By Reynolds Holding and Richard Beales
NEW YORK, Oct 3 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Bigger bucks come
to Supreme Court clerks who wait. Top U.S. law firms are
offering $280,000 signing bonuses to lure the young attorneys
who work with America's nine top judges. But many do stints with
the government first. A new Breakingviews calculator shows how
that path can be financially smarter over the long run.
Law firms with Supreme Court practices are especially eager
to hire ex-clerks. Recent studies suggest that attorneys are
more successful before the court if they have inside experience.
Five of the seven lawyers who argued the case involving
President Barack Obama's health care law last March, for
instance, were former clerks. And the numbers look attractive.
Including the golden hello, first-year pay would approach
$500,000. The next year would still be well over $200,000,
against roughly $120,000 in starting salary working for the
Some clerks aren't so easily impressed. About a third of
those who left the court in 2011 turned down big firms to work
at the Justice Department, the State Department and the Office
of Management and Budget. These jobs offer opportunities like
trial experience, the chance to shape policy, and contact with
senior officials. There's also less of the mind-numbing work
thrown at big law firm associates.
Initially, a young lawyer in public service will make far
less. But practical experience in government can be a surer
route to a partnership at a private sector firm. Not only does
the likelihood of becoming a partner go up - say to 70 percent,
against maybe only 30 percent for even a strong associate at a
law firm - but a full partnership could come several years
sooner. That position brings an initial annual payout of perhaps
$800,000 at a major firm.
A clerk planning a career also has to consider the
alternative if a partnership isn't forthcoming. That's probably
either a corporate job or a law school teaching role. Neither
typically gets close to partner pay. Weighting the different
outcomes and timing, a clerk who goes into government might
expect to make an average of more than $700,000 a year over 15
years. The figure for someone heading straight to private
practice could work out below $500,000.
Surprisingly, opting for five years or so in government can
be a financial win. And the American public then also benefits
from the service of top young legal talent. In Washington, the
most heavily lawyered town in America, Uncle Sam can use the
- Run the numbers: If they want to maximize their financial
returns, should top young U.S. lawyers who clerk at the Supreme
Court take signing bonuses from big law firms or work for the
government first? Try the Supreme Court clerks' career cruncher.
- Big U.S. law firms are giving Supreme Court clerks hiring
bonuses of $280,000 or more. The clerks typically join firms as
third-year associates making as much as $195,000 a year, putting
their first-year compensation at close to $500,000 a year.
- Many clerks choose to work for the U.S. Department of
Justice or in other government jobs before joining private
firms. Their salaries typically range from $100,000 to $155,000
a year, but they may have a better chance of lucrative private
sector partnerships thereafter.
(The authors are Reuters Breakingviews columnists. The opinions
expressed are their own.)
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