Some Are More Equal Than Others: U.S. Supreme Court Clerkships

32 Pages Posted: 27 Jan 2023 Last revised: 23 Feb 2023

See all articles by Tracey E. George

Tracey E. George

Vanderbilt University - Law School

Albert Yoon

University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Mitu Gulati

University of Virginia School of Law

Date Written: January 31, 2023

Abstract

The most elite and scarce of all U.S. legal credentials is serving as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. A close second is clerking for a justice. Only 36 serve each year. Most of the 36,000 law students who graduate each year dream of doing so. A Court clerkship is considered a prize as well as a ticket to future success. Rich accounts about clerking – including by clerks – fill bookshelves and journal pages. Yet, we lack a clear story about who wins the 1-in-1000 clerkship lottery. For this Essay, we seek to provide that story. Our analysis relies on new datasets of all clerks who served between 1980 and 2020, including the details of their path to the high court and their road after. We amend and expand on theories of success in this important labor market. We find that educational pedigree, as opposed to academic performance or any other qualification, has an overwhelming impact on attainment. The Court clerkship selection process proves to be a blend of status and merits where status often prevails. Our analysis does not end there, however. We go on to look at where this forty-year cohort is currently working and confirm that once attained, a Court clerkship does lead to a bounty of opportunities including a return to the Court as a justice. Thus, the Court clerkship lottery is an important labor market not only to lawyers but also to society writ large. In the elite legal labor market, some people are, in fact, more equal than others.

Keywords: Supreme Court, clerkships, merit, judiciary, status

JEL Classification: K10

Suggested Citation

George, Tracey E. and Yoon, Albert and Gulati, Mitu, Some Are More Equal Than Others: U.S. Supreme Court Clerkships (January 31, 2023). Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2023-10, Virginia Law and Economics Research Paper No. 2023-03, Vanderbilt Law Research Paper No. 23-06, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4338222

Tracey E. George

Vanderbilt University - Law School ( email )

131 21st Avenue South
Nashville, TN 37203-1181
United States

Albert Yoon (Contact Author)

University of Toronto Faculty of Law ( email )

78 and 84 Queen's Park
Toronto, Ontario M5S 2C5
Canada

Mitu Gulati

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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