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David Walker had been a weapons officer on a nuclear submarine for about two years when he decided to go to law school. In search of a new line of work that would let him spend more time with his wife and two children, Walker did not want to toss away his interest and background in technology. “I wanted to be able to use it,” he says. Now a clerk to Chief Judge Robert Mayer of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, Walker has found the perfect match: If judicial clerks at the other 12 circuits are largely defined — rightly or wrongly — by which law school they attended, what’s notable about Federal Circuit clerks is their wide range of technological and scientific expertise. Take, as another example, Jacqueline Wright. She was nearing the end of her doctoral studies in cellular and molecular pharmacology at the University of Virginia when she decided to forego a fellowship or an industry job for the world of patent law. Now she’s a clerk for Federal Circuit Judge Randall Rader. A review of the backgrounds of 36 of the court’s 39 clerks found a very different group from those at other circuits. (A handful of judges declined to cooperate, and information on the remaining clerks could not be found elsewhere.) In a way, the results aren’t surprising: As the court that hears appeals in patent cases and many specialized lawsuits against the U.S. government, the Federal Circuit has a need for technologically minded lawyers. “I think it’s a plus to have a science background,” says Chief Judge Mayer. But the portrait of the clerk pool shows some eye-opening details. The court has enough scientists to open its own research lab or engineering firm: 16 of those surveyed have engineering degrees — aeronautics, chemical, civil, computer science, electrical, mechanical, and systems. Another eight have chemistry or biochemistry degrees. One is a mathematician. Some of the clerks boast fairly exotic specialties. One worked with electromagnetic fuel-injection technology. One has extensive knowledge in astronautics. And another worked in an oncology research center. Several clerks taught college courses in chemistry and other disciplines. What do Federal Circuit judges look for in evaluating clerkship applicants? Judge Rader says that scientific experience is not a prerequisite. He notes that the scientific facts of a case are ruled upon in the lower court and are not at issue before the Federal Circuit. Chief Judge Mayer, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, says he likes military experience, calling it “a maturing process.” Two of his clerks have such a background — one from West Point and the other, Walker, from the Naval Academy. Rader also looks for maturity, frequently hiring clerks who have professional experience before or after law school. Along with Wright, who was an associate at D.C.’s Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, his two other clerks have real-life work experience. Dina Grushpin taught chemistry at the University of Michigan and did stints at Procter & Gamble, Owens Corning, and Dow Chemical. Jared Goff was an associate at the IP boutique Schmeiser, Olsen & Watts in Mesa, Ariz. Such experience can be a benefit to their judges. Senior Judge Jay Plager, for example, had never worked with patent law until he joined the Federal Circuit in 1989. So, especially in his first years on the bench, he looked for clerks with patent law experience, says Plager. “My concern is to fill in gaps in my own background,” he explains. “They keep me from making basic errors.” The Federal Circuit also employs four “senior technical attorneys,” who typically have a science background. But their primary job is to check outgoing decisions for any missed precedent, says Jan Horbaly, the court’s circuit executive and chief clerk. While science background helps — because so many of the court’s decisions have scientific aspects — Horbaly says that the technical attorneys do not check the court’s application of scientific principles. “They’re not in the business of [telling the judges], ‘Your science is wrong.’ “ ‘GOOD AS GOLD’ After they’ve done their time at the Federal Circuit, the former law clerks bring a potent mix of law and science to future employers. John Steele, hiring partner at Silicon Valley-based Fenwick & West, is high on the circuit as a training ground. Traditionally, he says, clerkships there have not commanded the same respect as clerkships at the 2nd Circuit, D.C. Circuit, and 9th Circuit. “But here in the Valley,” he says, “that clerkship is as good as gold.” Those who clerk at the Federal Circuit “bring back a command of federal intellectual property law” from what is the highest patent court in the land (for all but the rare case taken by the Supreme Court), explains Steele. Two former Fenwick & West lawyers are now clerking at the Federal Circuit, as are seven former Finnegan, Henderson lawyers. Judges say the clerks must completely disassociate themselves from their former firms and may not have standing job offers to return after the clerkship is over. Most of the current group will put in one year of service; a few will stay for a second year. One clerk, George Blundall, is on permanent assignment to Judge Pauline Newman. Salaries range from about $42,000 for clerks right out of law school to $50,000 and up for clerks with work experience and postgraduate legal experience. James Monroe, hiring partner at Finnegan, Henderson and a former Federal Circuit clerk himself, wonders whether surging law firm salaries may decrease the number of lawyers applying for clerkships. With salaries starting at $125,000, Monroe says, “You’ll find out who really wants the [Federal Circuit] experience.”

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