Education: Kuemper Catholic High School; Bachelor’s degree from University of Iowa; law degree from University of California, Berkeley School of Law
Family: Wife, Heather; children Sydney, 4, Connor 2, Maren, born July 5.
Let’s say it has been a nice summer for Matt McDermott. He earned the Iowa State Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Division Award of Merit, and he made the cover of the University of California at Berkeley Law alumni magazine. The article discusses his decision to return to Iowa after law school and interning in New York City. In July, McDermott and his wife, Heather, celebrated the birth of their third child.
What was your first job?
Walking beans, when I was about 12. When I grew taller I started detasseling (where money was much better). My first regular job was at the Hy-Vee in Carroll, which I started as soon as I was able to drive.
Why did you return to Iowa after experiencing the east and west coasts?
I worked at a big New York law firm following my second year of law school, and received a job offer. The work was interesting, my colleagues were brilliant, and the pay was (for someone who had never seen that kind of money before) breathtaking. But the way big law firms work on the coasts bothered me. I didn’t see younger attorneys developing their skills the way I thought they should. It seemed young attorneys did not get meaningful experience handling cases, whether in the courtroom or in counseling directly with clients, until far too late in their careers. There were New York attorneys in their forties who had never even handled a significant motion in court, let alone a trial. Sure, I’d get to work on big cases in New York, but as the tenth person on a team of ten for too long. So at the start of my third year of law school, I contacted a few Des Moines firms just to see what was there. I was really impressed by the Belin firm’s model and, even more, the quality of its lawyers. The lawyers at Belin just as impressive my peers in New York, and often much better. And for me, the opportunities for real development and interaction with clients in solving problems would start right away, not two decades into my practice. After a lot of thinking I decided to join Belin. I’ve never regretted that decision.
What is the best career advice you have received, and who provided it?
At my swearing-in ceremony, one of the speakers was a retired Iowa Supreme Court justice. He told us, “In our daily lives, it’s generally best that we follow the adage ‘don’t sweat the small stuff.’ But when it comes to the practice of law, the better maxim to remember is ‘the devil is in the details.’” He was right. In the practice of law, dogged attention to detail is crucial. I’ve been involved in lawsuits where the absence or position of a comma in a contract has meant the difference in the outcome.
There was a time when it almost seemed to be a require-ment that Belin lawyers could fill a spot in a rock band, so I wonder whether you’re an attorney by day and rock star by night?
Rock star by night only if you mean while I’m asleep dreaming. A few of us at the firm did form a cover band with a couple other friends, and we played pretty regularly for about five years. We mostly covered classic songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s. What we lacked in talent, we made up for in volume. The group came to be known by my comedian-partners as the “Belin Boy Band.” I played harmonica and rhythm guitar and sang. It was actually terrific fun. We still get together occasionally.
What was the last book you read?
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. It’s a great fictional tale of a heroic group of soldiers home from the Iraq war on a publicity tour, set as they are about to return to the war. Before that, When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss, which is an extremely insightful biography of Vince Lombardi. I read a lot, and tend to rotate between fiction and non-fiction.
Some lawyers have no desire to do trial work, yet that is your world. What is the attraction?
I love that it requires me to solve problems in the face of disagreement. My clients are locked in disputes that they need help resolving, and the disputes are generally so dire that they’ve led to litigation. Each case is different, and requires me to play many roles throughout the case.
What do you do for recreation?
I run. I’ve caught the marathon bug. I’ve just completed nine marathons over a 28-month span, including the last two Boston Marathons. I’ll be back in Boston to run again next year.