“This is it?” Pervez asked. “Are you sure this is a courthouse? It looks like a hotel.”
But then he pulled the car up a bit, and we saw a large rectangular sign on the lawn, in a shade of pink that perfectly matched the stucco of the building: “Richard H. Chambers United States Court of Appeals Building — 125 South Grand Avenue.”
The taxi fare came to a little under $80 on the meter. I gave Pervez five crisp $20 bills. I felt that tipping generously would bring me good luck for the interview.
“If you ever need a taxi, call me,” he said, handing me his card. “This is L.A., you can’t just walk out into the street and wave and get a cab.”
I stepped out of the cab, my briefcase-like purse slung over my shoulder, and looked up at the building. The courthouses I was familiar with were grim concrete affairs, coldly beautiful Neoclassical structures, or sleek and sterile towers of stone and glass. They embodied the power and greatness of government, but often at the cost of aesthetic appeal or architectural originality. The Richard H. Chambers Courthouse in Pasadena, the Ninth Circuit’s base of operations in southern California, looked like none of these other courthouses; it was splendid and welcoming, in large and equal measure. I could understand why one amateur photographer, who had taken pictures of the courthouse and posted them to an online photo-sharing site, dubbed it “the most beautiful courthouse in America,” adding that “law clerks who work elsewhere should feel cheated.”
Upon viewing the courthouse, the research I had done about it came back to me. Pervez’s comparison of the courthouse to a hotel was apt: the building began life in the 1930s as a resort called the Hotel Vista del Arroyo. During World War II, the federal government seized the hotel and put it to decidedly less glamorous use, as an army hospital. After the war, the government closed the hospital but continued to use the property to house various other federal agencies, until the building lost its tenants and was shuttered. The once grand structure fell into a state of disrepair, in which it remained until some point in the 1970s, when it was selected as the site of the Ninth Circuit’s southern California courthouse. After several years of painstaking renovations, the courthouse was opened for business in 1986.
The courthouse was set back a good distance from the street. I walked through an arbor, lined with gently weathered wooden benches and flowering white rose bushes, and reached two ornately carved wooden doors, each with three diamond-shaped, leaded-glass panes. Through one of the panes, I could vaguely make out a high-ceilinged, light-filled foyer — an entrance hall that would not have looked out of place in one of the million-dollar homes that we drove past on our way here.
I pulled open one of the (surprisingly heavy) doors. No automatic glass doors here. This was no ordinary courthouse.
Three courthouse security officers lounged in chairs next to a metal detector, looking bored. This was an ordinary courthouse.
The guard closest to the entrance, a stout, bald man, rose out of his chair.
“How can we help you, young lady?” he asked. His tone sounded slightly patronizing, as if I had wandered into the wrong building, and he would soon have to give me directions to my actual destination.
“I’m here for an interview with Judge Stinson,” I said brightly, trying to convey my enthusiasm to everyone in the courthouse. As our career services counselors repeatedly advised us, people talk. When interviewing for legal jobs, treat everyone you meet with respect — not just because it’s the right thing to do, but out of sheer self-interest. If you act rudely towards a secretary or security guard, it might very well get back to the judge or law firm partner who’s doing the hiring.
The bald guard nodded and asked me for a photo ID. I handed him my passport — like many New York City kids, I had never acquired a driver’s license — and he wrote my name down in a ledger. His two colleagues stood up and exchanged a strange glance.
“Into the lioness’s den,” said a tall guard with short grey hair, as he took my bag and placed it on the conveyor belt for the x-ray machine.
I smiled, but wondered: the lioness’s den? Was Judge Stinson supposed to be a tough interviewer? Based on the reports filed by former Stinson clerks in the Yale Law career services office, her approach to interviewing consisted largely of a rundown of the candidate’s résumé, the typical interview format for legal jobs. As a “learned profession,” law likes to think of itself as more genteel than, say, a ruthlessly data-driven enterprise like management consulting, with its “case study” interviews that amount to hazing with math.
