Matthew McHale '03

Assistant City Solicitor, City of Pittsburgh Law Department, Pittsburgh, PA

Matthew McHale '03

For about two years now, I’ve been working as an Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Pittsburgh, handling mostly civil-rights and other federal litigation. It’s been a great professional opportunity, although I arrived here via a bit of a winding route.

In 2003, I graduated from YLS with a definite commitment to public service, but without very concrete goals about how to put that interest into practice. After clerking for a year on the First Circuit, I spent the next ten years in private practice working for a couple of firms in Pittsburgh—at first, in the offices of a big global firm, then in a small boutique litigation firm, which was great for my professional development. During that time, my focus on public service was mainly aimed at serving in the local U.S. Attorney’s Office, but that was not panning out. Meanwhile, in early 2014, a new, progressive mayor of Pittsburgh took office. Some of his promised reforms included opening up the hiring processes of city government. I had not considered working for the City previously, but the change of administrations sparked my interest. I submitted an application cold through a website, interviewed, and was hired to work primarily on federal civil-rights/discrimination matters.

As it turns out, working for a municipality—especially one as diverse and exciting as Pittsburgh—is a fantastic place to practice law. I work in a small department of about 18 attorneys, though only one other lawyer and I work regularly on the City’s federal litigation. Perhaps best of all, this has meant fairly regular opportunity for real trial work, which seems increasingly rare in civil litigation. I also have a love of appellate work and get to regularly brief and argue cases in the state and federal appellate courts. Also, with the City Solicitor’s support, I’ve been fortunate to take on interesting cases even if they don’t fall within my area of specialty. So, for example, when a 19th-century time capsule was discovered by a demolition contractor in the ruins of a historic City-owned building, I represented the City in our (successful) efforts to get the artifacts transferred to a local museum.

Of course, there are challenges. Working cases largely on my own is gratifying, since it lets me be my own boss for most of the time, but of course, from time to time, I miss having a larger team of colleagues for support. And there are the technical challenges, as the Law Department’s technology seems probably about a decade or more behind the private sector—just handling simple PDFs can be a major challenge, while many case files are kept entirely on paper. Finally, there is the salary level, which can make it a challenge to pay back student loans and other obligations (although it helps that Pittsburgh’s cost of living is relatively low for a city). Another challenge with the pay level is simply that it makes recruiting harder than it has to be, given the quality of the work experience here. I confess I don’t know how to change this reality. Still, with all the challenges, this has been the most fulfilling legal work I’ve done since my clerkship.

Now that I’m more than a decade out of law school, I wish I had realized earlier how important internships and summer positions, during law school or shortly after, in the public-interest field can be. I think there can be an expectation that, once you’ve spent five or ten years in the private sector, that your commitment to public service may be questionable. So if you think that public-interest work may be a real possibility some years later, I would recommend working to get that demonstration of your interest on your CV. Besides that, I would strongly encourage students interested in government service to take a serious look at municipalities—the quality of work and colleagues is exceptional, and working at the local level can provide a great way to feel like you are making a difference in your community.