Clerkship Bonuses

Supreme Court clerks are some of the brightest young legal minds in the country. But their talents don’t come cheap. Every year, Biglaw firms fall all over each other trying to woo outgoing SCOTUS clerks, showering them with six-figure signing bonuses (on top of robust base salaries and year-end bonuses, of course).

The going rate in terms of Supreme Court clerkship bonuses is a cool $300,000. Which top law firm just dropped $1.8 million in signing bonuses for a half-dozen SCOTUS clerks?

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There hasn’t been much major good news on the associate compensation front over the past few years — since, say, January 2007. But recent weeks have brought pockets of minor good news for limited constituencies. Green shoots, anyone?

In Miami, Greenberg Traurig raised starting salaries by 16 percent, from $125,000 to $145,000. In New York, Sullivan & Cromwell and Skadden Arps started offering $300,000 signing bonuses to Supreme Court clerks.

And now $300K bonuses for SCOTUS clerks have spread, to other law firms in other cities. Consider this the new going rate for top-shelf talent….

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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….

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Antonin Scalia

Society cannot afford to have such a huge proportion of its best minds going into the law.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, commenting on the state of the legal profession at the 2012 Midyear Meeting of the American Bar Association in New Orleans.

(Justice Scalia comments on Biglaw’s flawed compensation system, after the jump.)

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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?

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What’s going on with clerkship bonuses? The last time we really checked was over a year ago. We might do a follow-up; if you have tips — not questions or requests for advice, but hard information about clerkship bonus amounts — please email us (subject line: “Clerkship Bonuses”).

In our last look at the subject, in February 2010, the going rate seemed to be $50,000. You can look back at our prior post for the names of at least 11 firms paying $50K clerkship bonuses. (If any of that info needs to be updated, in either direction, please let us know.)

We can confirm that at least one firm is paying a clerkship bonus in excess of $50,000: BuckleySandler, a young, highly-regarded firm that focuses on banking and financial-services law. We’ve written quite a bit about the firm before; it started with a bang, when Skadden partners Andrew Sandler and Benjamin Klubes left the megafirm to set up their own shop.

Let’s learn a little more about BuckleySandler, and check out the memo announcing the $60K clerkship bonus (along with other compensation-related information)….

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Career Center AboveTheLaw Lateral Link ATL.jpgOur recent Career Center survey asked about whether the recession has affected clerkship bonuses and law firm hiring of clerks.  Of respondents at law firms, a slight majority — 57% — indicated that their firms are not interviewing judicial clerks for Fall 2010 positions.  Of respondents who are currently clerking, only 30% indicated that they have a position for Fall 2010 or have even been able to get interviews for such positions.  Despite these depressing statistics for post-clerkship employment, a majority of law student respondents indicated that they are planning on clerking after law school. 

Check out the full survey results after the jump — and visit the Career Center, powered by Lateral Link, for more on clerkship bonuses and hiring trends at firms across the country.

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Supreme Court hallway Above the Law Above the Law Above the Law.JPGThe National Law Journal suggests that the down economy could be hitting the pockets of the Elect. Some firms are suggesting that the $250,000 bonus to hire a former Supreme Court clerk is just too expensive in today’s economy:

At firms that have been shaken by the downturn, however, a $250,000 bonus will be hard to sell, some practitioners say. “Intuitively, it doesn’t feel right to pay that kind of bonus when you are trying to make economies wherever you can at the firm,” said veteran advocate Carter Phillips, managing partner at Sidley Austin’s Washington office. Thomas Goldstein of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, where there have been cuts, agrees that it’s tough to justify a $250,000 bonus when a firm is considering letting go a staff person paid $50,000. Because of that juxtaposition, he predicted bonuses will shrink — though he said it’s too early in the hiring season to say how much. “The number of firms willing to pay that amount of money will be down.”

But surely these firms aren’t talking about collusion, are they? SCOTUS clerks command top dollar, and firms that are struggling can’t artificially deflate the price for this top talent — even if they want to:

Firms won’t be sorry to wave goodbye to what Goldstein calls the “incredible escalation” that the $250,000 bonus represents. Even before the recession, firms were grumbling about it because of a recurring pattern: Some clerks grab the bonus, work at the firm for a year or three, then skip off to academia with loans paid off and kids’ tuition in the bank. “Firms are going to be more interested in clerks staying around and practicing law,” [former solicitor general Paul] Clement said.

While some firms might be priced out of the Elect market, we are still talking about a “recession-proof” set of credentials.

More after the jump.

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