Supreme Court Clerk Feeder Judges And Snaring Those Clerkships When You Didn’t Go To Yale

ladder.jpgFor the many of us who teach at solid, but not top 10, law schools, one big challenge is figuring out a way to get our graduates Supreme Court clerkships. Each year, a handful of students – and sometimes a very small handful – from the law school hoi polloi find their way into a Supreme Court clerkship. How do they get there?

The first thing any aspiring clerk needs is a list of feeder judges. Stuart Buck provided this list. Note that it covers a long period – 1989 to 2005 – and there have been shifts over time. Still, it gives insights into highly desirable clerkships (for Supreme Court feeding purposes) and shows particular hiring patterns.

But what else can a student do to make the move from, say Alabama (or any other similar school) to a Supreme Court clerkship? The first requirement, naturally, is that the student do exceptionally well – probably top two or three in the class. It also helps if they pile on the achievements; relatively few valedictorians are also Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review. While they’re at it, they might work with a law professor, assuring an excellent, detailed letter of recommendation. And it wouldn’t hurt to publish a note (or two.) That’s all for starters.

Next, they need to target a good first clerkship. Is there a feeder judge that has a history of taking law grads from their school? Everyone wants that Boudin clerkship, of course, but it’s not likely that an Alabama student will get one. But Judge Higginbotham, on the 5th Circuit, is an Alabama alum, and he’s put several of his clerks on the high court. I suspect that many other law schools have a similar connection – even if only one. Maybe a feeder clerk is unrealistic as a first clerkship. If the student wants the Supreme Court clerkship enough, it’s time to think about doing two circuit clerkships. The Alabama diploma might not get you into Judge Sentelle’s chambers, but perhaps that, plus a clerkship with Judge Pryor, will do the trick. It will just take more time.

Students also need to network. Perhaps the student can find a law school alum who is a former high court clerk. Perhaps he or she can find one who is powerful on the Hill, or among the Federalists. Faculty, and deans, need to help out with this process.

The faculty also have to make decisions about prioritizing candidates. Is the school prepared to identify and push one candidate as the annointed one? This will irrirtate many other students, but by signalling to the Justices that there is a best-and-brightest, that one candidate will get a nice benefit. I’d love to hear other ideas, thoughts, and suggestions on this topic.

One thing’s for sure: the passing of Rehnquist, and departure of Luttig, didn’t help. Say what you want about them, but these judges were at least open to hiring outside the club. I have my fingers crossed about Alito and Roberts, but I can’t say I’m particularly hopeful.

UPDATE: Gump’s Law has a list of each Justice’s clerks (including law schools) for the upcoming year. More good data for the aspiring SCOTUS clerk. More bad news for students at all but a tiny group of law schools.

UPDATE 2: Gump’s list (is that related to Emily’s List?) was actually harvested from Prettier Than Napoleon. The newest version of Prettier’s list is here. This new tally shows that Justice Alito has hired a BYU alum to clerk. Good news, true, but special circumstances: Lee was an Alito clerk and the son of Rex Lee, former Solicitor General of the United States. I guess you can add that as an additional strategy: convince your parents to become incredibly powerful lawyers.

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9 Responses

  1. Plainsman says:

    On the current Court, Justice Thomas has displayed a willingness to hire clerks from schools “outside the club.”

  2. Bubba says:

    Plainsman is right – Justice Thomas bemoaned the “Ivy Curtain” when he spoke here at Alabama last fall… And he did hire a UGA alum for the upcoming term (but the others were from UVA and Yale – almost-complete list here:

  3. Amber says:

    Gump’s Law’s list is actually copied from my list at Prettier Than Napoleon. An updated version is available here.

  4. Shrimp Boat says:

    Don’t worry Amber. I gave you credit when I put up the list. Thanks for the update.

  5. Mike says:

    Don’t worry Amber. I gave you credit when I put up the list.

    Not to threadjack, but you copied Ms. Taylor’s list to keep the people at your blog, rather than sending them to Ms. Taylor’s – even though Ms. Taylor did the work in compiling the list. Although I don’t think Ms. Taylors’ list would be copyrightable, I do think your copy-and-paste job was in poor form.

  6. Mike S. says:

    Is there any record of aspirant High Court clerks coming out of state supreme court clerkships? Or are state court clerkships stepping stones to federal clerkships?

    Or, perhaps most poignantly, is the state court system unton itself and useless when making one’s way to a federal clerkship?

  7. Nick Saccone says:

    Do lower federal judges typically take their clerks with them when they get appointed up from a lower court to a higher court?

  8. Dan Filler says:

    Mike, I think that there are rare instances of state supreme court justices producing SCOTUS clerks. I think it happened at least once in the 1990’s. A more likely (but perhaps not common) scenario is a person following a state supreme clerkship with a circuit clerkship and then going to the Supremes. State courts are important, and many justices may be better than circuit judges, but they just don’t have status.

    Nick, my sense is that most federal trial court judges do take along their clerks when they get promoted to the circuit. Judges moving to the Supreme Court are a bit different. In most cases, they attempt to get their clerks placed with other circuit judges, sometimes offering them a Supreme Court gig a year later. There are exceptions; I think that Justice Souter took one of his circuit clerks directly to the Supreme Court when he was promoted.

  9. datapoint says:

    Rachel Brand (currently an assistant AG) went directly from the state supreme court in (IIRC) Massachusetts to a (again, IIRC) Kennedy clerkship in the late 90s/early 00s.