Q&A with Supreme Court Superstar: Sarah Sloan
BY: ASHLEY FLECK
Welcome back to the CLWA Judicial Clerkship series! If you’re tuning in, most likely you haven’t been able to secure a clerkship (yet). Don’t worry—neither have we. But, we do have more advice from four-time clerk and CLS/CLWA alumna Sarah Sloan ‘16 to help us (and you!) get one step closer.
Sarah’s Studies at CLS
Like Lena Hughes, Sarah Sloan shined at CLS—both in her academics and extracurriculars.
Not only did Sarah earn the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Prize, she was also an Articles Editor for the Columbia Human Rights Law Review and a Student Public Interest Network buddy, helping to mentor first-year students interested in pursuing careers in public interest.
Sarah also served as a research assistant for Professor Elizabeth Scott and as a teaching assistant for Professor Sarah Cleveland, and interned with The Legal Aid Society in their Criminal Defense Practice working on the Adolescent Intervention and Diversion Project.
Sarah’s Clerkship Search
For Sarah, clerking at the federal level was the main criteria in her clerkship search.
While Sarah acknowledged that there’s a lot of value in clerking for a judge you might disagree with, she wanted to feel comfortable and welcomed by the judge she’d clerk for. And though she didn’t have any particular judges in mind when she began her process, Sarah knew that as an openly gay woman she didn’t want to clerk for a judge who had written “vitriolic opinions about gay marriage.”
Sarah’s Steps to the Supreme Court
Sarah began her clerkship journey at the Appellate level: a trend she said is becoming more common.
Sarah first clerked in the Ninth Circuit for Hon. Michelle Friedland and then in the Southern District of New York for Hon. Alison Nathan. Sarah said, these two judges hired her together. And while judges commonly work in pairs to hire clerks, this specific opportunity was unique: one court was in California and the other was in New York. “It’s not the pairing everyone would want, but it worked for me,” Sarah explained. “I was thrilled!”
Sarah described her time at Ninth Circuit as one of the “easier transitions from law school.” She explained that as an appellate level clerk, you conduct legal research and draft opinions, which is more similar to the kind of work students grow accustomed to while in law school than the work at the district level (see Lena’s take on how much writing there is in clerking).
“It’s relatively predictable,” Sarah explained, “You have the oral argument calendar: the briefs come in, you read them, you write a memo, you have the arguments, you debrief with the judge afterwards, and then you get started on opinions.”
Comparatively, Sarah explained that in a district court, the pace is much faster and the work, less predictable. “It’s more of a triage experience and you’re just trying to do your best!” Sarah said, adding that at the district level, there is more case management, file monitoring, discovery disputes, and trials.
Sarah at the Supreme Court
Almost two-thirds of the way through her first clerkship, Sarah applied to be a U.S. Supreme Court clerk. “Frankly, I would have never thought of applying if my judges hadn’t talked to me about it,” Sarah said, adding, “It’s really important to have support from the judge you’re currently clerking for.”
Sarah was interviewed by, and selected to clerk for, then-retired Justice John Paul Stevens.
“Each retired Justice gets one law clerk, if they want,” Sarah explained. “There’s a tradition in the Supreme Court—going back several decades now—that the retired Justice’s clerk will get loaned out to an active Justice’s chamber.”
- Fun Fact: Sarah’s dad, Clifford Sloan (now a retired partner at Skadden), served as a Supreme Court Clerk for Justice John Paul Stevens in 1985, making the Sloans part of an “exclusive club” and possibly the first family duo to clerk for the same Justice.
Accordingly, Sarah was initially slated to work in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s chambers. But, a few weeks before her clerkship, Justice Kennedy retired. Sarah explained that the announcement created an “internal scramble” to place Justice Kennedy’s clerks. This scramble landed Sarah in the chambers of Justice Elena Kagan instead.
Sarah said this placement worked out incredibly well for her. Not only did she clerk for three female judges, but she also gained substantial legal experience working for Justice Kagan. An experience Sarah valued as her work for Justice Stevens was not litigation related. (Instead, she helped him finalize his book: The Making of a Justice and researched and brainstormed ideas for Op-Eds.) Under Justice Kagan, Sarah reviewed cert petitions, making recommendations about the cases the Justice should take, reviewed stays of executions requests and other emergency injunctions, helped prep the Justice for oral arguments, analyzed briefs, and even drafted opinions.
Sarah’s Take on Clerkship Applications
In a clerkship application, Sarah, like Lena, emphasized the importance of having strong, meaningful relationships with recommenders, good grades, and solid writing skills. She also explained the importance of being authentic and unique. “You want your application to pop from the pile.” Sarah explained, whether because of amazing grades, an incredible story, or a “unique experience, insight, or background.”
Sarah’s judges especially cared who Sarah was and if she would get along with them and their other clerks. A clerk is “someone that the judge has to work with in small chambers for an entire year,” Sarah explained, so, “they [judges] are looking for people that they’ll get along with and that they can trust.”
While it’s hard to tailor your background and past experiences to meet this “uniqueness” standard, in a clerkship application, Sarah said it is all about how you tell your story and finding recommenders who will be able to tell that story, too.
To build that kind of relationship with recommenders, Sarah encouraged members to conduct research, serve as a teaching assistant, and work through the Note process with professors at CLS. She added that clinics and small seminars are other, “really great way[s]” to develop these meaningful relationships.
In some cases, you may have a really strong relationship with a professor who won’t ultimately write your official recommendation—that’s okay. Sarah encouraged members to ask these professors to write blurbs to send to official recommenders to incorporate into the final recommendation—an approach Sarah took herself when she asked Professors Philip Genty and Brett Dignam to write short blurbs about her, which her official recommenders ultimately used.
Sarah’s Advice for Clerkship Preparation (specifically at CLS)
Sarah explained that while every judge looks for different things in an application, many judges are interested in black letter law classes (such as Administration, Federal Courts, and Evidence). And that writing a Note, researching for a professor, and participating in moot court, all help to prepare applicants for their clerkships—“If anything can prepare one for a clerkship,” Sarah added.
Sarah urged members to make curriculum and extracurricular decisions based on genuine interests and the unique dockets of the courts they hope to clerk in. For example, because the Ninth Circuit sees a lot of immigration cases, one can prepare for this unique clerkship through immigration law classes, clinics, internships, and volunteer experiences.
A Special Memory from the Supreme Court
While at the Supreme Court, one of Sarah’s favorite memories was having tea with late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg ‘59.
“She was notoriously someone who slept in late. So, lunch was not really on the table for Justice Ginsburg,” Sarah said. Instead, Justice Ginsburg would have tea with the clerks and share stories about her life. Sarah told CLWA members that these experiences were some of her favorite memories during her clerkship. Adding, “She had a wall full of different photographs. She would point to them and share stories about her life. It was really special.”