December 8, 2014 / 11:13 AM / in 3 years

Former clerks: Today's prospects, tomorrow's elite

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - If a handful of former solicitors general are considered veteran free agents, then the three dozen young clerks who depart the high court each summer are hot draft prospects.

Former U.S. Supreme Court clerks Michael Murray (L-R), Ryan Walsh, Julia Sheketoff, Sparkle Sooknanan, Andrew Pinson and Aaron Tang, who are now attorneys in the employ of the Jones Day law firm, gather for a group photograph at the law firm's offices in Washington November 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Nov. 3, six clerks from the most recent Supreme Court term assembled on a top floor of Jones Day’s building, which overlooks the U.S. Capitol and is leased as a backdrop for network TV telecasts. A firm photographer began to arrange a portrait, one intended for the Jones Day website and trade publications.

Supreme Court clerks are so prized that the market-rate signing bonus is $300,000. They are presumed to be among the smartest young lawyers in America. As important is the prestige that comes with such high-profile hires – firm partners say it helps them recruit other lawyers and impress current and prospective clients.

The process repeats itself every summer, as a class of clerks finishes its one-year term and is replaced by a new class: four clerks hand-picked by each sitting justice. The jobs are so selective that although the justices sometimes directly choose from the pool of top law school graduates at the best schools, they also pick attorneys who have clerked for appellate judges or have spent several years practicing law.

Jones Day law firm partner Beth Heifetz (2nd L) gathers former U.S. Supreme Court clerks who are now Jones Day attorneys for a group photograph at the law firm's offices in Washington November 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Former clerks also are presumed to have a unique perspective on how the court and the justices operate. Clerks write memos that help the justices decide which cases to accept and which ones to reject. Some firms believe the experience gives clerks insight into how successful petitions are framed – and perhaps how the justices themselves think. In a 2012 pitch letter to a potential client, Gibson Dunn boasted of 12 former high court clerks on staff, adding: “We know how to customize and tailor arguments to particular justices who may be sceptical or swing votes.” The firm now has 23 clerks on staff.

Forty-four percent of all successful petitions filed to the Supreme Court from 2004 through 2012 contained the name of a former clerk.

Slideshow (3 Images)

In the last three years, Jones Day has nearly doubled its roster of former clerks, which now stands at 38; Jones Day hired six clerks in 2012 and again in 2013. This year, it has hired seven.

Beth Heifetz, the Jones Day partner who recruits former Supreme Court clerks, was a clerk for Justice Harry Blackmun in 1985-1986. Despite the $300,000 signing bonuses, she said her firm would have hired more if more had been available. Beside her computer, she has hung a picture from last year’s class of six clerks. It’s akin to a trophy.

“There’s going to be a number that’s too high, but I haven’t gotten there yet,” said Heifetz. “This is a talent business.”

Reporting by John Shiffman. Edited by Blake Morrison.

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