Thursday, November 15, 2018
It's no surprise that Supreme Court law clerks searching for a job in private practice will be faced with some tough choices, but determining which firm is offering the highest signing bonuses is not one of them. Jones Day leads the way this year in offering a signing bonus of $400,000. That is nearly double the salaries of the Supreme Court Justices for whom they clerked. And that does not include salary.
It's a given that any firm would be more than happy to hire a Supreme Court clerk. They have already proven their mettle and intelligence, so there is little risk as to whether they can handle private practice. But the opportunity to use the Supreme Court as a pre-screening testing ground for the next newbie associate is a privilege only a few firms can afford.
Michael Scanlon, hiring partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which recruited two Supreme Court clerks from last term, said “the market appears to have settled” at $400,000. He attributes the escalating bonus to the fact that “the competition is great” for the small number of talented attorneys—38 or so—the Supreme Court turns out every year.
It's something to think about that thirty years ago the signing bonuses were in the neighborhood of $10,000, and even in 2015, they were around $300,000. Any way we look at it, Supreme Court clerking has been a bountiful niche to exploit. Supreme Court clerks go on to the most prestigious jobs in private practice, government, and many return to the Supreme Court - as justices. A majority of the Court now contains former Supreme Court clerks (Roberts, Breyer, Kagan, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh). While the promise of exclusive access to desirable jobs and an extremely large signing bonus are attractive to former clerks, some people don't think it's a good thing.
“It’s become absurd,” said Todd Peppers, who has written books about Supreme Court clerks. “These firms can no longer credibly argue that they are compensating these former clerks for the additional education and training obtained during their Supreme Court clerkships. Yes, these former clerks are very smart. That being said, this is about access and insight into the individual chambers.”
U.C. Hastings College of the Law professor Rory Little, himself a former clerk, said, “If I were a clerk today and knew that I could get an extra almost half-million dollars, I would feel very careful about the firms’ Supreme Court cases while clerking. Seriously, an ethics expert needs to look at this carefully, under the current ethics rules and concerns we adopt for lawyers and judges in other situations. All 37 clerks or more feel that same ‘tug,’ even if it is implicit or unconscious.”
“When the numbers get so high—in terms of the bonus itself and the numbers of hires going to one firm—it unavoidably raises concerns about what is being purchased and the meaning of public service,” Harvard Law School professor Richard Lazarus said in 2015. Lazarus, reached this week, said he stands by those remarks, adding that “a vast majority” of the Jones Day hires are likely to leave the firm in a few years. “Jones Day is paying a lot of money for a photograph,” he said.
It's a point that might have been overlooked if these signing bonuses weren't so large - does the enormity of the sum start to create ethical problems for these lawyers while they are at the Court or for the perception of our justice system?