By Andrew Cohen
In July 2017, Berkeley Law classmates Greg Miller ’12 and Karim Kentfield ’12 will begin the most competitive and coveted judicial clerkships in the nation—on the U.S. Supreme Court. Miller will clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, Kentfield for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
It was a dream come true for both, but not without challenges.
Miller encountered both exhilaration and heartache on his journey to the country’s highest court. He vividly recalls the interview with Justice Antonin Scalia, their talk about the challenges of drafting opinions, and the thrill of being asked to clerk for him during the 2016 term. When Scalia died unexpectedly in February, Miller faced a new path.
“That was the toughest news I’d received in a long time,” Miller said. “First and foremost, it was a tremendous loss for our nation. Justice Scalia was a brilliant jurist whose impact will still be felt a century from now. Statutory and constitutional interpretation are now far more disciplined thanks to him. Personally, it was incredibly disappointing. I read his book, A Matter of Interpretation, when I was a sophomore in high school. Being hired as his law clerk was a dream come true. Losing out on that dream was difficult.”
Miller’s dream of clerking on the Supreme Court was delayed, but not derailed. An appellate associate at Vinson & Elkins’ Houston office, he applied to clerk for Thomas several months after Scalia’s death. To his delight, he was offered the position. “Justice Thomas takes his oath seriously and puts in a tremendous amount of work to get the answer right,” Miller said. “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to clerk for him.”
Miller insists that landing two Supreme Court clerkships would never have happened without the “phenomenal support” he received from Eric Stern, director of operations for Berkeley Law’s Career Development Office, and Professors Amanda Tyler, Jesse Choper and John Yoo.
“My applications to Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas were both short-fuse jobs,” Miller said. “Eric did a great job of making sure my recommendation letters and other materials were ready in time. Professor Tyler was immensely helpful providing advice about the timing of applications and coordinating faculty support. Professors Choper and Yoo were also tremendously helpful, not only as recommenders, but also as advisors.”
Miller entered law school thinking he wanted to clerk, and that notion gained steam while externing for U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Marsha Berzon ’73 the summer after his first year.
After graduating, he worked for Judge Amul Thapar ’94 on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky, who “demands a lot of his clerks.” In addition to handling the court’s own cases, clerks sat by designation with the Sixth Circuit, took on cases from the Eastern District of Tennessee after it endured a judicial emergency, and traveled to the Western District of Texas to assist with sentencings and a trial. “There was at least one month where I didn’t sleep more than 4 or 5 hours a night, but it was worth it,” Miller said.
The next two years, he clerked for U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Edward Carnes and “learned more about writing and the law than I ever thought I could.” Miller praised Carnes’ “well-earned reputation as one of the best writers on the federal bench. It was tremendous challenge and a lot of fun to try and write draft opinions that met his standards.”
At Berkeley, Miller served as symposium editor of the California Law Review, worked with the Veteran’s Law Practicum, received the William Carey Jones Scholarship in Jurisprudence and graduated Order of the Coif. Now, the prospect of clerking with a classmate fuels his enthusiasm for what lies ahead.
“I was very excited to learn that Karim will be clerking for Justice Ginsburg,” Miller said. “I’ve been told that there’s a lot of cross-chambers collaboration among the clerks on certain aspects of the court’s work, so it will be great to have a fellow Boaltie there.”
Reaching a new peak
A tax associate in the New York City office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Kentfield also brings an impressive clerking resume to the Supreme Court. He worked for Ninth Circuit Judge and Berkeley Law Professor Emeritus William Fletcher after graduation, then spent the following year with Judge Sri Srinivasan on the District of Columbia Circuit.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the job can also be difficult at times: continually being thrown into new areas of the law that you have to learn and apply to cases on a tight timeframe,” Kentfield said. “It was very gratifying to have an opportunity to learn from, and build relationships with, two incredibly kind and brilliant people who have become mentors to me.”
A Google software engineer for six years before starting law school, Kentfield—like Miller—was a member of the California Law Review. They were also in the same section during their first year.
“I distinctly recall Greg’s many insightful and humorous contributions to class discussion,” Kentfield said. “I feel very proud and lucky that we’ll be able to represent Berkeley Law at the Supreme Court, and I look forward to working with him.”
Kentfield also worked on the Berkeley Technology Law Journal and said his time on student journals enhanced his clerkship experiences “by honing my writing skills and encouraging me to think critically and creatively about legal analysis.”
Those skills will be certainly tapped while clerking for Justice Ginsburg, who offered Kentfield the position at the end of their interview. While giving him a tour of her office, she pointed out a photo of her with former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall—taken at Berkeley Law—in the 1980s.
“Justice Ginsburg has always been one of my legal heroes for her work on sex discrimination and women’s equality,” Kentfield said. “It’s a dream come true to work for such an inspiring person.”
The task of matching students with clerkships has grown more challenging since 2013, when the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan was eliminated, ending uniform application deadlines and selection dates. But diligent efforts by Berkeley Law’s career counselors and Clerkship Committee—chaired by Stern, Tyler and Assistant Professor Andrew Bradt—are paying enormous dividends for students eager to work with judges.
Sixty members of the Class of 2016 obtained federal and state judicial clerkships in 23 different states. Forty-nine of those graduates are currently clerking, and another 11 will clerk in the 2017 term. Of this select group, 15 will work with judges on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.