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Among departing U.S. Supreme Court clerks, careers in academia, public interest law and the government hold much allure for life beyond the high court, but for those clerks who opt for private practice, big-firm lawyering appears to be the path they most often choose. Since 2001, Jones Day, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and Chicago’s Kirkland & Ellis consistently have hired the most attorneys who leave the Supreme Court after their year-long stint is over. Other popular firms are Sidley Austin Brown & Wood and Washington’s Covington & Burling. In addition, it appears that a firm du jour phenomenon occurs at other shops that become popular picks among clerks from a given term. But whatever firm they choose, the deciding factors for these highly recruited lawyers seem to be the opportunity to take on hard-hitting work at their new jobs from Day One — and to make some money doing it. WHERE THEY’RE GOING The National Law Journalwas able to track the careers of 30 of 34 clerks from the 2001 term. Of those, 22 attorneys entered private practice, four took academic jobs and four pursued government or public interest jobs. In 2002, 21 clerks accepted jobs with private firms, five pursued academic work and five went into government or public interest work. The NLJ was able to track 31 of 35 clerks in 2002. Last term, 16 accepted positions with private firms, four pursued academic work and five took government or public interest jobs, for a total of 25 out of 35 clerks tracked. Wilmer Cutler has recruited 10 clerks from the last three terms, more than any other law firm. Each justice usually hires four clerks per term, although the chief justice generally has three clerks. Leondra Kruger, who worked for Justice John Paul Stevens, was one of two clerks to join Wilmer Cutler’s Washington office in November. The other was Sambhav Sankar, who clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. The appellate practice at the 1,050-attorney firm, in addition to its public law division and its pro bono program, attracted Kruger, she said. Pro bono work counts as part of an associate’s billable hours at Wilmer Cutler, Kruger explained, which had big appeal for her. Since November, she has worked on a pro bono project “involving national security,” and is also handling a case that she described as dealing with the application of international law in U.S. courts. Kruger, a Yale Law School graduate, is undecided about her ultimate career path, but she said that a few years of hands-on legal work and a hefty signing bonus with Wilmer was the right choice after her clerkship. She made $55,000 for her one-term assignment with Stevens. Starting salaries for first-year associates at Wilmer Cutler last year were $125,000. Supreme Court clerks often start working for firms in the third-year associate salary range. In addition, signing bonuses for clerks joining some firms last year exceeded $150,000. But coming from the chummy environment that generally exists among the Supreme Court clerks into one of the country’s largest firms was a bit of a shock, she said. Washington, D.C.-based Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering merged with Boston-based Hale and Dorr last year, creating a firm with 13 offices in the United States and abroad.
The five most popular firms among clerks at the U.S. Supreme Court for the last three years.
Firms Clerks recruited
Wilmer Culter Pickering Hale and Dorr 10
Jones Day 5
Kirkland & Ellis 5
Sidley Austin Brown & Wood 5
Baker Botts 4

“I was daunted in the application process by the size of the firm,” Kruger said. “I had never worked anywhere quite this large.” Still, she said, the firm’s reputation for providing meaningful work to clerks who could grow easily bored with the notoriously dull associate tasks at many firms allayed some of her fears. Firms that routinely woo Supreme Court clerks each term are well aware of the competition they face with other practices and the challenge to keep sharp minds stimulated, said Kirkland & Ellis recruiting partner Craig Primis. A former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, Primis describes the firms that heavily recruit clerks as a “very small network.” Kirkland & Ellis hired two clerks from the 2002 term and three from the 2001 term. It did not bring in any from the 2003 term. The Supreme Court currently is in its 2004 term. Part of what attracts clerks to Kirkland & Ellis is word of mouth from other clerks who have joined the firm. Having the firm’s attorneys argue a case to the court also helps clerks see firsthand what it can do, he said. The careers of attorneys who leave the firm to take top politically appointed posts also serve as an endorsement, he said. THE ART OF RECRUITING While persuading clerks to come aboard is a big enough job, keeping them is another. But Kirkland & Ellis seems to take a pragmatic approach. “We recruit them with the hope they will stay long-term, but we recognize they have many opportunities. We are comfortable with that,” Primis said. Firms usually start their recruiting efforts in the spring by sending letters to the clerks, who leave their jobs on a staggered basis throughout the summer, said Baker Botts recruiting partner Jeffrey Lamken, also a former clerk for O’Connor. Subtle recruiting-no elaborate dinners or fancy lunches-is appropriate, Lamken said. Indeed, the lavish meals that firms previously used for recruiting clerks fell into disfavor last year with some of the justices. The process now is toned down, said Lamken, adding that firms should forgo recruiting efforts if they have a case pending before the court. “It’s more of a ‘just keep us in mind’ approach,” he said. Part of Lamken’s job when he joined Houston-based Baker Botts last year was to boost its recruiting of Supreme Court clerks. The firm hired four clerks from the last term, more than any other firm. Two attorneys worked for Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, one clerked for Justice Stephen G. Breyer and another worked for Justice Antonin Scalia. The firm had not hired any clerks from the two previous terms. As a former clerk, Lamken said he understands the concerns they have as they head into private practice. “You don’t want to be holding the briefcase for the guy who holds the briefcase for the guy who argues the case,” he said. The 732-attorney firm was able to land the four attorneys, Lamken said, because of a “very young appellate practice.” In 2001, Baker Botts merged with 33-attorney Miller, Cassidy, Larrocca & Lewin, a litigation boutique. The move bolstered the firm’s 50-attorney Washington presence and created a “renaissance” there, he said. A ‘TOUGH DECISION’ Baker Botts’ merger with Miller Cassidy, which had a reputation for giving juicy assignments to associates, was one of the main reasons Alexandra Walsh, a Stanford Law School graduate, joined the firm after clerking for Breyer last term. She also liked the idea of a practice that combined appellate and trial work. But making her pick was not easy, she said. She fielded phone calls and letters from many firms starting in early spring. “It was definitely a tough decision for me,” she said. A job in academia did not interest her, but she is not ruling out public interest or government work in the future. For right now, however, private practice is the best fit. “I have two kids and a lot of school debt,” Walsh said. Taking jobs at firms with hundreds or even thousands of attorneys is not the choice for many clerks, however. A few litigation boutiques, including Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel of Washington and Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott of Chicago, consistently attract former clerks, mainly because of the sophistication of the work they are given. Besides the quality-of-work issue, another reason that Bartlit Beck, a spinoff created in 1992 from Kirkland & Ellis, entices clerks is its compensation system. The 48-attorney firm has hired four clerks in the last three years. Billable hours are not part of the pay structure, said managing partner Sidney Herman. “The life of a lawyer on the hour is not the life at our firm,” he said. Instead, the firm fashions fee arrangements for each client that generally call for a flat fee payable in installments. The client holds back a portion of the fee, and if it prevails, it pays part or all of the holdback. If it loses, the client keeps the money. The desire to become a “pre-eminent trial lawyer” is what led Eric Olson, a University of Michigan Law School graduate, to Bartlit Beck. He worked for Stevens in the 2002 term and joined the firm right after his clerkship was finished. He has no plans to leave private practice and gushes about his current job, one that he said affords him a sense of ownership that he had not experienced as a clerk, and one that he might not have experienced at another firm. “I don’t see myself going anywhere,” he said.

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