SCOTUS Blogger Paves Own Way to Firm’s Top Supreme Court Post
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You might say Tom Goldstein blogged his way to the top. In reality it took a lot of hard work and some fortunate connections for Goldstein, founder of the SCOTUSBlog and head of the Supreme Court practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, to land where he is now. Goldstein told students of his adventures of his path to infamy as a Supreme Court expert and offered advice on how to become an appellate litigator at an American Constitution Society talk at the Law School Sept. 21.
“Most …Supreme Court advocates went to Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or other great schools like U.Va., clerked for the Supreme Court, worked for the solicitor general’s office,” he said. “I did none of those things. I went to [American University’s Washington College of Law], I got my clerkship because Nina Totenberg was sort of my adopted mother and knew my judge. So my experience isn’t going to be quite analogous to yours.”
Nonetheless, his advice is applicable, he said. Lesson one: get to know someone who can serve as your “proxy of excellence.” District Court clerkships and Court of Appeals clerkships are highly competitive, and on paper everyone has similar qualifications. One way to distinguish yourself from the applicant pool is to have a professor pick up the phone and vouch for your ability, he said. “If you have a class that you really like, engage the professor, not to use it for the tactical reason of getting a job, but because you will genuinely probably learn something and that relationship will pay off for you many times later on.”
Nina Totenberg, a legal-affairs correspondent for National Public Radio, was Goldstein’s gateway to a clerkship. After interning with Totenberg for two summers in law school, she gave him a recommendation for a clerkship with Judge Patricia Wald of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals.
Totenberg also gave him an introduction to the Supreme Court that would help shape his career. While working with Totenberg, Goldstein compiled statistics of Supreme Court decisions that Totenberg would cite on her show. Goldstein continued to collect data on the decisions even after his internship ended and provided the media with his numbers. This practice earned him name recognition and he was soon asked to provide commentary on other Supreme Court matters.
Beginning in 1996, Goldstein worked for two different law firms, where he continued to develop his zeal for the Supreme Court. He took on cases that he thought would go to the Supreme Court and volunteered for as many pro bono projects as he could to develop his litigation skills. “If you want to get the very best experience as a very young lawyer, the thing you should do is go volunteer your time,” he said.
Goldstein’s next venture was starting his own firm in the third bedroom of his home in 1999. He was able to leverage his name recognition in the media to attain clients whose cases were going to the Supreme Court. During this period he argued eight cases before the Supreme Court, and served on Al Gore’s legal team in Bush v. Gore.
Goldstein is best known in the law community for SCOTUSblog, a forum he created in 2003 to discuss Supreme Court jurisprudence. SCOTUSblog was the reason he was hired at Akin and gave him the opportunity to teach Supreme Court litigation at such schools as Stanford and Harvard, he said.
By becoming a specialist early on, Goldstein was able to grow his career in the direction he wanted, another lesson he iterated. “You accumulate a set of credentials that lets you get involved,” he said. “I am now the head of the Supreme Court practice.”
Appellate litigation is a heavily sought-after profession, Goldstein said. Students who want to become appellate litigators should try to get excellent grades, rather than be overly concerned about participating in appellate clinics. Applicants who have Court of Appeals clerkship experience also have an advantage.
The best way to prepare for appellate litigation is government lawyering, he noted, although making the transition to firm work afterwards can be difficult because government lawyers will not have a reputation with the firm’s clients. But going from a firm into a government position is much easier, he added.
Goldstein also told students not to get discouraged if they can’t find an appellate position immediately after law school. “Keep at it,” he said, and consider other opportunities, such as trial litigation, which can prepare lawyers for a career in appellate work. He warned students to watch out for the “bait-and-switch” move some firms use, in which appellate work accounts for only a small fraction of the workload of an “appellate position.”
• Reported by Emily Williams