Friday, March 09, 2007

Slate has an article about the $200,000 bonuses that most firms offer to lure former Supreme Court clerks to their offices, and how that's a lot much more money that those folks would make if they go teach or become a special prosecutor or a public defender. Added onto the $160,000 salary, and a bonus, that's a lot of money for someone who's probably not even 30 at the time.

A lot of whining in this article. Whining about how these former clerks don't even do all that much work at the firm, since their goal is to bank the money and then go teach, so they're spending all their time polishing their job talks for professor interviews. Whining about how there are lots and lots of rejected Supreme Court clerks just as capable of doing the work, but not getting the $200,000 bonus. Whining about how Supreme Court clerks end up making more than the justices they worked for. Whining about how the clerks are really just trophies to let the firm say they have a former Supreme Court clerk working for them.

Funny enough, the only people not whining in the article: former Supreme Court clerks, and the firms that are hiring them. Both sides seem happy enough. No one's forcing the firms to pay, and no one's forcing the clerks to accept it. It's a free market.

And, how about this argument: For the clerks, it's actually a real free market, as opposed to the "free market" that forces their non-clerk colleagues to take firm jobs. See, the clerks have tons of other options. They can get hired anywhere they want, law firm or not. They can go work in government, public interest, teach, anything. So when they go to a firm, they're making a real choice, and none of them can reasonably claim to be forced into it. Their classmates without the clerkships? It might be a firm or temp work. A firm or living with their parents. Public interest jobs are hard to get. Government jobs are hard to get. And the ones that aren't hard to get pay $25,000 a year. The run-of-the-mill elite law school graduate has far fewer choices than the big firm life, and it's a lot harder to pass up the $160,000 salary and a productive way to fill the day than it is for the Supreme Court clerk to decide to do something else.

Not that I'm saying we should be lamenting the plight of elite law school graduates forced to take jobs with firms like mine, but we certainly shouldn't be whining about the Supreme Court clerks. They're smart enough and have enough choices that they can make their own decisions and aren't being bullied into it. And if they're not complaining, and we're not complaining, why is Slate complaining?

I say "we" but I don't mean "we." My firm doesn't pay Supreme Court clerkship bonuses. We've discovered that former Supreme Court clerks tend to bristle at the idea of getting a partner's coffee for him, spending 80 hours a week putting "sign here" stickers on documents, doing mindless legal research, and showering in the communal facility we installed in the basement. They also tend to bring morale down in the office, by telling the run-of-the-mill associates about their glamorous lives getting coffee for Supreme Court Justices, making their more ordinary coffee runs seem a lot less appealing. Every time we've had a former clerk here, the first-year class has come perilously close to revolt. And we can't have that. So we don't hire former clerks. Or individuals with any sort of unique achievement or history of special recognition. We hire robots instead. And it's working out just fine.

I'm pretty sure that anyone who suffers through a year of doubles tennis with Justice Scalia deserves a $200 million bonus.
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