Mentor inspiration

Leslie Ridgeway • November 21, 2023
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Professor Jessica Clarke motivated by clerkships, writing and research

Clerkships – especially the judges she worked for – helped Professor Jessica Clarke define the vision of her career.

At Yale Law School, she enjoyed writing law review articles, and one she wrote as a student was published. But big law seemed like the best direction after graduation and completing a clerkship with Judge Shira Scheindlin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Judge Scheindlin, noted for keeping in touch with past clerks, checked in to see how things were going.

“She could tell I wasn’t happy as a law firm lawyer,” says Clarke, who comes to USC Gould School of Law from Vanderbilt Law School. “I sheepishly said I wanted to be a professor and write law review articles. She didn’t put [that idea] down. She told me I needed to clerk for a circuit court judge. She had high standards for law clerks, and getting that vote of confidence from her meant a lot.”

Judge Scheindlin served as a reference when Clarke applied to clerk for Judge Rosemary Pooler of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, another important mentor. As a circuit court law clerk, Clarke could get more of an academic experience by writing opinions and doing research. That led to a teaching fellowship and her career in scholarship, exploring antidiscrimination, sex, gender and sexuality. And, a lifelong appreciation for the path her mentors cleared.

“They made it in the legal profession at a time when most women were secretaries, not lawyers,” she says. “They got no breaks and had to be twice as smart. It was inspiring to see them both as bosses.”

Clarke is now at work on an article scheduled to be published this year in the Virginia Law Review about how lower courts have interpreted the Supreme Court’s 2020 decision Bostock v. Clayton County, prohibiting discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender employees. Many civil rights scholars have criticized Bostock’s reasoning because it is highly formalistic. Clarke’s article asks whether Bostock‘s reasoning could nonetheless lead to favorable outcomes in novel civil rights controversies.

As a teacher, Clarke considers herself a coach, a view she refined as a coach at debate camps for high school students.

“I like the Socratic method, but I also ask the students to work on hypothetical problems in teams, which is more like what lawyers do,” she says. “I see my role as giving them the skills they need to find solutions to their clients’ problems.”

She’s impressed with the USC network and feeling of community at Gould, plus the fact that so many students and faculty are interested in the same topics she studies.

“I like that Gould has a diverse faculty and students who are interested in discrimination, and the wealth of colleagues I can talk with about my research who were already generous readers of my work,” she says. “It made a lot of sense for me to join Gould.”

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