A Novelby Saira Rao
“Comic debut novel.” —Kirkus Reviews
Sheila Raj is a recent graduate of Columbia Law Shool with dreams of working for the ACLU. When she lands a coveted year-long federal clerkship with legal goddess Judge Helga Friedman, she cannot help but think that her life is destined for jurisprudential greatness. But law school did not prepare Sheila for the power-hungry sociopath who greets her on her first day and pushes her to the brink of resignation. It is only when she is assigned to a high-profile death penalty case that Sheila realizes she has to survive the year as Friedman’s chambermaid—not just her sanity, but actual lives hang in the balance. With Chambermaid, debut novelist Saira Rao boldly takes us into the mysterious world of the third branch of U.S. government, where the leaders are not elected and can never be fired. With its biting wit and laugh-out-loud humor, this novel will change everything you think you know about how great lawyers and great judges are made.
“In the world of the federal judiciary, where judges are sacrosanct and impervious to criticism, Saira Rao’s deliciously controversial debut novel ranks with mooning the Supreme Court during oral argument. . . . Highly entertaining, often insightful, frequently sarcastic.” —Carlin Romano, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Comic debut novel.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Rao’s wit shines in her debut.” —Publisher’s Weekly
“A smart, in-depth look behind the courtroom walls, revealing the lack of honor toiling for an Honorable judge, showing the devil really wears a black robe. Luckily for Rao’s determined, funny heroine, justice is ultimately served.” —Jill Kargman, co-author of The Right Address and author of Momzillas
“Saira Rao is a funny and charming writer. Chambermaid is an interesting look at a judicial subculture most of us know nothing about. . . . Funny and charming.” —Gary Shteyngart, author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
“There aren’t many novels that make their readers laugh out loud, let alone burst into hysterics in the doctor’s waiting room. But that’s what happened to me with Chambermaid. . . . Even for readers not interested in the law, Chambermaid is sure to strike a familiar chord for anyone who’s ever had a jerk for a boss or even just knew someone with disgusting eating habits.” —Paula Reed Ward, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“As Lauren Weisberger did for fashion assistants, Rao sheds light on the exacting and often outlandish environment of not-much-talked-about legal clerkships.” —Phawker.com
Breathe in. Now out.
I was twenty-eight years old with no criminal history and a Juris Doctor. I paid my bills on time, always remembered birthdays, and sometimes even washed my trash before recycling it. At best, I had the logistics of life down pat. At worst, one could argue I was marginally lame. In light of this, you can understand why I was a bit distraught that breathing had become a problem.
Then there were the hot flashes. Could I be menopausal? I hovered over my keyboard. Just one quick Google search on menopause. My hands began to twitch. Who could blame them? I was committing a cardinal sin. Twitch twitch twitch. Breathe in. Now out. Jumping Jack Flash. Who was I kidding? I definitely needed hormones, before the facial hair made a cameo. Nobody liked a lady with a ’stache.
“Where’s the McMillan file? You know she’s looking for it!” Janet said in an angry, stifled whisper. I shrugged my shoulders, unwilling to commit two fouls at once—talking and using the Internet.
Janet tensed up like a constipated poodle. In spite of her daily invective, I still felt a wee bit bad for Janet. The lady had been railroaded more times than Amtrak’s busy northeast corridor. Twenty years in this institution had turned what I assumed was originally a good-natured suburbanite (Janet then) into angry roadkill (Janet now). After all, it had only been a month for me and already the hair and hot flashes had commenced. Based on the precedent standing before my very eyes, I knew my future was bleak.
Great! My “early menopause” search had elicited 26,715 hits. I definitely had it. Breathe, hot flash, twitch. I couldn’t believe I had just been pitying angry Janet when I’d morphed into a full-fledged freak show. I glanced back at Matthew to see if he was still breathing. I was beginning to worry that Matthew was going to simply die one day, crouched over, staring at his computer, and we wouldn’t even know it until she yelled for him. If he wasn’t in the torture chamber in under two seconds, only then would we know of his untimely demise. Maybe I’d Google “sitting up dead.” Surely, that was worse than the Pause.
