In Shift, More SCOTUS Clerks Seek Jobs Outside the Beltway

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For the last four years, Jones Day has led the pack in the highly competitive race to hire former U.S. Supreme Court clerks, recruiting the record number of 10 in 2015 alone.

But the firm dropped back to only two clerk hires from the 2015-16 term—one in its Washington office, the other in New York. It’s a dramatic shift that hints at notable new hiring patterns for clerks.

Almost half of the 39 clerks from last term—19 to be exact—have landed jobs outside the D.C. beltway, which veteran recruiters say is an unusually high number. Eight of those departing clerks have joined firms in New York.

Why the migration? Theories abound, including greater interest by New York firms in law clerks, the draw of returning to home, saturation of the market in Washington, and even the 2016 presidential election.

 

“A lot of people wanted to get out of D.C.,” said Taylor Meehan, who clerked for Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas last term and is now an associate at Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott in Chicago. “There were more than usual who wanted to do something other than appellate work. “

Opportunities outside of D.C. for equally challenging jobs had more allure, Meehan said, especially for those who, like her, wanted to return to their roots. “I’m a proud Hoosier.”

The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist routinely urged his clerks to “go home” and practice where they grew up. But with the increasing specialization and concentration of the Supreme Court bar, D.C. firms have been a magnet. Even with the downtick in clerks working in Washington, the appeal persists,

At Kirkland & Ellis, which jumped to the lead with six new clerk hires from last term, only two will be stationed in its D.C. office, with the other four deployed to New York and Chicago.

“If there was a trend last term, it was that more clerks wanted to practice in places other than D.C.,” said Kirkland partner and former Solicitor General Paul Clement. His former firm Bancroft merged with Kirkland last September, a move that helped Kirkland recruit more clerks.

“I talked to as many people who were as interested in New York as in D.C.,” said Sullivan & Cromwell partner Jeffrey Wall. “There was a sense among the clerks that New York is a viable option for litigators.”

New York law firms used to show less interest in hiring clerks because appellate litigation is not as profitable as their transactional portfolio. “The Wall Street firms were underrepresented,” Wall said. “But more firms are building appellate practices, and they are doing extremely well vis-a-vis corporate practice. There is a lot of interesting litigation that these firms are handling.”

Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe hired three clerks from last term, two of whom are in its New York office, which is also home to attorney E. Joshua Rosenkranz who heads the firm’s appellate and Supreme Court practice. The third clerk hire is in San Francisco. “Being geographically diverse has been a key part of our recruiting strategy,” said Orrick D.C. partner Kelsi Brown Corkran. “And it’s great for our clients too, given how much of their litigation is in the Second and Ninth Circuits.”

The seeming geographic shift away from D.C. has benefitted out-of-town firms that are relative newcomers to Supreme Court practice. In addition to hiring Meehan, Chicago-based Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott hired another former Supreme Court clerk from last term for its Denver office.

Bartlit Beck partner Adam Mortara said he saw the trend brewing last spring, because more and more clerks from last term expressed interest in coming to his 70-lawyer firm—even though it focuses on trial work.

Mortara, a former clerk to Thomas, pointed to another possible explanation for the shift away from D.C.: anticipation that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election.

With a Clinton victory in mind, Mortara said, conservative clerks may have seen fewer opportunities in the nation’s capital, while liberal clerks interested in government work may have felt that Obama administration holdovers would reduce the number of openings. “Chalk it up to uncertainty—or too much certainty,” Mortara said.

Jones Day partner Beth Heifetz said the lower number of clerk hires at her firm did not reflect a change of strategy. “We are excited and proud that we have recruited two wonderful and talented Supreme Court clerks—an outcome that any law firm would consider a great success—and we look forward to hiring even more in the coming year.”

One aspect of clerk hiring did not seem to change last term: the $300,000-plus hiring bonus on top of their associate pay. “It’s a pretty sizable bonus,” Clement said, especially since clerks are barred for two years from doing Supreme Court work. “For two years, they can’t do what they are most qualified to do.” But Clement added, “To us, the value is in who the people are, not just the fact that they are clerks.”

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