Supreme Court Clerks
Merritt McAlister '98 and Hyland Hunt '94 discuss their clerkships with Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the coincidence of working with a fellow Paideia alumni and how their experiences at Paideia influenced their career paths.
Supreme Court Clerks
What have you been doing since graduating from Paideia?
Merritt: "I've mostly been in school since I left Paideia: I attended Rice University in Houston, Texas and graduated in 2002, with a degree in English and Women and Gender Studies. I initially thought I would attend graduate school to study for a Ph.D. in English, but changed my mind at the last minute and ended up taking some time off from school. I ultimately worked at Rice for two years as an Assistant Director of Admission. I was then ready to go back to school, and I decided that law school was a better fit for me. I attended the University of Georgia for law school and graduated in 2007. After graduation, I spent a year living in Macon, Georgia, serving as a clerk to the Honorable R. Lanier Anderson III of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, the federal appeals court that serves Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. I started this fall at King & Spalding, a large law firm in Atlanta, as an associate in one of their litigation groups."
Hyland: "I went to Harvard for my undergraduate degree and joined Air Force ROTC. I was an intelligence officer in the Air Force for about six years, then worked for the Florida House of Representatives, followed by law school at the University of Michigan. Right now I'm clerking for a judge on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals."
What was the process that landed you the clerkship for Justice Stevens?
Merritt: "I usually suggest that getting the clerkship was akin to being struck by really good lightning, and therefore the process for getting it was something like building a tall lightning rod. In terms of the nuts and bolts mechanics of the process, you apply for a clerkship with a Justice of the Supreme Court like you apply for almost any position: you submit a cover letter, a resume, writing sample, recommendations, etc., and hope for an interview and then a job offer. The only real prerequisite per se is that each clerkship applicant to the Supreme Court has clerked — or is currently clerking —for a federal appellate judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
I applied during the summer of 2007 for either a 2008 or 2009 term clerkship. After about a year, lightning struck and my resume was plucked from the pool and I received a call for an interview with Justice Stevens. From there, I just did my best to be relaxed, personable, and somewhat proficient on the law in the interview. Justice Stevens was gracious and kind, and I had a wonderful chat with him and then with his clerks. I left the interview with a pretty good feeling. A couple hours later that afternoon, while I was sitting in National Airport waiting for my flight back, Justice Stevens called and asked, “Merritt, you still want the job?” Without hesitation, of course, I responded, “Absolutely!”
Hyland: "The application itself is pretty basic - you send in a resume, writing sample, transcript, letters of recommendation, etc. You then just wait and hope to get called for an interview! There's a lot of luck involved and I am forever grateful for all the support I received from professors and alumni from Michigan. I think 'it takes a village' - I wouldn't be here without the help of so many people."
When will you begin and what will you have to do to prepare?
Merritt: "I will begin this July. In terms of preparation, I have been trying to stay on top of all the Supreme Court decisions this term so that I am familiar with recent cases. I have also paid attention to decisions on granting certiorari, which is how the Court decides the cases it will hear on the merits. Recent clerks have advised me that it might also be a good idea to brush up on criminal procedure, which is an area of the law the Court takes cases on frequently (and with which I am less familiar). I also plan to look back at some of Justice Stevens' opinions over the years (there are a lot!) to get a better sense of how he crafts his opinions and his writing style."
Hyland: "The clerkship begins this summer. I think the best preparation is clerking for an appellate judge; I am very thankful for all I've learned thus far this year. I know it will still be a steep learning curve!"
When did you first learn that you would be working with a fellow Paideia alum?
Merritt: "Hyland and I did not overlap at Paideia; when Justice Stevens sent a letter confirming my selection and identifying my co-clerks, her name did not ring a bell. But then sometime over this past summer, Kathleen Parker '98, a classmate of mine at Paideia and also at Georgia Law, told me that her brother, Ennis Parker '95, remembered one of my future co-clerks from Paideia and made the connection. I was just blown away."
Hyland: "I actually learned about it from the Paideia newsletter! I had just moved, so my newsletters hadn't yet caught up to me, but my mom still enjoys perusing them and she called to say ‘Guess what? Another Paideia grad will be clerking with you!’ I think it's awesome."
