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Law Firms Pay Supreme Court Clerks $400,000 Bonuses. What Are They Buying?

The New York Times – “Supreme Court justices make $265,600 a year. The chief justice gets $277,700. Their law clerks do a lot better. After a year of service at the court, they are routinely offered signing bonuses of $400,000 from law firms, on top of healthy salaries of more than $200,000. What are the firms paying for? In a profession obsessed with shiny credentials, a Supreme Court clerkship glitters. Hiring former clerks burnishes the firms’ prestige, making them more attractive to clients. Still, the former clerks are typically young lawyers just a couple of years out of law school, and the bonuses have a second and more problematic element, said Stephen Gillers, an expert on legal ethics at New York University. “They’re buying something else: a kind of inside information about how the court is thinking and how individual justices might be thinking,” he said. The Supreme Court appears to recognize that this is a problem. Its rules impose a two-year ban barring former clerks from working on “any case pending before this court or in any case being considered for filing in this court.” (The rules also impose a permanent ban on working on “any case that was pending in this court during the employee’s tenure.”) The two-year ban is an attempt to address an appearance of impropriety, said David Lat, a legal recruiter and the founding editor of Above the Law, a legal news website. “They’re just trying to show that these large compensation packages are not buying access to the court,” he said. Professor Gillers said the rule was a partial solution. “The two-year ban is meant to dissipate the value of the inside information,” he said. “You cannot eliminate it altogether.” A new study in Political Research Quarterly [paywall] suggests that the ban has not been completely successful…”

See also Lawyers With More Experience Obtain Better Outcomes. Michael J. Nelson, Lee Epstein. “Work experience acquired through on-the-job-training has been shown to lead to greater success in many occupations, but evidence of a causal connection between experience and success is sparse for appellate lawyers. Do experienced attorneys obtain better outcomes for their clients? Adopting a strategy for causal inference that could be applied to almost any peak court, we assess how similarly-situated novice and experienced attorneys fare against a comparable—and high quality—opponent:the federal government. We find that, on average, the outcomes obtained by experienced attorneys are significantly better than the outcomes they would have obtained had they been novices. This result shores up the importance of attending to attorneys in models of judicial behavior.”

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