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Supreme Court clerks reap big signing bonuses

By A. James Memmott

October 4, 2007 at 12:30pm

As baseball managers know, life isn’t always fair.

You put the team together, you make the key decisions, and the people who work for you make the big bucks.
The analogy isn’t exact, but something like that is happening at the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened its 2007-08 term on Monday.

The nine justices make the decisions. And for this they get paid fairly well, $212,000 for Chief Justice John Roberts, $203,000 for the eight associate justices.

The people who work for them - the young law clerks who help in the preparation of decisions - receive a salary of $65,007.

However, after their year with the court, clerks can expect to pocket a signing bonus of up to $250,000 to join a law firm. On top of that, they’ll get salaries well over $100,000 a year.

There will be lawyers at their firms who make much more, but, then again, they’re not in their mid-20s and a couple years out of law school.

But the case for those signing bonuses goes like this:

  • The clerks have usually gone to a top-flight law school, quite often an Ivy League law school, especially Harvard or Yale.
  • In addition to doing very well in law school, they typically have clerked for a year on the federal appellate level.
  • In an op-ed piece in the New York Times earlier this year, David Lat, editor-in-chief of the website, Above the Law, defended the signing bonuses, in part, by noting that the clerks have put off some big bucks in choosing to clerk rather than go directly to a high-paying firm after law school.
  • If nothing else, the bonuses make up for lost wages.

Beyond all of this, the law of supply and demand operates. There are a lot of law firms in this country, but there aren’t that many Supreme Court law clerks.There are just 37 clerks at the court for this term, four for each justice and one for retired justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The selection of these clerks was monitored by court buffs much as if it were the NFL draft.

The blog, Underneath Their Robes, authored by “Article III Groupie,” shouts out congrats to the newly hired clerks.

Lat’s website was particularly energetic in reporting Justice Antonin Scalia’s clerk choices for the 2007 term. It described Scalia’s third pick, Rachel Kovner, daughter of “hedge fund genius Bruce Kovner,” as the “Empress of Palo Alto” (she graduated from Stanford Law) and made reference to her Facebook profile.

Bonuses aside, the clerkship has other rewards.

It can get a former clerk a good job in the government or in academe. Ultimately, it might lead to a judgeship and even a seat on the Supreme Court.

Three current members of the court, Roberts, John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer, clerked at the court. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, was turned down for a clerkship in 1960 in an era when female clerks at the court were rare.

While the number of women serving as clerks has gone up over the years, male clerks still remain in a significant majority.

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