News & Politics

Late to Court

Elizabeth Papez took an unusual route to a Supreme Court clerkship

Elizabeth Papez was a natural pick to be a Supreme Court clerk. She had all the right credentials: degrees from Cornell and Harvard Law (where she was editor of the Harvard Law Review) and a prior clerkship on the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. But when Papez accepted a clerkship with Justice Clarence Thomas for the 2009 term, she’d been out of law school for a decade.

Papez served in the George W. Bush administration as deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, and she had been a partner at Kirkland & Ellis—one of the nation’s most prominent law firms. In other words, she already had the kind of career that Supreme Court clerks, who are usually at most a few years out of school, aspire to.

Why put her stellar career on hold for a year?

“It boils down to this,” says Papez, who finished her clerkship earlier this summer. “I’m interested in any opportunity that will enhance my skill set and make me a better lawyer.”

Papez’s decision to clerk is also a testament to just how coveted these high-court spots are. Clerks help the justices decide which cases they’ll hear, and they assist with opinion-writing. It’s an unparalleled chance to shape the country’s legal landscape. And it doesn’t hurt that top-tier law firms offer signing bonuses of $250,000 for new hires who have clerked on the high court.

Papez says she had never previously applied for a high-court clerkship and never anticipated she’d end up with one. But clerking later in life had its advantages: Her kids got to spend a lot of time at 1 First Street over the past year.

She says working with Justice Thomas exceeded her expectations. “One of the things that I really enjoyed about working with him is that he does value different perspectives,” says Papez. “I felt like he was always interested in engaging me as a lawyer and as a person.”

It was also a historic time to clerk, because President Barack Obama nominated Elena Kagan to replace Justice John Paul Stevens toward the end of Papez’s time on the court. But asked for her thoughts on Kagan’s confirmation and the fact that the Supreme Court is more female now than ever, Papez, a conservative, sounds less than enthusiastic.

“I think the justices do a great job, irrespective of demographics,” she says.

However, Papez adds later that Kagan’s joining the court is important and positive “to the extent the court’s current composition increases public confidence in the institution and inspires people of different backgrounds to go into the legal profession.”

Papez will join Winston & Strawn as a partner in the litigation practice later this fall. In a statement, Thomas Mills, managing partner of the firm’s Washington office, said the fact that she came to the high court late makes her a unique asset, noting that “few lawyers with such experience have clerked for the [Chief Justice John] Roberts Court.” Papez’s unusual route to a clerkship may have served her better than she could have expected.

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Senior Editor

Marisa M. Kashino joined Washingtonian in 2009 and was a senior editor until 2022.