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Former Clerks' Signing Bonuses Rival Salaries on the High Court

Another potential pitfall for firms is that clerks' long-term goals tend to focus on academia or government, rather than big-firm practice. Although some firms have tried to impose a two-year time commitment in exchange for the bonus, lawyers say, none has succeeded, because of the clerks' market leverage.

Instead, says Donald B. Ayer of Jones Day, "It's done on good faith. . . . You pay them and you hope they'll stay." Former clerks say they adhere to an informal two-year minimum, in part because they do not want to be known for taking the money and running.

Lawyers said the bonus for a Supreme Court clerk can pay for itself if the clerk remains at the firm for a couple of years and bills clients for 2,000-plus hours, as other associates do.

From the clerks' point of view, the benefits of the bonus are obvious, though even $200,000 can evaporate quickly after taxes, student loans and a down payment on a D.C. house, former clerks say.

They note that, to some extent, the bonuses simply compensate for the two years they spent clerking at the appeals court and the Supreme Court when they could have been practicing law. Clerks at the Supreme Court earn $63,335 a year and work notoriously long hours.

"It is a lot of money, but I don't think we find [the bonus] life-changing," said Curtis Gannon, a law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia during the 2004-2005 term who is now at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. "We still come to work each day. We don't have big mansions."

"I'm not aware of anyone who got a really spectacular car," said Klein, adding that he put most of his bonus in the bank.

Although a majority of law clerks in recent Supreme Court terms have opted to spend at least some time at a law firm, a significant minority each year skip the bonus and go straight into teaching or government.

"I never really thought about going to a law firm," said Orin S. Kerr, a professor at George Washington University's law school who clerked for Kennedy during the 2003-2004 term. "I'm an academic and looked forward to going back."

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