A study covering the period between 1980 and 2020 found that more than two-thirds of U.S. Supreme Court justices’ law clerks come from just five law schools: Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, Columbia University, and the University of Chicago.
The study, conducted by Albert H. Yoon of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, Tracey E. George of Vanderbilt University Law School, and Mitu Gulati of the University of Virginia School of Law, analyzed the backgrounds of 1,426 former Supreme Court law clerks. The findings reveal that undergraduate degrees also matter, with going to college at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton providing a significant boost to applicants even after controlling for law school grades. The Supreme Court justices also have elite degrees, with four justices holding law degrees from Yale Law School and four from Harvard Law School. Six justices have undergraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, with the exceptions being Justice Clarence Thomas, a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross, Justice Neil Gorsuch, a graduate of Columbia University, and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who has a law degree from the University of Notre Dame Law School.
The study indicates that every lawyer for a Supreme Court clerkship “has ticked all the boxes” with the necessary qualifications, including a selective law school, top grades, law review membership, and glowing references from law faculty. After graduation, they typically clerked for one of the 179 active U.S. Court of Appeals judges, preferably one with a reputation for sending clerks to the court. Despite about 700 law grads per year meeting these qualifications, only 36 secure a Supreme Court clerkship. The study authors concluded that educational pedigree, as opposed to academic performance or any other qualification, often distinguishes the winners from the also-rans. The court clerkship selection process is a blend of status and merit, where status often prevails.
The New York Times and the Balls and Strikes blog have covered the study, noting that Supreme Court clerkships are highly sought after and prestigious positions that often lead to successful legal careers. However, the study’s findings have raised concerns about diversity and inclusion, with some calling for more efforts to open up opportunities for applicants from less elite backgrounds. Hopefully, these discussions will increase efforts to diversify the legal profession and promote more significant equity and access to justice.
Want to be a Supreme Court clerk? It helps to graduate from these law schools and colleges