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Hiring a Supreme Court Clerk Now Costs $500K; A Latham Partner Goes to the Dark Side

Vivia Chen

September 13, 2012

Money bed© pressmaster - Fotolia.comEasy money. What can you do to ensure that you'll be the most sought-after law grad in the land, even if the economy tanks and the apocalypse breaks out tomorrow? Just make your way to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court and get yourself a clerkship!

Tony Mauro in the Supreme Court Insider of The National Law Journal (subscription required) reports that last term's Supreme Court law clerks are now commanding "jaw-dropping hiring bonuses of $280,000 or more" from big firms.

So here's the math, according to Mauro:

With associate salaries at $150,000 or more at many large firms, that makes for a first-year investment approaching $500,000 per law clerk (not counting other bonuses or benefits). Put another way, clerks will earn more than twice the salaries of the justices they worked for. Not bad, given that ex-clerks are ethically barred from doing Supreme Court work for two years.

So far, Jones Day has been winning the prize for the highest number of  Supreme Court clerks, snagging five of the 39 clerks from last term. And the firm is still wooing them. Appellate partner Beth Heifetz told Mauro: "There are a couple of offers outstanding, so it is five and counting."

The clerks are not easy catches. Hogan Lovells partner Neal Katyal told Mauro that "during a 12-day vacation in Italy, he was on the phone every night with one of several candidates or with a law firm colleague discussing potential hires." Eventually, Hogan bagged two of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.'s clerks.

Thomas Dupree Jr., hiring partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher's D.C. office, told Mauro that it's a brutal process: "Every year it's a dogfight. The whole Supreme Court clerk recruiting process is the law firm equivalent of the Bachelor or the Bachelorette television shows."

So here's the big question: Are the clerks worth the huge bucks? Naturally, all the hiring partners bidding for them say they are worth every penny. "We think it is a fabulous investment that pays off," said Heifetz. Contrary to rumors that some clerks take advantage of firms' generosity, Heifetz said, "We haven't found Supreme Court clerks leaving earlier or unexpectedly. Maybe it's because they are enjoying working with the firm."

Or maybe pocketing that much money facilitates the bonding.

Did you hear about Chuck? I must admit I find this a bit puzzling: Charles Nathan, the global cochair of mergers and acquisitions at Latham & Watkins and a bona fide heavy weight in the corporate world, is retiring to join—get this—a public relations firm! Nathan will become a partner and senior adviser at RLM Finsbury, working on M&A communications, reports The Wall Street Journal's Deal Journal.

Why do I find this baffling? Well, most retired partners, especially ones as successful as Nathan, usually decide to do something really different—like running a foundation, going into public interest (former Arnold & Porter managing partner Jim Sandman is now president of Legal Services Corporation), travel, or write books about their favorite poets. Maybe it's my journalist's prejudice (yes, we call PR "the dark side"), but it seems a tad anticlimactic to sign on as a message massager after being in the driver's seat on deals.

I have no doubt that Nathan will work at the highest levels and that he will provide valuable advice to clients, but is being a PR guru his dream career? Is that what you would do if you could pursue anything you want?

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As a former "heavyweight" (general counsel of a Fortune 300), my dream was writing fiction. My legal thriller Terminal Ambition was just published. It's set in the Manhattan headquarters of BigLaw. A female partner's campaign for justice for the firm's women jeopardizes the chairman's ambition to be named U.S. Attorney General. It's a thriller with a message about women's rights.

Most of my writing efforts are directed at advancing women's rights. My blogs have appeared in a number of e-zines and female-oriented sites, including Forbes Woman, Women's Media Center, Role/Reboot, Ms. JD and Fem2pt0.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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