Matthew McClellan ’08 plans to try at least one case before the U.S. Supreme Court or be a TV legal correspondent/commentator. Or both. After graduating from the College of Charleston, he went to Wake Forest University School of Law, and then earned his Master’s in Journalism at the Medill School at Northwestern University. He’s now at his first job as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney. He’s got game.
Q: What is your job title and how would you describe your job?
A: I am a Special Assistant United States Attorney. I work with federal agencies and law enforcement to investigate and prosecute violations of federal law. My job is a good mix of legal research, writing, and trial advocacy.
We also work with community leaders on proactive initiatives aimed at keeping these communities safe. Most recently, we were involved in the Day of National Concern About Young People and Gun Violence. We went to several schools in the district to talk to students about being vigilant and cautious when they see a gun out of place, and more importantly to report such incidents to responsible adults.
Q: What is the coolest thing you’ve done as part of your job?
A: So far, the coolest thing I’ve had the opportunity to do is try a case within a couple months of being on the job. I had the opportunity to do bench and jury trials as a law student and was on Wake Forest’s National Trial Team, but this particular trial was the first in my professional career. I sat second-chair to a seasoned AUSA in our district, who is a storied trial attorney with a wealth of knowledge. Being able to watch and assist him in trying the first case of my professional career was a great experience.
Q: How did you get this job?
A: I knew I wanted to be a trial attorney, because of the great experience I had doing mock trials with the trial competition team at Wake Forest University. Before I can work as a network legal correspondent/commentator, I need to have practiced a number of years, so I’m able to provide a unique perspective on cases and trials of national concern.
To find jobs, I primarily used my law school’s online database. Since I was in Chicago in j-school when I was applying for jobs, I also looked at listings through the Illinois State Bar Association. A friend sent me the listing for this particular job.
I applied for various litigation positions (prosecutorial, defense, and civil) and ended up being hired as a prosecutor. I didn’t know much about prosecutorial work until I got to law school. I clerked for a judge in California after my first year who knew that I was interested trial advocacy. The judge set me up with a deputy district attorney who used to appear in front of her when she presided over criminal cases. I spent a lot of time in the DA’s office that summer, observed court proceedings, and did research for a murder case the prosecutor was set to try.
One of my trial team coaches was also a prosecutor and one of my mentors at Wake. Because of her, I had the opportunity to work at a North Carolina DA’s office during my second summer and during my third year, and tried bench and jury trials as a law student. So the bulk of my formative legal experience had been prosecutorial work, and that knowledge base has been beneficial as learn more and add to my skillset as a practitioner.
Q: Would you recommend taking a year “off” before law school?
A: I had a busy senior year at the College, so after I graduated, I spent a year working at the College’s Office of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, applying to law schools and preparing for the LSAT. So while it was somewhat of a necessity to take a year off, I’m glad I did. I wish I’d taken an additional year off. Law school was such a time commitment and financial investment that I probably could’ve benefited from an additional year off to work and save more money, spend time with friends and family, and find a job or internship in the legal industry for better insight into what was to come.
Q: Could you have applied for a dual degree program in law and journalism?
A: Yes, I’d initially intended to apply to dual degree programs, but I decided to just apply to law schools. Then the summer before I started my third year of law school, I went on a two-weeklong trip with some friends/classmates to major southern cities (Charleston, Savannah, Nashville, and Atlanta). While on a tour of CNN, I decided that I’d apply to j-school like I’d originally intended, and see what happened. I got into Medill and it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
WEBSITE: McClellan was a communication major at the College. Learn more.
Q: How did the College help prepare you for your career?
A: I participated on the College’s Mock Trial Team, Leadership CofC, and the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. In my fraternity, I held various leadership roles, which enabled me to interact with diverse groups of people and be prepared for speaking engagements and handling issues that would come up from time to time.
Courses I took while at the College that prepared me for my career include Law and Society with the Hon. Judge Alex Sanders, Media Criticism with Robert Westerfelhaus, Media Law with Michelle Condon, American Government with the late Tom Chorlton, Law and Politics with Hollis France, and TV News Reporting with Patrick Harwood.
Q: What advice would you offer current students?
A: Today’s job market is a tough and competitive one, across industries. If you’re seriously interested or slightly interested in a certain career path, find a way to volunteer or intern in that particular industry. Not only will you gain experience, which is attractive to potential employers or for the next internship, but it also helps you determine if a job in that career field is something you can see yourself doing long-term.
I was involved on campus, I had a good academic record, I did community service, but I put off career development and finding internships until my senior year. I love what I’m doing and the career path that I’ve chosen, but that’s not always the case for everyone. There are opportunities to learn about and gain meaningful experience in industries that interest you. Find and take advantage of those opportunities.