Biglaw, Bonuses, Clerkships, Fabulosity, Hogan & Hartson, Money, Neal Katyal, SCOTUS, Supreme Court, Supreme Court Clerks, Tony Mauro

The New Going Rate for Supreme Court Clerk Bonuses

The last time we covered the lavish signing bonuses for Supreme Court clerks who head to law firms after their time at the Court, the bonuses were flirting with $280,000. We say “flirting with” because, at the time, only certain firms were offering $280K. That princely sum was not yet the market rate for talent emerging from One First Street.

A little over a year later, we can report some change on this front. Even though regular associate bonuses and partner profits might be flat this year, the price for Supreme Court clerks is going up, up, up….

The “flirtation” with $280,000 is over; it seems to be the new market rate. Over at Supreme Court Insider (sub. req.), Tony Mauro reports on the consummation:

After a history-making year at the nation’s highest court, last term’s Supreme Court law clerks are stepping into jobs at big law firms with jaw-dropping hiring bonuses of $280,000 or more.

With associate salaries at $150,000 or more at many large firms, that makes for a first-year investment approaching $500,000 per law clerk (not counting other bonuses or benefits). Put another way, clerks will earn more than twice the salaries of the justices they worked for. Not bad, given that ex-clerks are ethically barred from doing Supreme Court work for two years.

Most SCOTUS clerks come in as third-year associates (at least), based on credit for their two (or more) clerkship years. Assuming a firm is on the standard Biglaw salary scale, that’s a base salary of $185,000. Add that to $280,000, and you’re looking at $465,000. Toss in another $15,000 — the year-end bonus for a third-year associate, according to the 2011 Cravath scale — and you’re looking at total cash comp of $480,000. Very nice.

What’s behind the bump up in the bonuses? Mauro has some ideas:

The hot market appears to reflect the unique appeal of high court clerks more than the afterglow of a term in which the Supreme Court was in the national spotlight. The bonuses add even more luster to the Supreme Court clerkship as a credential without parallel.

“There was really intense competition this summer,” said Hogan Lovells partner Neal Katyal, who was one of several top advocates recruiting last term’s clerks. Katyal recalled that during a 12-day vacation in Italy, he was on the phone every night with one of several candidates or with a law firm colleague discussing potential hires. Hagan Scotten and Frederick Liu, both clerks to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. – who once headed Hogan’s appellate practice – have decided to join Hogan, Katyal said. “These are extraordinary people.”

In exchange for $280,000, Scotten and Liu should be required to tell Katyal and the other partners about what really happened behind the scenes with Obamacare. Six figures should buy that story, right?

So which firms flourished in the SCOTUS clerks sweepstakes?

So far, Jones Day is the numerical market leader, hiring five of last term’s 39 clerks (each sitting justice has four, and the three retired justices have one each.) “We are thrilled to have five” clerks from last term, says appellate partner Beth Heifetz. “And there are a couple of offers outstanding, so it is five and counting.”

Jones Day hired two of Justice Samuel Alito Jr.’s clerks: Anthony Dick and Ryan Newman. Brian Lea, who will work in the firm’s Atlanta office, was recruited from the chambers of Justice Clarence Thomas. Christopher DiPompeo, who clerked for Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and Jeffrey Johnson, clerk to Justice Elena Kagan, round out the Jones Day hires so far.

For true obsessives (myself included), here’s additional backstory on the bonus number budging:

How did the bonus reach $280,000, after years of lingering at $250,000? The leap actually took place last year, though it took full hold this year – and has even gone to $285,000 at some firms. The story circulating among Supreme Court advocates is that Sidley Austin’s Chicago office offered a $280,000 hiring bonus to a promising former clerk last summer. Word of the higher amount quickly spread, and other firms, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, boosted their hiring bonuses to meet the market.

Asked about the story, Sidley’s Supreme Court veteran Carter Phillips said it was only partly true. The unnamed clerk in question told a Sidley recruiter that another firm had offered him $280,000, and Sidley agreed to match it. “So Sidley did not initiate the increase, but we caused it to apply everywhere,” Phillips said.

This has been the historical pattern with Supreme Court clerk bonuses, by the way. They flirt with a number in one year, and then solidify at that number in a later year. In July 2007, they flirted with $250,000; by June 2009, $250,000 was the new market rate. In August 2011, they flirted with $280,000; now, in September 2012, $280,000 is the new market rate.

Here’s my favorite quote from Mauro’s piece (sub. req.):

Thomas Dupree Jr., hiring partner in Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s D.C. office, also hired two of last term’s clerks: Carl Marchioli, formerly with Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justin Walker, who clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy. “Every year it’s a dogfight,” said Dupree. “The whole Supreme Court clerk recruiting process is the law firm equivalent of the Bachelor or the Bachelorette television shows. Fortunately, we’ve had our fair share of roses.”

For Supreme Court clerks, life is all roses and no thorns. Congratulations to them as they make their way in the world beyond One First Street.

P.S. If (and only if) you share my intense interest in the world of SCOTUS clerks — which I realize is a big “if,” since many find it creepy odd or off-putting — check out my new fiction project, Supreme Ambitions.

A hot – and very expensive – market for high court clerks [Supreme Court Insider / National Law Journal]
Chapter 2: Not That Kind of Clerk [Supreme Ambitions]
The Supreme Court’s Bonus Babies [New York Times]

Earlier: Supreme Court Clerk Bonuses Are Heading Higher
SCOTUS Clerkship Bonus Watch: Still at $250K?
Supreme Court Clerk Bonuses to $250K?

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