The Supreme Court’s new term began today, and in the coming months, the justices will
likely weigh decisions on such contentious issues as same-sex marriage and affirmative
action. But they couldn’t handle the workload without their clerks—the usually young
lawyers who help them write opinions and select which cases the court will hear.
Landing a Supreme Court clerkship has never been more valuable. Only 39 attorneys
get the honor every year—the nine sitting justices hire four clerks each, and retired
Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, and
John Paul Stevens hire one each. The budding legal stars gain unparalleled experience and exclusive
knowledge. Last term’s clerks, for example, knew the outcome of the landmark challenge
to health-care reform well in advance of the public.
Once they’ve completed their year at One First Street, the clerks have rare insight
into the secretive world of the justices—and Washington’s top firms compete fiercely
to recruit them. The astronomical signing bonuses that await the current term’s clerks
will make this group the richest on record.
At the end of the last court term, high-end law firms began ticking up the previous
Supreme Court hiring bonus of $250,000. Now $280,000 is the industry standard. That’s
on top of the six-figure base salaries the attorneys will earn if they choose to become
So who are the 39 lucky lawyers who can wave goodbye to their law-school debt by this
time next year? As is traditionally the case, Yale and Harvard Law have the most alumni
clerking at the high court. With ten clerks, Yale edged out Harvard’s seven.
Stanford Law made an unusually good showing this term, with five clerks, and New York
University School of Law sent three grads to the high court, thanks in large part
to Bronx native
Sonia Sotomayor, who hired two of them.
Until last year, when it tied with Stanford at four clerks each, the University of
Virginia had been on a five-year streak of placing more clerks at the Supreme Court
than any other school besides Harvard and Yale. This year, UVA has two alumni at the
Though the official list of clerks provided by the Supreme Court mistakenly listed
one of George Washington University’s as a Georgetown graduate, Georgetown actually
has just one clerk, while GW has two—the first time two GW grads have clerked simultaneously.
This term’s bunch comes with political experience. Georgetown’s
Susannah Weaver, a clerk for Justice
Stephen Breyer, spent four years as a staffer on the House Science and Technology Committee. Sotomayor
clerk and Yale alum
Scott Grinsell has worked for House Democratic leader
Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco mayor
The justices also appear to value philanthropic efforts. One of
Elena Kagan’s clerks,
David Zimmer, spent a year in Sierra Leone before attending Harvard Law, helping build small businesses
in the West African nation. As a second-year law student at UVA,
Lauren Willard, a clerk for
Anthony Kennedy, spent three weeks in Egypt studying child trafficking and underage marriage there.
Caroline Edsall, a clerk for Chief Justice
John Roberts, founded the Relay for Life of Yale University in 2005 to benefit the American Cancer
Society and was Yale Law’s top fundraiser for the walk.
Even the best and brightest have bad days. UVA alum
Rebecca Gantt was caught off guard when Justice Breyer called to offer her a clerkship. She was
at work in the chambers of federal appellate judge
Michael Boudin, and neither she nor her colleague could figure out how to transfer Breyer’s call.
As a result, she recalled later, “the justice was on hold for quite a while.”
Fortunately for her—and her bank account—he apparently didn’t count it against her.