Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld

There was a time when top U.S. Supreme Court advocates didn’t think much of what Thomas Goldstein did. Goldstein, 39, aspired to build his own practice around the high court, and he would use computer databases to methodically find issues on which circuit courts of appeals were split. When he found a case that appeared ripe for the justices, he would call the lawyers involved and offer to help.

“It was really regarded as ambulance-chasing,” he said. “That was something that didn’t happen before — but now happens all the time.”

Goldstein has transformed the practice of Supreme Court advocacy. The search for potential cases has become more methodical, and the competition to work on them is more intense than ever. Even law schools got into the game in 2004, when Goldstein launched a first-of-its-kind clinic at Stanford University focusing on high court litigation. And the litigation has become more high-profile thanks, in part, to SCOTUSblog, the Web site that Goldstein built from his early work.

His rise hasn’t followed any typical pattern. He didn’t attend an Ivy League college or law school, did not clerk for a justice and spent no time in the Solicitor General’s Office. He was an associate at what is now Jones Day and at Boies, Schiller & Flexner before going solo in 1999. He argued his first few cases for free to gain experience and, later, worked for $75,000 per case — a cut-rate fee for Supreme Court work.

Now, Goldstein is co-chairman of the litigation management committee at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, where he helps manage 250 litigators and is responsible for $225 million in annual revenue. He has racked up 22 oral arguments before the Supreme Court, and NBC is exploring whether to turn his success story into a television show. To top it all off: “I play a lot of poker.”

Latham & Watkins

Maureen Mahoney, the woman many have called “the female John Roberts,” may never sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s because in the case of her career, 2003′s Grutter v. Bollinger, she broke from her conservative roots to successfully defend the use of affirmative action in university admissions. While the win may have made it harder for her to ascend to the high court, it also assured the 55-year-old Latham & Watkins partner a place among the decade’s top appellate litigators.

A former deputy solicitor general in the first Bush administration, and the founder of Latham & Watkins’ Supreme Court practice, Mahoney had already argued nearly a dozen cases before the justices by the time of Grutter, including a successful effort to keep the Commerce Department from using statistical sampling in the census. But she said the intense public focus on Grutter, which involved a challenge to the University of Michigan’s use of race as a factor in law school admissions, made it unlike anything she had done before.

Grutter split the court, 5-4, but Mahoney won her second landmark argument of the decade in a 9-0 rout. In 2005′s Arthur Andersen v. U.S., Mahoney convinced a unanimous high court that executives from the defunct accounting firm could not be found guilty of obstruction of justice for shredding Enron-related documents because, at the time, they didn’t believe it was ­illegal.

When a second Supreme Court vacancy opened up with the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Mahoney’s name was bandied about as one of the few contenders who wasn’t a sitting judge. It wasn’t to be. Now, she’s taking a bit more time to herself, having stepped down as practice chairwomen at Latham. She’s just not the type of lawyer who wants to die at her desk, she said.

“I’ll still have a desk,” she said. “But I’d rather die on my bicycle.”

Sidley Austin

Sidley Austin’s Carter Phillips has spent the past decade crafting a reputation as the point man for high-level appellate cases. Since 2000, he has argued 38 cases before the high court, and, at 52, has appeared before the court 66 times.

In 2006, Phillips scored a unanimous win on behalf of eBay Inc. in the closely watched patent case eBay v. MercExchange, which determined that a permanent injunction does not automatically follow a court’s finding of patent infringement. That decision was heralded as landmark by big patent holders that often face crippling litigation from parties, such as patent trolls, that obtain injunctions to protect one of many patents used in a complex product.

Phillips also logged a major victory on behalf of Tellabs Inc. in Tellabs v. Makor Issues & Rights, which set a legal standard that makes it easier for companies to get shareholder lawsuits dismissed.

Phillips said that perhaps his favorite case of the past decade was his 2002 2d Circuit win in Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church v. New York. In that case, which Phillips handled pro bono, the court ruled on First Amendment grounds that the homeless had a right to sleep on the front steps of the church despite efforts by then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and later Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to oust them. “The city’s interest in keeping a pristine environment wasn’t enough to stop the free expression of religion,” Phillips said.

Despite all of those cases, Phillips says he may be best remembered for his 2006 expletive-laden argument before the 2d Circuit in Fox Television Stations Inc v. FCC. The action stemmed partly from profanity Cher uttered at the 2002 Billboard Music Awards. Phillips ultimately lost the case for his client, Fox, when the Supreme Court upheld a federal prohibition on so-called “fleeting expletives.” Said Phillips: “They’ll probably put on my tombstone: ‘Phillips, the lawyer who dropped the F-Bomb on the 2d Circuit.’ “