I passed through the metal detector without setting it off, thanks to my decision to refrain from jewelry (except for two small faux-pearl earrings), and then collected my purse from the x-ray machine. The bald guard pointed out the elevator to me and directed me to the fifth floor.
To my surprise, the courthouse elevator had just a single door, made of wood and carved in the same elaborate manner as the two front doors. The narrowness of the doorway unnerved me. I sometimes find signs in random everyday phenomena, like my superstitious mother, and I took the narrowness of the elevator as a commentary on the narrowness of my chances of landing the job. I decided to take the stairs. As I ascended the wide inviting staircase, with a wrought iron banister and colorful Mission-style tiles between each step, I was glad I had opted for low-heel pumps — closed-toe and conservative enough for an interview, with enough of a heel to be femininely elegant, but not so high as to cause discomfort.
Upon reaching the fifth floor, I had no trouble locating the chambers. A handsome brass nameplate read: “Chambers of the HON. CHRISTINA WONG STINSON.” I pressed a buzzer, as softly and politely as I could, and opened the door after being buzzed through.
The elegance of the courthouse’s public spaces prepared for me something nice, but not for what I beheld upon entering Judge Stinson’s jewel box of a chambers. The waiting room — decorated in harmonized shades of beige, yellow, and gold, in a style that could be described as modern French provincial meets California country — looked like it had come straight out of a coffee table book of Napa Valley estates. It didn’t look like any space that anything to do with the federal government. I certainly hoped the American taxpayer hadn’t paid for the hardwood floors, a sharp departure from the wall-to-wall nylon carpet commonly seen in government offices, or the vase full of fresh-cut orchids, sitting on a low table of pale wood.
At the far end of the room, in front of two high windows that admitted copious amounts of sunshine, stood a secretary’s station, with cabinets and desk space built into the corner. It was standard-issue in design, except I couldn’t help noticing it was made of the same ivory-colored wood as the coffee table. I then realized: this was all custom work, including the coffee table.
I introduced myself to the pleasingly plump, conspicuously chipper woman behind the desk. She rose out of her chair to shake my hand.
“Audrey, it’s wonderful to meet you. I’m Brenda Lindsey, Judge Stinson’s judicial assistant. Welcome to Pasadena!”
She gestured, mock-grandly, by raising both of her arms. Given the beauty of the courthouse, the gardens, and the chambers, there was a foundation for claims to grandeur.
“Thank you,” I said. “It’s great to be here.”
“Please, have a seat. Can I get you something to drink?”
“Oh no, I’m fine, thank you.”
“The judge is in the middle of an interview, but she should be done very soon,” said Brenda. “So just make yourself comfortable.”
Brenda’s warmth allayed my jitters — slightly. I perched myself on the edge of a supremely comfortable beige couch, which was built into the wall, like a banquette. Everything was so beautiful and so expensive-looking, I felt like I was disturbing the space with my mere presence.
I heard a door shut. A harried young brunette in a black pantsuit emerged into the waiting room from somewhere deeper within the chambers. She scanned the room, and our eyes met. She looked at me with an impolitic intensity, for a few seconds too long, almost hungrily. Was she trying to intimidate me?
She must be from Harvard Law School, where they learn the dark arts of cutthroat competition that we were never taught at kinder, gentler Yale. She had the intensity and aggressiveness of an HLS student, as well as the lack of fashion sense. (Sorry to disappoint you, but Legally Blonde was just a movie.)
Harvard Girl’s botched pixie cut made her look mannish, as did her poorly fitting pantsuit. And the color black, while interview-safe, was uninspired.
I smiled a half-smile and raised my hand in tentative greeting at Harvard Girl. I wondered if I should stand up and introduce myself, which would have been the polite thing to do, even though we were competing for the same job. But before I could say or do anything, Harvard Girl pulled a Blackberry out of her pocket, checked the time, and strode out of the room.