The walk from the law school to Yorkside was short, which was fine with me; I wanted this to be a short conversation. As a dutiful daughter, I felt the need to update my mother on important developments in my life, but I had no desire to get caught up in a long argument about my life and career choices.
“Hi Mom. How are you?”
“Oh, fine. Waiting for your father to come home from a job so we can have dinner. And your sister is coming over. Almost done cooking — I made sinigang. Too bad you’re not here, it’s one of your favorites. What’s up?”
“I just wanted to let you know — I’m going to be in Los Angeles next week. I have a clerkship interview with a judge out there.”
“You’re flying out to L.A.? Next week? How much is your ticket?”
“Five hundred or so,” I said (omitting mention of the taxes and fees).
“Five hundred? That’s a lot. Why aren’t they paying for your travel? Like the law firms?”
“I had to buy it on short notice. And this isn’t a law firm, Mom. This is for a clerkship. With a federal judge. It’s the government.”
My mother sighed, in Queens. I heard it, in New Haven.
“Audrey,” she said, “I don’t understand why you want to do this ‘clerky’ thing. Your cousin Vincent works as a clerk.”
“At a Shoe Mart in the Philippines, Mom. This is completely different.”
“So you mean to tell me that you went to Harvard for college and Yale for law school, and your dad and I borrowed all this money, and you borrowed all this money, so you could get a job as a clerk? Like your cousin Vincent?”
“Mom, this is a law clerk position, with Judge Christina Wong Stinson. A federal judge. A federal appeals court judge. That’s one level below the Supreme Court. And some say that Judge Stinson herself might be nominated to the Supreme Court someday.”
“Well, Audrey, it’s up to you. It’s your life, it’s your career. I’m just a nurse, I don’t know about this law-law stuff of yours.”
“I’ve explained all this to you already, Mom. A clerkship with a federal appellate judge is an amazing learning experience for a young lawyer. It’s a chance to see the litigation process from behind the bench, from the point of view of a judge. And it’s very, very prestigious. Law students at Yale and Harvard and Stanford would kill for a Ninth Circuit clerkship.”
(Well, maybe not any Ninth Circuit clerkship; it would have to be with the right judge. The Ninth wasn’t as uniformly prestigious as, say, the D.C. Circuit. But I was not about to try and explain that to my mother.)
“You say this job is prestigious. Is prestige going to pay your rent? Or your student loans?”
(Actually, it could. But I did not feel like explaining to my mother, a nurse whose interaction with lawyers was mercifully limited, the complex process by which the legal profession generates, fetishizes, and monetizes prestige. I remained silent.)
“Audrey, you say this job isn’t like being a store clerk. But doesn’t this job pay very little?”
“The pay is decent. It depends on several factors, but I’d definitely be making at least $60,000 a year….”
“Ay, susmariosep! Sixty thousand a year? Why don’t you just go back to Cravath? You’d be making over $150,000, right? Now that’s good money. Your father and I have never made that much in a year — combined.”
Now it was my turn to sigh. Maybe I would try and enlighten my mother. I had an idea about how to put a stop to her carping.
“Yes, the starting salary at Cravath is $160,000,” I said, referring to Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the white-shoe New York law firm where I had worked as a summer associate. “But what if I told you I could get about twice that much — just as a signing bonus, on top of a six-figure salary?”
I could picture my mother’s ears perking up. She was not a greedy woman, and she did not have extravagant tastes. But as an immigrant who had come to the United States with practically nothing, who had slowly scrimped and saved her way into the middle class, she did not take money for granted. She had been dazzled by my job last summer at Cravath — a job that paid me more than $3,000 a week, while wining and dining me at Manhattan’s best restaurants — and couldn’t stop bragging it about to her friends.
“So… how does that signing bonus work?” she asked. “I thought you said this clerk thing pays about sixty?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said. “But if I get this clerkship and impress Judge Stinson, she could recommend me for a clerkship with a Supreme Court justice. And Supreme Court clerks, when they leave the Court and go to law firms, get huge signing bonuses — $250,000 and up. And that’s on top of a base salary of almost $200,000.”
“Where? At Cravath?”
“Cravath is a top firm, so they’d probably pay that bonus. But many Supreme Court clerks go to litigation firms in D.C. after they’re done. Some Supreme Court clerks get signing bonuses of almost $300,000.”
My mother was momentarily silent — not her usual state.
“Well,” she said after a pause, “that sounds pretty good. That could pay off your student loans instantly. I think you should become a Supreme Court clerk.”
I laughed — loudly — and then immediately felt guilty for sounding dismissive. But that was my spontaneous reaction to my mother’s comment. She might as well have told me, “I think you should become an Olympic luge champion.”
“Easier said than done, Mom. These positions are almost impossible to get. Supreme Court clerks are the best and the brightest young lawyers in the country.”
“Audrey,” said my mother, in an almost lecturing tone, “you graduated magna from Harvard, the top college. Now you’re at Yale, the top law school, and you’re on the law review. You worked over the summer at Cravath, the top firm. How many are better and brighter than you? How many law students get profiled in the Filipino Reporter?”
I was touched by my mother’s pride in me. And in the Filipino Reporter, the New York-area newspaper for the Filipino-American community (“Fair, Fearless, Factual”). But I had to dispel her illusions.
“Mom, there are hundreds of law students out there with résumés like mine. There are more than 40,000 new law school graduates each year — and only 36 Supreme Court clerks, four for each of the nine justices. It is literally a one in a thousand opportunity.”
“Hija, you are one in a million — and so pretty, too! Mestiza beauty, as they say back home. Of course a supreme judge will want to hire you. Like that black one — the one who likes the dirty movies!”
My mother started to laugh at her own joke, an old habit of hers. I felt myself blushing. (The Irish half of me was capable of blushing.)
“Mom, I have to go. I’ll talk to you later.”
<—Previously: Chapter 1: Disclaimers and Disclosures
Subsequently—>Chapter 3: The Skinny