Biglaw, Bonuses, Clerkships, Fabulosity, Money, SCOTUS, Supreme Court, Supreme Court Clerks

Supreme Court Clerk Bonuses Are Heading Higher

Walking the hallways at One First Street.

Last month, the Supreme Court law clerks for October Term 2010 finished their clerkships, turning over their clerkly duties to the October Term 2011 class of clerks. As in past years, many of the OT 2010 clerks are joining private law firms — which welcome them with six-figure signing bonuses. These bonuses are paid on top of base salaries reflecting their seniority (many SCOTUS clerks join firms as second- to fourth-year associates), as well as the usual year-end bonuses.

For the past few years, at least since 2007, law firm signing bonuses for members of The Elect have hovered around $250,000. But this year, at least a few firms are offering even more.

So how much are we talking about?

A knowledgeable source informs us that “there is strong movement toward $280,000 as the going rate for SCOTUS clerk bonuses.” At least three firms have made offers to OT 2010 clerks that include $280,000 signing bonuses. Word on the street is that two of these firms are Sidley Austin, which prizes clerks given its top-shelf appellate practice, and Jones Day (historically not known as a compensation leader; but it seems that when JD wants you, it’s willing to open the wallet).

UPDATE (12:15 PM): The third firm offering $280K appears to be Kirkland & Ellis.

“The ex-clerk grapevine is buzzing with talk about who’s signing where, and for what,” said our source. The three firms paying $280K “are obviously big players, and it’s hard to imagine their peers holding out.”

That’s probably right. As we know from year-end bonuses and spring bonuses, law firms are like lemmings when it comes to compensation. It eventually turns into a game of “follow the leader.”

Moreover, a quarter of a million ain’t what it used to be. And once you’re this far into the game, does it really make sense to draw an arbitrary line in the sand at $250K?

“Thirty thousand isn’t that much more money when you’re already paying $250,000,” said our tipster, “and most firms only hire one or two SCOTUS clerks a year at most.”

“Kind of amazing when you consider that the economy is hovering on the edge of a double-dip recession, but there you have it.”

Indeed. And are gigantic bonuses for Supreme Court clerks such a bad thing? Maybe not. As I wrote a few years back in a New York Times op-ed, “these outsized bonuses, while questionable investments for the law firms, are actually healthy for the legal system as a whole.”

So law firms, do the right thing, and make it rain for members of The Elect!

UPDATE (12:15 PM): In terms of what’s driving the move to $280K, one source tells us “that the increased bonus came from clerk-side negotiation, rather than from a leader firm offering a new standard.” Moral of the story: it pays to negotiate (if you have the bargaining power — and it seems that SCOTUS clerks do these days).

UPDATE (9/2/11): Also joining the $280K Club: McGuire Woods. If you know of other firms that should be added to the list, please email us (subject line: “SCOTUS clerk bonuses”).

The Supreme Court’s Bonus Babies [New York Times]

Earlier: Supreme Court Clerk Hiring Watch: Say Hello to 2013
Prior ATL coverage of Supreme Court clerks

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