Chen on Supreme Court Clerkships as a Law Professor Credential:

I apparently shocked some people by offhandedly noting in a previous post that USSC clerkships were somewhat overvalued on the teaching market. I could say more about this topic, but I'll leave it to Dean Jim Chen of University of Louisville law school, who is himself a former Supreme Court clerk:

The Supreme Court clerkship remains the most elite credential available to an American lawyer. Law firms are willing to pay substantial bonuses to associates who bring the experience or perhaps just the cachet to work. But to what extent does a Supreme Court clerkship predict success in legal academia?

I strongly suspect that the Supreme Court clerkship, in the mind of a MoneyLaw-minded academic talent scout, has become the law school equivalent of the 270-foot dash that Billy Beane won when he entered the baseball draft. The story is vividly recounted in Michael Lewis's Moneyball.

The 270-foot dash measures raw speed, specifically over the maximum distance that a baseball player is likely to run on an ordinary play. It's nice to be that fast, and speed over 270 feet translates into more triples and more reliable scoring from first base on doubles hit by a player's teammates. On even rarer occasions, speed over 270 feet means scoring from first off a single (in a play most famously associated with Enos Slaughter). The related skill of covering 360 feet with extreme celerity raises the probability, however slightly, of the inside-the-park home run.

But these baseball plays are spectacular precisely because they are rare. As a result, the 270-foot dash measures something that is probably more salient in the mind of the talent scout than it is relevant to the business of trading runs for outs. Billy Beane finished his major league career with more strikeouts than hits (80 to 66) and a woeful OPS of .546. OPS, by the way, stands for On-base percentage Plus Slugging percentage. Baseball traditionalists will more readily understand Billy Beane's lifetime .219 batting average, dangerously close to the Mendoza line and flatly unacceptable for an outfielder. It was no fluke; Billy took the better part of six seasons to compile this wretched record.

If the foregoing is sabermetric gibberish to you, no amount of linking now will help you. Perhaps I shall explain in a future MoneyLaw post. Suffice it for the moment to observed that Billy Beane, first-round bonus baby, winner of the 270-foot dash at his combine, basically ... pardonnez-moi, je cherche le mot juste en fran├žais ... sucked.

This is not to suggest that the Supreme Court clerkship should be devalued altogether as an academic credential. Nor would I conclude that the clerkship hangs like an albatross around the neck of a law professor so unfortunate as to have spent a year of her or (more likely) his life working at 1 First Street N.E., Washington, DC 20543. Like any other factor that correlates only weakly, if at all, with ultimate success, the 270-foot dash, the Supreme Court clerkship, the newly fashionable brand name Pee-Aitch-Dee, and other rough guides to future performance are just that: rough guides. For every Billy Beane, there are other first-round draft picks whose careers have resembled that of B.J. Surhoff (overpaid mediocrity), Chipper Jones (marginal Hall of Fame candidate), or Alex Rodriguez (probable Hall-of-Famer, barring injury). So it is in law and law teaching. Predicting 40 years of productivity on the basis of an individual's appeal to a Supreme Court Justice at the age of 27 or 28 is at best a perilous pursuit.

I would simply add that the attributes that get a 28 year-old to the Court are very much correlated with all sorts of professional success, including in academia. But the relevant question is, if you took two candidates with identical c.v.s (law school, class rank, references, publication record, lower-court clerkships, etc.), except that one had landed Supreme Court clerkship, and the other did not, can you predict that the former clerk will be a "better" law professor, on whatever metric one chooses to use? That, as I understand it, is when Chen would argue that the clerkship is a "factor that correlates only weakly, if at all, with ultimate success," yet some hiring committees would give the former clerk a significant advantage.