Just as my twitchy tendons were reaching for the keyboard again, Evan the judicial evangelist came sauntering by my desk, pausing so briefly I almost didn’t have to look up at him. Almost.
“Have you finished Robinson yet?” This was stated more as an accusation than a question. Accusation verified by his ever so polite pivot and turn. With his impossibly straight back facing me, Evan whispered: “Well, I’m handing in Welbert and with any luck will get something challenging.”
I truly didn’t know how Harvard Law School managed to do it, but somehow that place picked the world’s most vapid, chainsaw-to-spinal-cord annoying people to fill its esteemed corridors. Grades, LSAT scores, whatever. The true test was being able to irritate your grandmother into committing murder in a minute flat.
Alas! I heard a stir from behind. Could it be Matthew? I turned and indeed he had managed to sit up and was stretching in my direction. I furrowed my brow. He rolled his eyes. Translation. Me: “What?” Matthew: “Evan is a total moron.” Communication complete. Over the past few weeks, we had managed to master the universal language of judgment without actually speaking.
DING! “Thirteenth floor, going down!” It was the judge’s elevator, our only warning of her impending arrival.
Not this again. The decibels I’d grown accustomed to. But my name was SHEILA. Not Sheera. Not Shayla. Not Sheba (though I secretly liked it when she called me Sheba).
“GET IN HERE NOW! ARE YOU DEAF?!!”
I dashed into the torture chamber, skidding to a stop before the Honorable Helga Friedman. She was clearly pissed. Vertical eyebrows. Penciled in. Squinty eyes. Lips curled. Dancing bouffant. She was about to pounce. So was her bright red lipstick, which was curiously everywhere but on her lips.
“I read your memo in W.A. versus Trenton. Do they not teach you English in Pakistan?”
Not the Pakistan thing again. I was Indian. Not that I was one of those Indians who hated Pakistan. It’s just that I wasn’t Pakistani. Just like I wasn’t Croatian.
“Your Hon—Your hon—”
“I surmise not. All I can say is that it doesn’t take a Supreme Court justice to interpret basic state statutes—and you failed to do even that!”
“I, um, Your Hon—”
“NO! NO! NO!”
The dreaded hat trick of noes. It wasn’t a good sign.
“I AM A FEDERAL JUDGE!”
Indeed, among other things.
“Can you even comprehend what I’m saying here? Can you?”
Eyes got even smaller. Bouffant started break-dancing. Little hand reached for big Supreme Court casebook. Slow mo. Hand lifted book.
“I just, um, thought—”
She’d nailed me, yet again. This time smack in the face.
“NOW, GET OUT! GET OUT!” She pounded her small fist on the desk.
I stumbled back to my cubicle, a trickle of blood running down my cheek. Could you catch hemophilia? Bleeding to death sounded sort of nice, cozy even.
Parking it in my tattered swivel chair, I stared longingly across the Delaware River at Camden, New Jersey. Just six months ago, I had been a well-liked editor on the Columbia Law Review. I had a killer wardrobe, a darling (rent-stabilized) apartment in the West Village and a fabulous group of friends.
Now, I was plotting an escape to New Jersey with dried blood on my face.
I was a federal court of appeals law clerk. Pushing thirty. Postured. Proud. Praying for hemophilia. This was certainly the best experience of my life. Just like everyone at Columbia Law had promised.
09-15, 4:09 AM
I know I am about to sound crazy, but it is Wednesday and I have only gotten letters saying they have received my application packet. I am starting to freak out here. I know that a girl in my Sec Reg class got an inteview on the 2d circ. Why isn’t anyone calling me?!!
12-24, 01:23 PM
Why won’t these judges CALL???
Hi all. I am waiting to hear from 3 judges who obviously don’t know they are about killing me! Don’t they understand that this is my LIFE they’re talking about????? Why can’t they at least let me know if I DIDn’t get it???? It’s Christmas for Christsakes! Have they no spirit!!!! Merry Christmas.
The above serve as illustrative examples of the kind of environment that law schools create. A climate in which the law student—the most paranoid, risk-averse overachiever this universe has to offer—is brainwashed from the very first day of school to believe that if he or she doesn’t get a judicial clerkship, life will effectively end.
Sure, we’d all heard about the glitz and glamour of a law degree. Three short years, a mere hundred twenty thousand dollars, and voilá! “You can do anything!”
ACLU. State Department. District attorney. President of the United States.
There was just one little glitch. You needed a judicial clerkship. A federal one if at all possible.
Sheila Raj: “How does one get a job at the U.S. attorney’s office?”
Torts professor: “Well, that’s impossible unless you clerk.”
Sheila Raj: “I’d love to teach here someday.”
Constitutional Law Professor: Loud sigh followed by “You’ll definitely need a court of appeals clerkship, if not one on the Supreme Court.” Courts of Appeals are one rung below the Supreme Court. Typically, to even be considered for a Supreme Court clerkship, one has to have first completed a court of appeals clerkship, and as such, said appellate clerkship is the most prestigious gig one can obtain straight out of law school.
Lesson: Sheila Raj, along with all of her nervous classmates, wouldn’t be employable without a clerkship. This was a bit of a problem, considering that getting a perfect score on the LSAT seemed easier. Top-ten law school. Straight As. Two law professors attesting to your legal genius. In a place where As were less common than all-night raves, obtaining a clerkship seemed to be an insurmountable task.
Luckily for me, taking law school exams turned out to be like learning how to ride a bicycle. After a few falls during my first semester torts final, I got back up and probably could have given Lance Armstrong a good run.
As such, the entire Columbia Law School community insisted that I apply to every federal judge in the United States of America and its outlying territories. And why not? According to every professor and former law clerk, working for a judge was “the best job you’ll ever have.”
A sample page from Columbia Law’s clerkship center read: “Judge Sanders is brilliant and a wonderful mentor,” “Writing opinions with Judge Nederholm is the most exciting experience I’ve ever had—professional or otherwise,” “You’ll learn more in a year from Judge Franklin than during the rest of your entire life.”
Based on what everyone said and wrote, a clerkship was better than drugs, sex, and rock and roll combined. It was incredible that all the 1960s hippies didn’t turn to the law rather than to acid and Janis Joplin. I had to have it. Not only for my own personal growth but also to land the job of my dreams.
After interning in the Immigrants Rights division of the American Civil Liberties Union the summer after my One L year, I was sold. I was going to fight the good fight. Protect the disenfranchised from the almighty government. Make America what the founders had envisioned. It was clear that I needed a clerkship to land a job there without first having to slave away in the litigation department of a big New York City sweatshop.
Yet even a fiery litigator from such a sweatshop would be hard pressed to crack the case of the clerkship.
United States Federal Judges v. Sheila Raj, Third-Year Law Student
Facts: For weeks, hundreds of thousands of law students packed into Columbia Law’s library, sitting for hours on end, cutting, pasting, printing, stuffing, and sealing hundreds of envelopes with a good old-fashioned ass kiss. New York, Miami, Chicago, Washington DC, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Dallas.
Even the lady at the post office thought Raj was a weirdo (“Girlfriend, if you don’t get a job for all this”—pointing to an overloaded cart of applications before turning her head back and forth). Being pitied by a postal worker didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Question presented: Does Raj get a clerkship and live happily ever after, or not and die?
Holding: Nearly two hundred applications in over a dozen cities yielded three whole interviews. The first one—a district court judge in Manhattan. Sure, Judge Cortland wasn’t on a court of appeals, but he was in New York. A huge plus. When asked the paradigmatic question, “Do you have anything to add?” Raj responded, “Yes, I’m a hypochondriac.” Not the right answer. The second go-round involved Chicago and too much nervous talk about the wind. No dice.
Three’s the charm! Sheila Raj landed an offer from the Honorable Helga Friedman, court of appeals judge in Philadelphia, President Gerald Ford appointee, first woman ever to sit on a federal court of appeals and former Penn Law professor. In sum, a Legal Goddess.
I accepted on the spot.
I knew I’d miss my life in New York, but spending one short year in Philadelphia was going to make my career. Heck, it’d probably make my life.
The city of brotherly love beckoned!
“Sheels, it’s adorable! It’s huge! Check out the gorgeous floors and ohmyGod—you get tons of natural light!” my sister, Puja, squealed as we entered my new apartment on Twelfth Street between Spruce and Pine, smack in the middle of the “gayborhood.” Like South Beach and Chelsea, the gay mafia had transformed this neighborhood from filthy to fabulous in a matter of two years. And I was right in the middle of it all. Darling café to the left, independent bookstore straight ahead, French bistro to the right. As for my apartment, it felt like a palace compared to my place in New York. “Eight hundred fifty square feet of pure prewar charm!” That’s what the ad said in the Philadelphia Inquirer and it was true. The most charming part? Eight hundred fifty bucks a month! For that, you’d be lucky to get bedbugs and a bathroom share in Brooklyn.
“Yeah, Sheila, this is even better than you described. For once I don’t think you exaggerated,” Sanjay said, playfully squeezing my shoulder. Sanjay and I had been dating for about two years. He was a radiology resident in Reston, Virginia, my hometown. I’d known him since I was about three minutes old, as our parents had been best friends since their medical school days in India. Any semblance of incest had been avoided thanks to the fact that Sanjay was four years older than me and had failed to acknowledge my existence until a few years earlier, when we’d seen each other at Thanksgiving. A girl couldn’t have asked for a more dependable or decent man. And shy of landing the lead in a Bollywood film, our mothers couldn’t have been happier.
“You know, you guys, I think I may never leave Philly,” I said, taking in my palace. “You can actually live like a normal person rather than a starving bag lady.”
“Yeah, since you totally starved and were a bag lady in New York. Jesus, you were probably the only graduate student in the city who lived around the corner from Pastis,” Puja replied. Sanjay, seemingly bored, retreated to the bathroom.
“Anyway, what I meant was that I think I have the potential to be a huge hit in this town. You know—the big fish, small pond scenario. It doesn’t hurt that I clearly live in the most fashionable neighborhood and—”
BANG! BANG! BANG!
“Hey, hello?” a man whispered (loudly) at my prewar door.
“My fans have already come to see me!” I sauntered over, smiling.
It’s not that I was expecting Elton John with a fruit basket, but Mister Rogers? Before me was a gray-haired man with thin eyebrows and a sprayed-on tan.
“Uh, um, hey, where is he?” Mister Rogers peered inside, eyes darting from side to side. Puja waved, warily.
“That’s not a man!” he exclaimed. Puja had long straight hair (which she talked about incessantly), was five foot four, 110 pounds. She was wearing a short skirt and pink flip-flops. It didn’t take a detective to figure out that my sister was, in fact, not a man.
“Who are you looking for?” I closed the door a bit so he’d stop eyeballing my 850-square-foot gem. He was starting to freak me out.
“Hey, hey up here! Up here!” a timid male voice beckoned from above. I looked up, along the winding staircase of my new building. Standing two floors up was a twenty-something guy in designer jeans and a tight-fitted black T-shirt with the word “bitch” on it. If he hadn’t been emaciated and wearing a three-seasons-ago shirt, he’d be really cute—just the kind of fag I’d have been more than happy to hag.
Mister Rogers muttered a “sorry” before bounding up the stairs.
“Hey”—cough—”hey you”—cough, cough—”welcome to the building!” the skinny guy yelled to me.
And with that, we both closed our doors.
Things were slightly off in Mister Rogers’s neighborhood.