Supreme Ambitions

BY ANGELA YINGLING

Most graduates of Harvard Law School have long and storied careers ahead of them. They will make marked contributions to our society and go on to reach great heights in fields such as legal practice, politics, and academia.

But for the first few years after graduation, many young lawyers are stuck paying their dues in less-than-glamorous (but well compensated) junior associate positions at large law firms, or working slowly up the government or political ladders.

However, each year, a few particularly ambitious and talented lawyers, usually no more than a few years out of law school, are able to work closely with the most powerful justices in the country on the most pressing, important, and often ground-breaking cases of today. These men and women are the clerks for the justices of the United States Supreme Court.

And how do they get there? What can a current student do to improve his/her chances of landing one of these most prestigious clerkships in the United States?

In order to help answer these questions, the Office of Career Services (OCS) sponsored a discussion with HLS Professor, and former Supreme Court clerk, Allen Ferrell, on February 3rd in Pound 204. In front of the packed classroom, Kirsten Solberg, the OCS clerkship advisor, introduced Professor Farrell before he gave a short presentation. He spoke briefly about his own background as a HLS graduate (’95) and clerk for both Judge Laurence Silberman of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Ferrell then discussed the different criteria used to judge the clerkship applicants before opening up the conversation to questions from students.

Some of what Professor Ferrell told the students was not surprising (e.g. grades count – a lot), while other things he discussed were less self-evident. For example, he consistently pointed out the importance of excellent, thoughtful, detailed letters of recommendation from law professors. He cautioned the students against just getting recommendations from professors (even if they are particularly well-known professors) who can say little more about the student than the grade he/she received in a class. That information, readily available in a transcript, will do little to aid a student in securing a clerkship position. He also stated that students often over-emphasize the importance of a Law Review membership. Although a former editor himself, Ferrell admitted that being a member of the Law Review is much less important than it used to be.

Ferrell also addressed how a student’s choice of a circuit clerkship can impact his/her chances of landing a Supreme Court clerkship later. The students were given a handout citing the top twenty feeder judges to the Supreme Court (as compiled on the Underneath Their Robes blog), although Ferrell was quick to point out that while this information can certainly be helpful to a student deciding where to apply for a circuit clerkship, there were many exceptions to this list. He was very clear in stating that clerking for a judge not on the list certainly did not ruin one’s chances for an eventual clerkship on the highest court.

The students were also given very practical information, in the form of an OCS handout, detailing exactly when each justice was accepting applications, what specifically needed to be included in those applications, and the weight that each judge generally accorded to different parts of the application package. (This information is also available on the OCS website.)

Although Professor Ferrell did not downplay the difficulty in securing one of the top clerkships in the nation in this half hour discussion, he did provide the students with important insights from the trenches and tips on improving their chances, bringing their attention to matters that may otherwise have been overlooked. For example, he reminded the students that the applicant pool for Supreme Court clerks is often (though by no means always) made up of students who attended the same five or six top law schools, and that justices often ask their current clerks for their opinions on prospective ones. “If you’re a jerk [in law school]”, he told the students, “that knowledge will come back to haunt you.”

At this point in time, it is impossible to know which of the many hopeful students will eventually earn positions as Supreme Court clerks. But following Professor Farrell’s advice may be one step in the right direction.

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