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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