Nick McLean is Deputy Solicitor General at the Department of the Attorney General in Hawaii, and an alumnus of Sidley’s office in New York. Partner Eamon P. Joyce recently sat down with Nick to catch up on his career trajectory since leaving private practice, his experiences as a young lawyer at Sidley, and life in Hawaii during COVID-19.
Can you start by briefly telling us how you ended up at Sidley?
I had interviewed at a number of different firms and really felt like I had a great connection with the people at Sidley. Obviously the firm has a great reputation in terms of appellate work and a very impressive caliber of teams across the board.
You grew up in Vancouver, went to Yale for college and law school, and worked as a summer associate in Sidley’s office in New York – so how did you first end up in Hawaii, where you clerked?
I was a Canadian citizen at the time and a foreign law student in the United States. If you want to clerk or work for the federal government, there are rules that essentially bar any foreign national. So I assumed that door was closed.
But during my third year of law school, I learned that the law does not apply if the position is not based in the Lower 48. In other words, in Alaska, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico. I decided to give it a shot and received an offer in 2014 to clerk for a wonderful Ninth Circuit Judge, Richard Clifton, based in Honolulu.
During your time at Sidley, was there a point when you realized you wanted to focus on a particular type of litigation, or did you remain open-minded about what you wanted to do?
I was very fortunate to have the chance to explore a whole bunch of different areas. One of the things that really drew me to Sidley in the first place was the fact that it has this broad-based practice. I really thought of myself as a generalist, and ultimately that is something that has really stood me in good stead. An open-minded attitude to a variety of different practice areas, plus having the opportunity to explore, has been really valuable.
Was the move to Hawaii when you left your associateship at Sidley a life move or a career move?
I would say it was a life move. My partner’s family is from there originally and it made sense on a variety of different levels. There are also aspects to practicing law in a smaller city that were very attractive to me. I think the chance to really get involved in one particular legal community was a significant opportunity, especially in Hawaii. In some ways, the state’s law has developed separately from other states, particularly in certain areas of constitutional law and water law. It was a fascinating opportunity to transition from a more national practice to a smaller city.
You made this big move essentially four years after your law school graduation. It’s a pretty mature career choice and life choice. Do you have advice to junior associates who are trying to figure out their own career path?
There is no right path for everyone. Having said that, it can be so valuable to take the opportunity to engage in introspection: what is the kind of work that I want to do, and what is the geographic environment that I want to be in? Those factors are overlooked, because there are often strong pressures to gravitate towards certain types of jobs and certain geographies, particularly New York and D.C.
What does your day-to-day look like in the Hawaii Solicitor General’s (SG) office?
It’s a small team of five lawyers, housed within the attorney general’s office. A typical day is one that involves both discrete small research projects, often counseling other attorneys, and then more long-term projects. It’s a very collaborative office and no one day is the same. That is especially true in the post-COVID world, which certainly has its challenges. But, I think we’re navigating them much like all other firms in the private sector.
One great benefit of working in public service is that you really have the opportunity to take ownership of cases, and that’s something that I would really emphasize to young attorneys who are considering public service versus private practice.
What are you doing these days outside of work? How is life in Hawaii under COVID-19?
I love to hike and swim, but the hiking trails are currently closed due to the recent stay-at-home order. Unfortunately, the beaches have been closed too, but hopefully the policy interventions will have the intended effect.
I’ve also appreciated having the chance to serve as a lecturer at our law school here, even after struggling to transition to an online class. It’s been such a rewarding experience. Being in a smaller city, you have opportunities to get involved in the broader community, either through volunteer work or through the legal profession to help teach new generations of law students.
Is there anything about Sidley that you didn’t realize or fully appreciate until you moved on?
When you’re a young attorney at Sidley, you have such an incredible platform both in terms of the practice areas that the firm is involved in, and geographically. It is an incredible opportunity to experience a variety of different types of cases, clients, and working styles by partners, and to figure out what works for you.
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