Elena Kagan on rare path: first a Supreme Court clerk, later a justice

If confirmed, Elena Kagan will become the sixth former Supreme Court law clerk to become a justice later in life. Much of the work behind the scenes in the Supreme Court is done by these brilliant recent graduates.

Jim Young/Reuters
Members of the US Supreme Court pose for a portrait in 2009. If confirmed, Elena Kagan would become the sixth former Supreme Court clerk to later become a Supreme Court justice.

Being selected to work as a law clerk for a US Supreme Court justice is one of the highest honors a recent law school graduate can attain.

The justices search for the best and brightest legal minds to staff their chambers from year to year. But, surprisingly, only a handful of these clerks have gone on to serve on the high court themselves.

If, as expected, the Senate votes to confirm Elena Kagan to a seat on the US Supreme Court, she will become only the sixth former Supreme Court law clerk to rise to become a justice. Kagan worked as a clerk for Thurgood Marshall in the 1987-88 term.

IN PICTURES: Supreme Court Justices with no prior judicial experience

The others are Chief Justice John Roberts, who clerked for William Rehnquist in the 1980-81 term; Justice Stephen Breyer, who clerked for Arthur Goldberg in the 1964-65 term; and recently retired John Paul Stevens, who clerked for Wiley Rutledge in the 1947-48 term.

In addition, Rehnquist clerked for Robert Jackson in the 1952-53 term, and Byron White clerked for Frederick Vinson in the 1946-47 term.

The Supreme Court is unique among Washington’s major centers of power in that it affords relatively young and inexperienced lawyers nuts and bolts participation in deciding some of the most contentious issues in American law.

Law clerks analyze prospective cases, help their justice prepare for oral argument, perform legal research, and sometimes draft sections of opinions.

They earn just under $75,000 for a year of intense legal work and devotion to a justice who will likely serve as a life-long role model and mentor. Although the pay is relatively meager for top graduates of the nation’s elite law schools, departing Supreme Court clerks can command starting salaries twice as large, with a $200,000 signing bonus.

So how do you get a job working for a justice? Being brilliant doesn’t hurt. But that may not be enough.

According to those who study the issue, one of the best ways of increasing your chances of clerking at the high court is to land a job as a law clerk for an appeals court judge with a track record of sending clerks on to the high court.

According to the Law Clerk Addict website, the federal appeals court judge with the best record in sending law clerks to the Supreme Court is Merrick Garland in Washington. Over the past six years, 20 of his clerks have landed jobs working for a justice.

IN PICTURES: Supreme Court Justices with no prior judicial experience


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