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Good Business

I should have listened to my mother when she told me I should become a clerk for a US Supreme Court justice; according to this article, the going rate for bonuses the big law firms are paying for Supreme Court clerks coming out into private practice is a cool $200,000.  That's on top of a salary of about $150,000.  Not too shabby for having to spend two years helping Scalia research what James Madison had to eat for breakfast during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 in an effort to divine what the General Welfare Clause means.  This is justified by the firms on the grounds that having a former Supreme Court clerk on their masthead is a good investment:  getting a client to part with the major dollars necessary to take a case to the Supreme Court is presumably easier if you've got somebody on staff who can can regale the client with anecdotes about exactly what Ruth Bader Ginsberg wears under those robes. 

There's been some wailing and gnashing of teeth on this, especially by Justice Kennedy, whose angst is probably heightened by the fact that the bonus comes perilously close to the $203,000 a year he earns for being a Supreme Court Justice, as opposed to clerking for one.  Of course, there's a side to the clerk's story, too:  as one of them pointed out, $200,000 can go pretty quickly, what with having to pay off your student loans and ponying up the down payment for a house.  In the immortal words of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, "The horror... the horror..."

But this opens up an interesting avenue of inquiry.  This article discusses a case currently pending before the Court, where a high school student was suspended for wearing a t-shirt with the nonsensical message, "bong hits 4 Jesus."  Actually, rather than presenting constitutional issues of momentous importance, the case appears to be a pissing contest between the participants:  the student admitted he wore the t-shirt to annoy the principal, and the resulting ten-day suspension seems to be a validation of that intent, rather than an attempt to preserve the safety and good order of the school.  More notable is the fact that the participants aren't paying for this:  the ACLU is representing the student for free, and Ken Starr and some lawyers from Kirkland Ellis are doing the same for the school.

In fact, given the cachet a law firm acquires for handling a case before the Supreme Court, it's not surprising that there been an increased tendency to have law firms offer their services in that regard.  So, on the one hand, you have firms paying big money to hire law clerks so they can get more Supreme Court cases, and then turning around and handling the cases for cut rates or no money at all.  Doesn't seem to make a lot of business sense.

It makes a good bit more sense, though, than a small Batavia, Ohio, law firm displayed in hiring Candace Vail, a 60-year-old woman who recently pled guilty to milking the firm out of over $1 million while employed as their bookkeeper.  As this article notes, Vail wasn't exactly apologetic before being sentenced to a six-year term of imprisonment:  she essentially contended that the law firm was so miserly in rewarding her for her service that she was compelled to steal from them.

Then again, Vail might have a valid point that the firm's salary of $12.60 per hour wasn't commensurate with her initiative and skills: 

Vail took client checks made out to Goodman & Goodman from the mail, deposited them into little-used firm accounts and wrote 1,325 checks to herself and her family. She forged attorney names on another 91 checks she wrote to herself, according to court records.

She even duped the Ohio Supreme Court, which began investigating shortly before she was caught. When the firm's trust account, which by law must be kept by law firms, was overdrawn, the bank alerted the Ohio Supreme Court.

Vail intercepted letters notifying the attorneys about the investigation, forged attorney signatures on documents and told Ohio Supreme Court officials that they should deal with her.

The sobering aspect of that for me was trying to figure out how long somebody would have to work for me to steal $1 million, let alone do so without me realizing it.


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