What is the thing that you are most looking forward to in your new job?
Merritt: "There are so many things to look forward to! I already know from my previous clerkship with Judge Anderson that clerking is pretty much the best legal job you can find: the intellectual rigor of working with brilliant legal thinkers on the most exciting and important legal issues of our time is probably the most humbling and rewarding experience that any young lawyer can have."
Hyland: "It is hard to pin down one thing. To be able to work on the most interesting and difficult legal issues of the day in Justice Stevens' chambers is an extraordinary opportunity."
How long is the clerkship and what will you do when your time is over?
Merritt: "The clerkship is only one-year long. At this point in time, I plan to return to practicing law in Atlanta, but I'm also open to what opportunities might be available to me in D.C. following the clerkship."
Hyland: "I haven't decided what I'll do after it ends - perhaps a law firm or a U.S. Attorney's office."
How has Paideia influenced you career path?
Merritt: "I know, without a doubt, that I would not now have the opportunity to clerk with Justice Stevens were it not for Paideia. I started at Paideia in ninth grade, and I relished entering an environment that, for the first time, nurtured me as a young thinker and encouraged my passions. My experience at Paideia first exposed me to the opportunities that come as a result of working hard and taking one's education seriously — and enjoying doing so! I learned at Paideia that much satisfaction comes from making the most out of every opportunity that comes my way — and that has served me very well over the years.
I was also first exposed to the inside of a courtroom at Paideia, and my interest in and enthusiasm for the law was first nurtured inside Tom Pearce's classroom in the Mother Goose building. I was an eager participant in Tom's mock trial team, and he also helped me secure an internship one summer with the Dekalb County District Attorney's Office. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Paideia for starting me on my journey (and to my parents, too, for choosing to send me to school there)."
Hyland: "Paidea kindled an intellectual curiosity that led me to the law (and helped me enjoy law school!); there's a new problem to solve with every case, which makes every day interesting. It also helped shape my views on justice. I know few people are as fortunate as I am and I hope to be able to give back to the community as an attorney."
What advice would you give Paideia students who are interested in following your career path?
Merritt: "Work hard to learn, grow, and develop as a person, as a creative thinker, and as an expert in whatever field you choose, but do it for yourself and not for the recognition that comes with success. There are lots of things out there that you cannot control about how your future turns out, but it is up to you to make the most of where you do end up and the opportunities that present themselves along the way. Alongside this accomplishment, I've certainly also had my share of disappointments and failures: for example, I was desperate to get into Yale when I was a senior at Paideia; I thought my future was over the moment I received the thin envelope in the mail. I rebounded, though, and that particular early disappointment has certainly not had any adverse impact on the course of my life; instead, I hope it's instilled in me a little humility."
Hyland: "I think the most important thing, really, is to make sure it’s what you want to do. I know lots of people who went to law school right after undergrad, so that works for some people, but for me it was helpful to get some distance from school before deciding what I wanted to do with the 'rest of my life."
What do you see yourself working on in, say, five years?
Merritt: "At some point, I imagine that I would like to teach law and be in an academic environment. But I've never quite shaken the courtroom bug that first caught my interest at Paideia, and so I might very well continue to practice law and focus on developing an appellate practice (representing clients before courts of appeals) after I finish the clerkship."
Hyland: "I would like to become a federal prosecutor, I think."
What have you done thus far of which you are the most proud?
Merritt: "In my professional life, I am definitely most proud that I will be serving as a clerk to Justice Stevens, a jurist I admired long before I even could have imagined having this opportunity. Personally, however, these days I thoroughly enjoy being with the dog I've raised who can now catch the tennis ball on the fly in her mouth and bring it back to me. I'm very proud to have been her teacher!"
Hyland: "I worked in my law school's legal clinic my last year of law school. My very first client was charged with a misdemeanor to which she had a valid defense and we were able to reach a resolution that was truly great for her. The legal work was fairly simple but it made such a difference to her — it's the kind of thing you never forget."