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 justices 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 law-firm associates.
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 court.
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 Gavin Newsom.
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. And 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.