Adam Liptak reports on a new study showing that an undergraduate degree from Harvard, Princeton, or Yale significantly boosts an applicant’s chances of landing a SCOTUS clerkship.
Per Liptak, the study found that during the 40 years leading up to 2020, more than 2/3 of SCOTUS clerks came from just five law schools. (Yes, the five you are thinking of.)
But then comes the kicker:
The study, which considered 22,475 Harvard Law graduates, took account of three data points: where they went to college, whether they qualified for academic honors in law school (graduating cum laude, magna cum laude or summa cum laude) and whether they obtained a Supreme Court clerkship.
About half of the graduates had attended one of 22 selective undergraduate institutions, and more than a fifth of the graduates had gone to college at Harvard, Yale or Princeton. Both of those groups graduated with honors from Harvard Law at above-average rates.
But here is the key point: Even controlling for achievement in law school as measured by academic honors, members of the two groups were more likely than their peers to obtain Supreme Court clerkships. And most of the difference could be traced to students who had gone to college at Harvard, Yale or Princeton.
They were three times as likely to get clerkships as those who had gone to the other 19 undergraduate institutions when graduating with cum laude honors and 50 percent more likely when graduating with magna cum laude honors. Both differences were statistically significant. (Summa cum laude honors were very rare and very often led to clerkships regardless of undergraduate institution.)
Here is the study’s 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.