Supreme Court Clerk Feeder Judges And Snaring Those Clerkships When You Didn’t Go To Yale
posted by Dan Filler
For the many of us who teach at solid, but not top 10, law schools, one big challenge is figuring out a way to get our graduates Supreme Court clerkships. Each year, a handful of students – and sometimes a very small handful – from the law school hoi polloi find their way into a Supreme Court clerkship. How do they get there?
The first thing any aspiring clerk needs is a list of feeder judges. Stuart Buck provided this list. Note that it covers a long period – 1989 to 2005 – and there have been shifts over time. Still, it gives insights into highly desirable clerkships (for Supreme Court feeding purposes) and shows particular hiring patterns.
But what else can a student do to make the move from, say Alabama (or any other similar school) to a Supreme Court clerkship? The first requirement, naturally, is that the student do exceptionally well – probably top two or three in the class. It also helps if they pile on the achievements; relatively few valedictorians are also Editor-in-Chief of the Law Review. While they’re at it, they might work with a law professor, assuring an excellent, detailed letter of recommendation. And it wouldn’t hurt to publish a note (or two.) That’s all for starters.
Next, they need to target a good first clerkship. Is there a feeder judge that has a history of taking law grads from their school? Everyone wants that Boudin clerkship, of course, but it’s not likely that an Alabama student will get one. But Judge Higginbotham, on the 5th Circuit, is an Alabama alum, and he’s put several of his clerks on the high court. I suspect that many other law schools have a similar connection – even if only one. Maybe a feeder clerk is unrealistic as a first clerkship. If the student wants the Supreme Court clerkship enough, it’s time to think about doing two circuit clerkships. The Alabama diploma might not get you into Judge Sentelle’s chambers, but perhaps that, plus a clerkship with Judge Pryor, will do the trick. It will just take more time.
Students also need to network. Perhaps the student can find a law school alum who is a former high court clerk. Perhaps he or she can find one who is powerful on the Hill, or among the Federalists. Faculty, and deans, need to help out with this process.
The faculty also have to make decisions about prioritizing candidates. Is the school prepared to identify and push one candidate as the annointed one? This will irrirtate many other students, but by signalling to the Justices that there is a best-and-brightest, that one candidate will get a nice benefit. I’d love to hear other ideas, thoughts, and suggestions on this topic.
One thing’s for sure: the passing of Rehnquist, and departure of Luttig, didn’t help. Say what you want about them, but these judges were at least open to hiring outside the club. I have my fingers crossed about Alito and Roberts, but I can’t say I’m particularly hopeful.
UPDATE: Gump’s Law has a list of each Justice’s clerks (including law schools) for the upcoming year. More good data for the aspiring SCOTUS clerk. More bad news for students at all but a tiny group of law schools.
UPDATE 2: Gump’s list (is that related to Emily’s List?) was actually harvested from Prettier Than Napoleon. The newest version of Prettier’s list is here. This new tally shows that Justice Alito has hired a BYU alum to clerk. Good news, true, but special circumstances: Lee was an Alito clerk and the son of Rex Lee, former Solicitor General of the United States. I guess you can add that as an additional strategy: convince your parents to become incredibly powerful lawyers.