News & Politics

Yale Edges Harvard in High Court Clerk Battle

As the talking heads sniped over Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick of Sonia Sotomayor, the high court’s clerks were quietly settling in as they do every summer. The difference this year: There are so far 34 of them, compared with the usual 37, because Sotomayor’s group hasn’t started yet.

Most of this term’s clerks—the legal elites who help the justices write opinions, prep for oral arguments, and select cases for review—have followed the traditional path of clerks past. They’ve graduated from the country’s best law schools and clerked for federal appellate judges, and several have spent a year or two at top firms such as Williams & Connolly and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. For lawyers such as these, landing a Supreme Court clerkship is a crowning achievement. The job is like rocket fuel for a young résumé—afterward, clerks can command signing bonuses of more than $200,000.

Even for an established lawyer, it seems clerking at the high court is an opportunity that can’t be missed. Elizabeth Papez, clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas, graduated from Harvard Law in 1999, made partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2005, and was most recently deputy assistant attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department.

Papez doesn’t need the credential, so why spend a year at the Supreme Court? “I think her thinking is, if you combine her executive-branch experience with the experience you can only gain clerking at the top of the judicial branch, that she’ll be a formidable lawyer,” says Kirkland partner and Papez friend Craig Primis. Papez, like all Supreme Court clerks, isn’t allowed to comment to the press.

Papez is one of eight Harvard alums—and one of 11 women—in this year’s group. Yale has nine clerks, including recently retired justice David Souter’s single clerk, Thomas Pulham. Retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor also has one. Sitting justices each have four.

Washington schools had a decent showing: Georgetown has two clerks, George Washington University one. New Jersey’s Seton Hall has its first clerk, thanks to alum Lucas Townsend, who’s clerking for one of the court’s two Garden State natives, Justice Samuel Alito.

This article first appeared in the September 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 as a staff writer, and became a senior editor in 2014. She oversees the magazine’s real estate and home design coverage, and writes long-form feature stories. She was a 2020 Livingston Award finalist for her two-part investigation into a wrongful conviction stemming from a murder in rural Virginia.