Intrigued by my new neighbor, I didn’t notice how much I was leaning into the white gate — which swung open with a loud creaking noise. I fell forward for a second before regaining my footing. The young woman looked up, and our eyes met.
“Girl, what you looking at?”
Her aggressive tone caught me off guard. I was momentarily speechless.
“What,” she said, “are your ears as small as your tiny white ass?”
I didn’t have much of a choice at this point, so I tried to diffuse her hostility with warmth. I walked over to her, put on a big smile, and extended my hand.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m Audrey. I just moved into the building.”
“Harvetta,” she said, rising to her feet and shaking my hand. “Harvetta Chambers.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to, um, startle you. I was just, well, you know…”
“Oh, I know, all right! You were just checking out my big black booty!”
She slapped her sizable thighs and laughed. I laughed too, feeling relieved; Harvetta’s belligerence was playful. Was she going to be my new Sassy African-American Friend?
“Actually,” I said, “I noticed your reading material. No offense to the Stanford Law Review, but it’s not my idea of a poolside read. It’s a bit serious, don’t you think?”
“You kidding? I love it. I love law review articles. I can get interested in almost any type of law. For my job I’m a state law kinda gal, but today I’m reading on the federal side, about the effect of the SEC’s new proxy access rule on shareholder value for small companies. Next up is a linguistic analysis of ERISA preemption. Right now I’m like a pig in shit!”
I didn’t quite know what to say to that.
“So,” I said, “did you go to Stanford Law?”
“Naw,” Harvetta said, “Stanford? That place is for rich bitches. I keep it real — I went to McGeorge. You a lawyer too?”
“Well, almost, kind of,” I said, as I frantically tried to recall what I even knew about McGeorge. Was that the law school in Sacramento? The one where a Supreme Court justice likes to teach? “I took the bar a few months ago, but I haven’t gotten the results yet, so I’m not yet a lawyer. Right now I’m clerking for a judge.”
“Get the fuck outta here! Me too. Who you clerking for?”
“Judge Stinson? Ninth Circuit? How about you?”
“Sherwin Lin, California Supreme Court.”
I didn’t know that much about state court clerkships, but I had a vague recollection of the California Supreme Court using long-term staff lawyers rather than law clerks.
“Oh,” I said, trying my best to sound politely confused, “I thought that the California justices didn’t have law clerks?”
“Yeah,” Harvetta said, “the Cal Supremes usually roll with permanent staff attorneys. But Lin is trying out the clerk thing — a mix of staff attorneys and term clerks. We’re his first clerks. It’s an experiment. Hope we don’t fuck that shit up for everybody else!”
My strict Filipina mother did not tolerate profanity, and so people who cursed a fair amount — like Jeremy, and definitely like Harvetta — sometimes threw me for a loop. My face must have betrayed my discomfort at Harvetta’s manner of speaking.
“What,” said Harvetta, “is my potty mouth freaking you out, girl?”
“Ha! Well, you see, I just….”
“I am like the president,” Harvetta said, raising her arms skyward and adopting a markedly different tone, straight out of the evening newscast. “I am extremely talented at calibrating my manner of speaking to my audience. Do you think I obtained a clerkship with the Honorable Sherwin Lin by cursing up a blue streak during the interview?”
Once again, Harvetta left me speechless. She liked to read law review articles for fun. She could oscillate seamlessly between gangster and grande dame. Who was this bizarre woman?
“So,” she asked, as I tried to collect my dropped jaw from the pool deck, “where did you go to law school? Some fancy-ass place, I bet?”
“Yeah, I figured,” she said, smacking my forearm — surprisingly hard. “Don’t worry, I won’t player-hate. My boss went to Yale, so I have mad respect.”
That’s right: Harvetta’s judge, Sherwin Lin, was still renowned at Yale for his brilliance. He served as executive editor of the law journal, won a slew of prizes at graduation, and clerked on the D.C. Circuit (of course) followed by the U.S. Supreme Court (of course). He was nominated to the Ninth Circuit before the age of 40, but some of his controversial speeches and academic writings as a UCLA law professor derailed his nomination. After the Republicans successfully filibustered his Ninth Circuit appointment, the governor appointed him to the California Supreme Court.
Despite (or perhaps because of?) my puzzlement at Harvetta, I felt I wanted to get to know her better. She seemed friendly, beneath the tough-talking veneer, and she was without a doubt an interesting character. We exchanged contact info and agreed to hang out sometime soon.
As I headed back to my apartment, I continued to think about Harvetta. I would have expected someone who liked to read law review articles for pleasure to have attended a higher-ranked law school than McGeorge (whose rank I looked up on my iPhone almost immediately after we parted ways; McGeorge was #101 on the U.S. News list). And I wondered about where her whole “street talk” thing came from. If I had to guess, she was from an upper-middle-class African-American family but was trying to “keep it real” by sounding like someone from a more modest background.
Based on the fact that she had landed a clerkship with Justice Lin, Harvetta must have done fairly well in law school. But even a clerkship on the California Supreme Court, the highest court of the largest state, was less prestigious than most federal court clerkships. As for U.S. Supreme Court clerkships, I wondered: did Harvetta even know about them?