by Daniel DeWoskin
For the final newsletter of the year, I thought that it would be a fantastic time to thank the clerks of court in the various courts in which I routinely practice, as well as those in which I only make it to on a handful of occasions each year. I am frequently visiting the clerks’ offices, either filing motions and pleadings by hand, or perhaps just checking on the status of a case or recent filings. I try never to take for granted the not-so-simple tasks that these folks undertake countless times each day.The vast majority of the clerks with whom I interact are individuals of extraordinary patience and restraint. They refrain not only from giving legal advice that they cannot provide (even if they may know the “right” answer), but they refrain from verbally assaulting people who treat them as though they are somehow lesser human beings. I have had the opportunity to speak up on behalf of a particular clerk who was taking on more verbal abuse than anyone should have to endure as a public servant, meaning any abuse at all. That moment was relatively rewarding, but I imagine that these clerks put up with far more than I could if I had to step in their shoes for even a few hours.
Legal proceedings, such as those that bring members of the public to courts and clerks’ offices, are often very stressful and emotionally charged. Pro se parties and others who come to the clerks’ offices may have a hard time separating the events and the particular participants in the process whom they see as causing them this distress. Unfortunately, the proximity and role the clerks have in these proceedings may cause these folks some confusion and displaced frustration.
From what I am told by some friends in clerks’ offices, they are well suited to their work and often advised on where the boundary lines are for what is expected of them. No matter the frustration of the person seeking legal advice, the clerks’ offices all have policies dictated by law precluding them from giving legal advice. This is a trigger for the sense of utter chaos that many people I have observed working pro se start to exhibit. The question “What am I supposed to file or do?” no longer seems like legal advice to them, but instead seems like something for which this civil servant should be able to provide guidance.
It cannot be an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination. Like many of my colleagues, I experience frustration and even anger at times when dealing with clients, cases, opposing counsel, or others in my professional activities. However, the clerk is not emotionally, financially, or professionally invested in the cases, and thus they should not suffer from the same angst that we may as counsel. It is simply unfair to expect that of them or tolerate when others do.
This leads me to what is most disappointing from where I stand. I cannot stand to be present when other members of the bar mistreat people in the clerks’ office. There is no doubt that some of these offices are more professional, more efficient, and more courteous than others. Regardless, this is not a place where respect and professionalism are discretionary on the part of lawyers. It is for us to lead by example in demonstrating that these offices are deserving of respect, and that clerks are essentially the emissaries of the written documents between the parties, the attorneys, and the Courts.
I have seen some attorneys who are so rude to clerks that their filings must perpetually be on the bottom of the “to be filed” pile. That is how it would seem, but these same attorneys somehow see their cases litigated and managed accordingly. This is because the clerks with whom I frequently deal have a thicker skin than I myself would have in their position. I am certain that the behavior does not go unnoticed and that, when there is a need for special attention in a given circumstance, it might be much easier to decline. I try to choose instead to treat every task as a special request, which really only means being courteous enough to say please and thank you, and not appear as though I consider that my work is more important than that of others in line or the clerks’ own work.
In the end, I suppose that is the point. We should keep in mind that as lawyers, we stick out. This is especially true in a courthouse, where many of us are routinely asked if we are lawyers. We are not often asked by the clerks, either because of our manner of dress, the task at hand, or our behavior when at the counter. I would like to think that they can always pick us out by how professional and courteous we are, but I might just be kidding myself.
So, as I began this article, I once again thank the clerks with whom I deal and upon whom I rely to keep my cases current, organized, and ready for adjudication by the Courts. It is a daunting job, and I admire the patience and diligence with which it is carried out.