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Thursday, April 10, 2003
Loan forgiveness for law clerks?

Tony Mauro has a report about the Supreme Court's budget hearing, at which Justices Thomas and Kennedy testified. According to the report, the Justices are disappointed at the lack of diversity in the applicant pool for potential Supreme Court clerks, and think high law school debt may be to blame. Rep. Frank Wolf suggested that the court adopt a loan forgiveness program so that more law students could afford to become clerks.

Would that really help? Maybe. The pool of potential Supreme Court Clerks is small enough already. Basically it consists of all of Yale's class, 1/3 of Harvard's class, 1/3 of Stanford's class, and the top 1-5 students from the next top 12 or so schools (and a couple random top students from elsewhere who always seem to make it). Of this pool, the students have to a) choose to clerk, and b) secure an appellate court clerkship. That narrows it down to about 300 CTA clerks. A loan forgiveness program might help with the choice to clerk, but only if it applied to CTA clerks as well as Supreme Court clerks. It would not address the already narrow starting pool.

It's also true that there is a loan forgiveness program of sorts for Supreme Court clerks. I call it "your choice of jobs among the top firms who will give you huge clerkship bonuses." Justice Thomas mentioned a potential clerk who could not afford to take the job because of $160,000 in student loans. I'm not sure that makes much financial sense. The potential clerk could just get a year's forbearance on the loans. Even if the clerk were paying 10% interest, only $16,000 would accrue in one year. Most law firms give at least a $20,000 bonus to Supreme Court clerks, and some much higher. In fact, current student loan rates are only about 3 or 4 percent, so the actual accrual of interest would only be about $5,000 or $6,000. Furthermore, most firms will give credit for at least one year of clerking, so the clerk will start at a second year associate's salary. If the choice is $6,000 in additional interest, the best legal job in the country, a $30,000 bonus and a $140,000 per year job (at the end of the year) versus starting work now at $125,000 and no Supreme Court Clerkship, the choice is blisteringly obvious.

So I don't think that a loan forgiveness program for law clerks would significantly increase the number of minorities in the pool of potential Supreme Court clerks. The serious contenders already have their choice of jobs, and can do the kind of math in the preceding paragraph (even if they are lawyers). It's like giving an extra privilege (loan repayment) to the most privileged (top law school students with a choice of jobs) of the privileged (lawyers). Even so, if Congress decides to enact such a program, I certainly hope they extend it to CTA clerks.

I won't even get into what the problem with the "applicant pool" might mean for Grutter, but I wonder how the Justices laments will square with their votes in that case?