A $500,000 associate? (Click to enlarge.)

Base salaries for Biglaw associates haven’t budged since January 2007, when Simpson Thacher led the charge to $160k. Year-end bonuses have remained fairly static since 2007 as well, the year of Cravath’s special bonuses. The 2012 bonuses represented an improvement over the 2011 bonuses, but only if you ignored the 2011 phenomenon of spring bonuses. On the whole, associate compensation is treading water.

But for Supreme Court clerks, aka “The Elect,” compensation continues to climb. In 2011, the signing bonus for outgoing SCOTUS clerks started to move from $250K to $280K. In 2012, the increase solidified, with $280K becoming the new going rate (and $285K becoming the above-market rate).

Now, just a year later, some firms are offering SCOTUS clerkship bonuses in excess of $280K or $285K. How much are they paying, and which offices of which firms are leading the market higher? The answer might surprise you….

Supreme Court clerks tend to stick around D.C. after the leave One First Street. This makes sense; their credential carries the greatest weight within the Beltway. And D.C. offices, which dominate the world of appellate litigation, tend to hold the most appeal for outgoing SCOTUS clerks.

So that’s why it’s interesting to see this latest rate increase emanating from New York. Within the past week, Sullivan & Cromwell and Skadden Arps offered signing bonuses of $300K to incoming SCOTUS clerks interested in working in New York. The clerks in question are October Term 2012 clerks who just finished up at the Court.

The news is interesting, but not surprising, since this isn’t the first time that S&C and Skadden have taken the lead in moving the market. As longtime SCOTUS clerkship watchers may recall, S&C and Skadden are widely credited — or blamed, if you’re a law firm hiring partner — with initiating the 2007 jump in SCOTUS clerkship bonuses from $200K to $250K.

Will other firms or offices follow suit? This all happened very recently, as one source told us, “so we’re in the early stage of the shake-out…. We are all working to get firms to match this across the board.”

UPDATE (8/8/2013, 9 a.m.): Word on the street is that Jones Day has also moved to $300K.

Are SCOTUS clerks worth the money? In a recent article in Washingtonian magazine, Marisa Kashino sounded some notes of caution:

The signing bonus for clerks at major firms is $280,000. Most start at the third-year-associate level or higher, bringing their base salaries close to $200,000. Not including the vast resources firms dedicate to training them, that means each is a nearly half-million-dollar gamble—and not a very safe one. Clerks are intellectuals who often have higher-minded goals than billing thousands of hours at a firm. Many have their sights set on academia or government service, but Ivy League educations come with debt that only a signing bonus can instantly alleviate. So how can a law firm ensure it’s betting on a clerk who will stick around? It can’t.

She then took note of two recent SCOTUS clerks, Keith Bradley and Elbert Lin (husband of ATL wedding watcher Laurie Lin), who spent relatively short periods of time at their firms before moving on to government service. The stories of Bradley and Lin reflect my own view of gigantic SCOTUS clerkship bonuses: probably not worth it to the firms, but actually a good thing for society.

P.S. We’ve recently received inquiries from readers interested in hearing more about “regular” or non-SCOTUS clerkship bonuses, typically paid to lawyers who have completed Article III federal clerkships and certain other elite clerkships (such as clerkships for state courts of last resort or the Delaware Chancery Court). We haven’t covered the subject in detail in a while — see this 2011 story and this 2010 story — but we might revisit the subject if we get some fresh information from our readers. If you have info to share about different firms’ policies on clerkship bonuses, please email us (subject line: “Clerkship Bonuses”) or text us (646-820-8477). Thanks.

Hiring Supreme Court Clerks: The $500,000 Gamble [Capital Comment / Washingtonian]
The Supreme Court’s Bonus Babies [New York Times]

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


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