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Pipeline to the Supreme Court: Three More Grads Set for Clerkships

When the new U.S. Supreme Court term opens this fall one-third of its justices will begin working closely with Northwestern University School of Law alumni.

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January 30, 2007 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill. --- When the new U.S. Supreme Court term opens this fall one-third of its justices will begin working closely with Northwestern University School of Law alumni.

That is when Katherine (Kate) Shaw (Law, 2006), Andrianna (Annie) Kastanek (Law, 2005) and Jessica Phillips (Law, 2006) take off for Washington, D.C., as newly appointed Supreme Court clerks and begin earning one of the golden credentials of early legal careers.

Kastanek, currently at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP, in Chicago, had been having dreams about getting the coveted clerkship when she got the phone call. After hanging up, she actually wondered if she was still dreaming. “I don't get that many phone calls at my job, and you can imagine how I felt when I picked up the phone and heard 'This is Justice Anthony Kennedy.' “

Not only will Kastanek, Phillips (Justice Samuel Alito) and Shaw (Justice John Paul Stevens) realize a dream in working with justices whose decisions play such a pivotal role in our nation's history, but their presence at the court during the same time period also will give the justices a strong sense of what Northwestern has to offer.

Including the three new clerkships, Northwestern University School of Law will now have the sixth highest number of Supreme Court clerks on a per capita basis, according to an analysis extrapolated from rankings on Supreme Court clerkship placements in Leiter Reports, a blog about law schools. 

“I would be hard pressed to find better representatives of what we value at the law school than Annie, Jessica and Kate,” said David Van Zandt, dean of Northwestern's School of Law. “All of us who have seen them in action know that each will stand out in whatever they do in their careers, and we're thrilled that their considerable talents will be concentrated at the court next term.”

The law school's success in increasing Supreme Court clerkships validates the educational model that Van Zandt put into place shortly after becoming dean in 1995. Great value is placed on interpersonal and communication skills, sound judgment and maturity as well as on intellectual dexterity. The model starts with an unusual admissions program that stresses prior work experience and relies heavily on interviews in assessing applicants' potential to succeed both in law school and what will be for most graduates multi-job careers.

All three soon-to-be Supreme Court law clerks made law review, a highly sought after credential in law school. They served on the Northwestern Law Review board, and Shaw was editor-in-chief during her tenure. Law review editors choose the articles to publish from hundreds of law school faculty manuscripts. The intense writing, research and editing experience is an invaluable steppingstone to the upper rungs of legal careers.

Shaw currently is clerking for Richard Posner, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judge who is widely known for his prolific and provocative writing. Before working at Mayer Brown, Kastanek clerked for Kenneth Ripple, another judge on the 7th Circuit, and Phillips is working for the 7th Circuit's Judge Joel Flaum.

In recent years an appellate court clerkship has become a prerequisite for becoming a Supreme Court clerk. (Northwestern's new Appellate Advocacy Clinic offers students the opportunity to advocate before the 7th Circuit and even the Supreme Court while in law school.)

Phillips originally was hired to work for Alito on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals but lost the job when Alito was promoted to the Supreme Court. That loss turned into a win of a lifetime when he asked Phillips to update her resume and throw her hat into the ring for a Supreme Court clerkship.

“I am elated at the opportunity to work with Justice Alito,” said Phillips. “As the most junior member of the court, he will be learning the ropes along with his law clerks, and I hope that 20 or 30 years from now I can look back and say that I played some small role in shaping his legacy.”

The stellar academic achievement reflected in the short legal careers of Shaw, Kastanek and Phillips is a definite prerequisite to becoming a Supreme Court clerk. Among Kastanek's academic aerobics, she co-wrote a University of Chicago Law Review article on class action issues with Martin Redish, the Louis and Harriet Ancel Professor of Law and Public Policy at the School of Law.

Just as important, Shaw, Phillips and Kastanek exemplify the intangibles central to the law school's education model. “Dynamic,” “articulate” “well-liked” and “collaborative” are words that keep coming up in conversations about each of them.

“Kate Shaw is extremely bright, dynamic and poised,” said John McGinnis, a professor of law and law review adviser at Northwestern. “She ran the law review in a very professional way.”

McGinnis, who worked with Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts when they both were with the U.S. Department of Justice, pointed out that Roberts is the premier example of a former Supreme Court clerk with such intellectual dexterity and sharp communication skills. As many learned during Roberts' 2005 televised confirmation hearings, Roberts was a Supreme Court clerk to his predecessor on the court, the late former chief justice William Rehnquist.

Steven Calabresi, the George C. Dix Professor of Constitutional Law at Northwestern, got to know Shaw, Kastanek and Phillips through his classes and through his work on the Supreme Court placement committee.

Their excellent communication skills likely held great sway in the interview process, he said. “Everyone at the law school is incredibly proud of Kate, Annie and Jessica, and we are all very excited for them.” (Calabresi is a former Supreme Court clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia and co-founder of the Federalist Society.) 

Such support from faculty and students alike at Northwestern made a difference for Phillips. “Maybe it is the admissions process of choosing students who are interpersonally capable of communicating and expressing their thoughts in a cogent manner,” she said. “When I talk to friends who went to law school with me, we realize, in looking back, how special the people were. There truly is something special about Northwestern.”

Shaw too stressed the law school's collaborative environment. “The law school does a great job of facilitating close collaboration between students and faculty,” she said. “That allows professors to really get to know students in a way that's impossible in a large lecture course.

“The relationships themselves are invaluable, but they also mean that when it comes time for professors to write letters of recommendation, they're not just recycling resumes. They actually know what kind of person you are, what you're interested in, what you're passionate about, and that's reflected in the letters they write.”

What are Phillips, Kastanek and Shaw most looking forward to in their new jobs at the Supreme Court? Of course, working on history-making cases with justices who are at the top of their game.

Phillips is eager to start working on decisions about which cases will be heard (or granted cert). The law clerks divide up the thousands of petitions that come in annually and write bench memos to the justices and the other clerks with recommendations about whether or not to grant or deny cert. Once cases are granted cert, the clerks read briefs and do the necessary research and writing to advise their respective justices about the facts and issues in the cases.

Those who know Phillips, Shaw and Kastanek also are looking forward to the opening of the Supreme Court's next term, and when the decisions are finally handed down for posterity, they are likely to read about them with particular pride.