going to stay in Philadelphia, too. The producer is Paula Weinstein; her last project was Blood Diamond. She was crazy about the book, which is good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *