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Jones Day High Court Clerks Easily Make Partner (Or Maybe Not)

Aug. 26, 2021, 9:31 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we ask how often Jones Day’s Supreme Court clerks make partner—and talk about why that matters now. Sign up to receive this column in your inbox on Thursday mornings.

Sure, Big Law firms look alike, but they usually have one or two things that separate them from the pack.

Some of Jones Day’s special attributes are that it hires more U.S. Supreme Court clerks—with their accompanying six-figure bonuses—than any other law firm and it has a “black box” compensation system in which partners don’t know how much other partners make.

Those defining features are colliding in a dispute that could see a pair of former Supreme Court clerks and Jones Day lawyers throw open the secretive firm’s compensation decisions—at least for themselves.

Fighting the case put Jones Day in an uncomfortable spot. It argued earlier this month that the attribute the firm seems to treasure the most in young lawyers—experience working with Supreme Court justices—doesn’t necessarily lead to success in Big Law.

Jones Day’s filing was part of a dispute with two of the firm’s former Supreme Court clerks: Mark Savignac and Julia Sheketoff. The married couple sued their former firm in 2019, alleging Savignac had been fired in retaliation for an email they sent alleging the firm’s parental leave policy discriminated based on sex.

Now, Savignac is trying to calculate his lost salary. To do that, he wants to know what Jones Day partners make. If not for the illegal firing, he argues, he would be a partner today. And there’s a simple reason: He’s a former Supreme Court clerk.

The firm “appears to promote all Supreme Court clerks” who meet the basic requirements for making partner, Savignac said in a filing this week. Those requirements are simply having been out of law school for nine years and having worked at Jones Day for at least three. He says every former high court clerk that met those requirements has made partner since 2014.

Savignac also said he was good at his job. He filed a smattering of his formal evaluations from Jones Day lawyers that he described as “positive.” (The details were redacted.)

In its own filing, Jones Day said there’s no basis to Savignac’s claim that every Supreme Court clerk who sticks around will be made partner. And in his individual case, the firm says it’s “unprovable speculation” to say he would have been admitted to the partnership.

In a footnote, it also said he “did not possess the qualities required of a Jones Day partner.”

The firm’s argument downplaying the elevation of former Supreme Court clerks might be true. But it’s an unlikely suggestion from a firm that has recruited 64 Supreme Court clerks since the 2011 October term.

Jones Day recruited nine Supreme Court clerks this year, for a market price reported at $3.6 million in bonuses alone. Far from downplaying the hires, Jones Day can more often be found bragging about its Supreme Court clerks.

“These talented lawyers have a terrific understanding of case law,” Traci L. Lovitt, leader of Jones Day’s issues and appeals practice, said of such hires in a recent press release. “Their analytical skills and deep insights into the latest legal developments will be of great value to clients.”

I asked Savignac for more info on his claim about the Supreme Court clerks who’ve made partner since 2014, but he declined to comment. Jones Day didn’t respond to a message seeking comment on what role a Supreme Court clerkship plays in partnership decisions.

Savignac’s claim appears to be true for the six-member Supreme Court clerk class Jones Day announced it had hired in Nov. 2013. Three remain at the firm; all are partners. None of the seven Supreme Court clerks Jones Day recruited in 2014 remain at the firm.

The 2015 class consisted of 10 clerks. Four remain at the firm, and three are partners. The other is of counsel. He left Jones Day for a four-year stint in the U.S. Department of Justice before returning to the firm this year.

My research isn’t the final answer. But would anyone be surprised if all the Supreme Court clerks who stuck around made partner?

It’s exactly the outcome I’d expect.

Big Law promotion decisions are designed to select the attributes partners deem most valuable, for better or worse. And Jones Day has spent years signaling how much value it places on people who hold Supreme Court clerkships. Firing clerks would diminish the very credential Jones Day has so heavily invested in.

The system for monitoring, training, and promoting Big Law associates has been criticized for this type of self-reinforcing behavior in the past.

Law professors David Wilkins and G. Mitu Gulati wrote in 1998 about the difficulties large law firms have monitoring, training, and promoting. Since it’s virtually impossible for partners to retrace all of the work an associate did to research a given topic, Wilkins and Gulati write that firms evaluate associates by relying on personal evaluations—the type Savignac said were “positive.”

But these evaluations are prone to all sorts of biases, the pair wrote. Here’s one of the biases they cite: Partners may have a “desire to inflate the credentials of their senior associate proteges.”

If your law firm tells you that Supreme Court clerks are valuable, you probably aren’t inclined to go around writing negative reviews of Supreme Court clerks. You’re probably even less likely to do that if you are a Supreme Court clerk yourself (Savignac was reviewed by at least three, according to court records). And any evaluation biases aside, these clerks are probably good at their job!

All of which is to say, I wouldn’t be surprised if Savignac had made partner at Jones Day. But of course, he didn’t.

The question he wants answered is why not—and how much it might have cost him.

Worth Your Time

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That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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