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Capital Comment Blog > Law & Lobbying|SCOTUS Watch

Hiring Supreme Court Clerks: The $500,000 Gamble

Snagging one of the coveted 39 lawyers doesn’t come cheap, and it won’t always pay off, either.

Former Clarence Thomas clerk Elbert Lin (left) and Keith Bradley (right), who clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, have already left their firms. Photograph of Lin courtesy of Wiley Rein. Photograph of Bradley courtesy of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Supreme Court clerks are the ultimate status symbols for law firms that do appellate work. But luring one of the 39 lawyers who have spent a year behind the scenes at the high court isn’t cheap. And now that the court’s term is over, the battle is on for the outgoing clerks.

The signing bonus for clerks at major firms is $280,000. Most start at the third-year-associate level or higher, bringing their base salaries close to $200,000. Not including the vast resources firms dedicate to training them, that means each is a nearly half-million-dollar gamble—and not a very safe one. Clerks are intellectuals who often have higher-minded goals than billing thousands of hours at a firm. Many have their sights set on academia or government service, but Ivy League educations come with debt that only a signing bonus can instantly alleviate. So how can a law firm ensure it’s betting on a clerk who will stick around? It can’t.

Already, some recently hired clerks have left their firms. Elbert Lin, who clerked for Clarence Thomas during the court’s 2010-11 term, joined Wiley Rein. He’d previously been an associate there, so in theory he was among the safer bets. Alas, Lin departed earlier this year to become West Virginia’s solicitor general. “You never know about those things,” says the firm’s chairman, Richard Wiley. “You have to take your chances.”

Lin says he was “a little nervous” about leaving because he’d made a commitment. “You want to feel like you’re a person of integrity,” he says. But he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to “take on a significant leadership role” in West Virginia.

Keith Bradley, who clerked for Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2010-11, worked at WilmerHale for less than a year before leaving for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In an e-mailed statement, WilmerHale co-managing partner Robert Novick said the firm “supports and applauds” its attorneys who choose to serve in government. Still, the premature departures must sting, especially because Lin and Bradley didn’t even get the chance to handle actual Supreme Court matters for their firms, as former clerks are barred from practicing at the high court for two years.

Though some law-firm leaders grumble about the expense and risk of hiring clerks, others insist they’re a wise investment. Neal Katyal, who co-heads the Supreme Court practice at Hogan Lovells, says clerks do “extraordinary” work and clients love them. This might be easy for him to say, as the three he hired last year all remain at Hogan.

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.

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  • r.friedman

    These are both revolving door positions from which the former clerks can be expected to return, yet more billable.

  • Joseph

    That is a lot of money to pay someone that knows almost nothing about practicing law.

  • Tom

    It’s worth paying 280k per clerk and hoping they’ll stay, if it
    pleases the clients sending you millions upon millions in business. The numbers
    sound crazy but just like with professional athletes it makes sense to pay the
    money, for the tiny number of people with these impossible credentials.

  • Lord Mannyrossa

    I have to wonder why they didn't have clauses in their contracts calling for the bonus to be returned if they leave inside of a year. Or if state law forbids it, make it a bonus that is paid per year they are with the firm over the course of 3-5 years. If they want the full bonus, work 3-5 years. It's not worth the gamble to drop nearly a quarter million in bonuses on someone. Especially someone who can't legally do the job they were hired for until they pass the 2 year mark.

  • JJB

    I don't think the supposed two-year ban is really an issue. First, much of the work they are hired to do is appellate work in the circuit courts, on which there is no restriction. Second, "appearing" before the court means filing a formal appearance. There's no need to do so to work on the cases and draft briefs. As anyone who has worked at a large law firms knows, briefs are often largely written by people who do not end up signing them and have not offically appeared in the case. It's not as though any of these kids were actually going to be arguing before the court in their first two years of practice. (They probably wouldn't even be signing briefs in their first two years).

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