Surprise, Surprise: Harvard Wins the Supreme Court Clerk Competition

But that doesn't mean all justices depend on Ivy grads

By: Marisa M. Kashino

Harvard Law has the most Supreme Court clerks. UVA is in the top four.

The Supreme Court is about to start its new term, and that means 39 lucky legal up-and-comers are embarking on the opportunity of their careers. They are this year’s high-court clerks—the usually young attorneys hired by the justices to do history-making work for one year, such as helping write opinions and deciding which cases the court should hear.

The clerks traditionally come from the best law schools, have worked in rigorous government positions or at top law firms, and have clerked with federal appellate judges. Each sitting justice gets four clerks, and retired justices Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens have one each.

Harvard and Yale are always in competition to have the most law-school alumni chosen to clerk. Though in past years they’ve been neck-and-neck, Harvard blew Yale away this term, with 13 alums at the high court, compared with Yale’s five. Last year, the two schools were tied, with eight grads each, until former Harvard Law dean Elena Kagan was confirmed as a justice in August and welcomed three additional Harvard alumni.

Clarence Thomas, who has made a habit of avoiding Ivies, is the only sitting member of the Supreme Court without an Ivy League law grad clerking for him. One of his group, Michelle Stratton, is the first graduate of Louisiana State University Law Center to land a high-court clerkship. Another of Thomas’s clerks, Brian Lea, hails from the University of Georgia School of Law, making him that school’s ninth clerk. “I have a preference, actually, for non–Ivy League law clerks, simply because I think clerks should come from a wide range of backgrounds,” Thomas said last year.

The University of Virginia made a good showing, though it ended its five-year streak of placing more clerks at the court than any other school besides Harvard and Yale. This year, it’s tied with Stanford at four clerks each.

Some of the clerks have served their country in a much different capacity. Harvard’s Hagan Scotten, one of chief justice John Roberts’s bunch, won two Bronze Stars while in Iraq as a troop commander in the Army’s Special Forces. Ryan Newman, a clerk for Samuel Alito and a graduate of the University of Texas School of Law, also served in the Army and deployed to Iraq in 2003.

Somehow these overachievers find time for hobbies. Stratton is a singer, pianist, and flutist and rides horses. And Sonia Sotomayor’s clerk Daniel Habib is a former winner of the Yale Cruciverbalist Society’s crossword tournament. He’s also a former writer for Sports Illustrated. If Sotomayor needs help finding just the right wording for her next opinion, she’s got her guy.

The good news for this year’s class of clerks is that the already big signing bonuses they can command when leaving the court have jumped this year. Some top firms such as Sidley Austin are now offering $280,000 to lure high-court clerks—up from $250,000, the going rate in recent years.

This article appears in the October 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.