An associate at the boutique trial litigation firm of Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell in Denver, Yarger previously clerked for Justice Allison H. Eid of the Colorado Supreme Court — a former Thomas clerk — and Judge Neil M. Gorsuch of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
“Justice Eid was an incredible mentor for me and was very supportive of my decision to apply to the Supreme Court, which I did while I was clerking for her,” said Yarger. “She strongly recommended that I apply, and I don’t think I would have without that little nudge of encouragement.” Gorsuch also was supportive of Yarger’s application and provided valuable advice as she navigated the high court’s interview and hiring process, she said.
Yarger and Thomas discussed their mutual respect for the two Colorado-based judges during her interview with the justice. They also talked about current perceptions of the United States Supreme Court and Thomas’ judicial philosophy. The opportunity to interact with him made the whole application process worthwhile, said Yarger.
“Honestly, I walked out of the interview thinking that even if I didn’t get the clerkship — and chances were slim — that alone was worth everything,” she said. “It was really wonderful, as a young attorney, to be able to listen to him speak about his experience, his perspective, and his judicial philosophy. I really enjoyed my interview with him just as a life experience.”
She is confident that her Supreme Court clerkship will further hone her skills as a lawyer, as her previous two did. Her exposure to Colorado common law during her clerkship with Eid offered her a distinctly different experience from, and valuable contrast to, her subsequent federal clerkship, she noted. Her federal appellate clerkship with Gorsuch, whom Yarger described as “one of the most talented writers I’ve ever been exposed to,” made her “a better lawyer and a better writer,” she said.
Yarger joined Wheeler Trigg O’Donnell following her second clerkship, seeking to gain “great litigation experience as quickly as possible.” The relatively small firm has a broad-based litigation practice but specializes in trial work, often taking over from other attorneys as trial dates near. “I think it’s a unique approach to the practice of law, and one that benefits associates immensely, because the staffing is lean and associates are given significant responsibility early on,” she said.
Speaking shortly after completing her first jury trial, a $45 million medical malpractice defense that lasted two weeks, Yarger is pleased with her choice. “I had the opportunity to cross examine the plaintiff,” she said. “It was just an unbelievable experience to be part of a team that was actually trying a case in front of a jury, which is so rare nowadays. The partner in the case is immensely talented, particularly in the courtroom — I learned so much from him. And to top it off, we won.” It cemented her interest in trial litigation and her fascination with the unique presentation skills required in trying a case to a jury.
She “got hooked” on litigation at Duke Law through various moot court competitions; she co-chaired the Moot Court Board as a 3L. Also a member of one of the first Appellate Litigation Clinic classes, she worked with a team of students to brief an inmate’s civil rights claim and then argued it before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which ruled in the inmate’s favor. She calls the experience the highlight of her legal education.
“Being able to work with Professor [James] Coleman and [former] Professor [Erwin] Chemerinsky as closely as we did and having the responsibility of handling a case from the beginning to the end was just unbelievable for a third-year law student. And having the support of the faculty who said, ‘You can do this. You can stand up before a panel of three judges on the Fourth Circuit and argue this case on behalf of our client,’ that’s a great vote of confidence.”
It was well placed, said Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law.
“Katie was among the first group of students to enroll in the Appellate Litigation Clinic. She started the tradition of excellence that has marked the work of the students who followed her. When her team won their habeas case in the Fourth Circuit, a lawyer who followed cases in the circuit wrote to congratulate her, pointing out that not many lawyers had won such cases in that court. It does not surprise me that she is clerking for Justice Thomas; she is an outstanding lawyer and a very nice person.”
“I think that Duke Law is an incredible place to begin your legal career and I feel grateful for the opportunities the school provided me,” said Yarger. “I firmly believe that I would not be in the position I am now if I had not gone to law school at Duke. I’m very grateful to all my professors, and to the school, for their support.”
Yarger will be the fifth Duke Law graduate to clerk at the Supreme Court in a three-term period. Allison Jones ’07, Garrick Sevilla ’07, and Amy Mason Saharia ’05 clerked during the 2010-2011 term for Justices Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Sonia Sotomayor, respectively. Sarah Campbell JD/MPP ’09 is currently clerking for Alito.