Business & Practice

SCOTUS Clerkships Get Too Much Weight in Legal Field, Alumni Say

Oct. 4, 2019, 9:27 PM

A Supreme Court clerkship on a resume can yield job offers at prestigious firms and six-figure signing bonuses, but former clerks say the importance placed on the competitive one-year gig is sometimes overblown.

“Do I think Supreme Court clerks are untalented? No. I think that hiring somebody who has worked at the court does give you an inside perspective,” said Rory Little, a visiting professor at Yale Law School. Little is an experienced high court clerk who worked for Justices William Brennan, John Paul Stevens, and Potter Stewart.

“But there is certainly a ton of people who are amazingly talented at whatever they’re doing who didn’t clerk there,” said Little, who was one of four former clerks on a panel in Washington hosted by the National Constitution Center marking 100 years of clerkships on the Supreme Court.

The importance of clerkships has risen in the past few years, as top firms compete for the talent coming out of the Supreme Court. High court clerkships have been on the resumes of the last three justices and are becoming more common among lower court judges, said Kannon Shanmugam, a former Antonin Scalia clerk and chair of the Supreme Court and appellate practice group at Paul Weiss. He moderated the panel.

Jones Day last year boasted hiring almost a third of the Supreme Court clerk class.

But Little said it’s not the hiring of former clerks that bothers him, it’s rolling them out to prospective clients as a reason to select their firm.

John Elwood, head of the appellate and Supreme Court practice at Arnold & Porter in Washington and a clerk for former Justice Anthony Kennedy, agreed.

“I know Supreme Court clerks who are not very good lawyers and who are not very good writers,” Elwood said. “And I know people who have never clerked on the Supreme Court who are vastly more talented.”

That said, Supreme Court clerk alumni are a talented bunch, Elwood noted. They’ve already been through a rigorous vetting process so they make a good hire, he said.

Clerk selections also are often scrutinized for their tendency to favor students from the same elite schools.

But Jane Nitze, a member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board and former clerk for Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor, said the selection is “getting better.”

“I think the justices are making a concerted effort to look at schools beyond the top five,” Nitze said. Gorsuch, for example, looked “very actively” beyond the top schools, she said. Once you’re picked from the pile, it’s a substantive process, and personality and fit are important factors.

To contact the reporter on this story: Madison Alder in Washington at malder@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com

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