A bridge-to-practice program success story: An interview with Matt Arth, NDLS 2015

Notre Dame’s Bridge-to-Practice Program is a great program for graduating 3Ls looking to land their first job after law school. The program provides a stipend for graduates to volunteer for up to five months for a qualifying legal employer in their target market. But the program doesn’t just sound great on paper; graduates who enter the program actually get great results. Today, I interviewed someone who started his career in the Bridge-to-Practice program: Matt Arth, an Attorney with the Public Utility Commission of Texas and 2015 Notre Dame Law School graduate

KMB: What made you want to go to law school?

MA: Basically, it came down to a class I took in undergrad. I was a business major at Fordham and we had an Introduction to Business Law class there. I had never considered being an attorney before that but the profession sounded interesting so I started studying for the LSAT and made my way to law school.

KMB: Did you know what kind of law you wanted to do when you got to NDLS?

MA: I didn’t know much about the different areas of law when I got there. From my business background in undergrad, I thought I would do “business law” but didn’t know what that meant. As I got into law school and started to learn more about the profession, I found myself drawn toward the litigation side of things.

KMB: What did you do your 1L summer?

MA: I interned with the U.S. Court of International Trade in New York writing bench memoranda and the Judge I was interning for sat by designation on the 11th Circuit, so we went down to Atlanta for some hearings and it was an interesting summer.

KMB: How about your 2L summer?

MA: I split my time first at a District Attorney’s office in Fort Worth, where I am from, working on misdemeanors and I got to get a temporary bar card while there and actually second-chaired a DWI case. I definitely got the litigation bug fueled at that point. The second half of the summer I spent with the General Counsel’s office at the U.S. Trade and Development Agency in D.C. That experience opened my eyes to the administrative and regulatory world.

KMB: How did your 2L summer job search look?

MA:  I did a wide range of things. I participated in OCI and the New York OCIP. I applied to all sorts of firms and government agencies and didn’t have much luck with that but just kept emailing my New York and Texas contacts.

KMB: And what did your job search look like your 3L year?

MA: I am from the Dallas / Fort Worth area originally but found myself drawn to Austin, so I started looking at government agencies in Austin. When the Bridge-to-Practice program was announced, I started to tie the program together with my desire to be in Austin and ended up emailing HR at the Texas Public Utility Commission. They confirmed that they did have legal internships so I ended up going there through Bridge-to-Practice.

KMB: How did you find the PUC? 

MA: I was googling Texas state agencies. The capital of Texas is Austin, I knew I wanted to end up there, and I knew there would be a lot of state agencies there because it is the state capital. So I looked at PUC’s website and they were one of the ones I sent an email to and got a response back from.

KMB: How was the 3L job search for you emotionally? 

MA: It was stressful looking for a job 3L year but I assumed I would get a job at some point because ND is looked upon pretty highly.  But you are in this silo of law school students and a lot of people are getting jobs, particularly with firms hiring well ahead of time. It felt like a scramble. My advice to students is don’t get too stressed out about it. It all tends to work out in the end.

KMB: Tell me about your time at the Texas Public Utility Commission as a Bridge-to- Practice fellow.

MA: I took the Texas bar that summer of 2015 and then the Bridge-to-Practice program started at the beginning of September. I hit the ground running. There are several divisions in the Texas PUC, one of which is the Legal Division so my internship was with that division. The division probably has 20 attorneys when fully staffed. As a fellow, they had me doing a variety of things, including a lot of research. I didn’t have my law license yet so I couldn’t chair any cases but there is always research to be done involving case law, statutory interpretation questions, and commission precedent. I spent a lot of time researching old dockets at the PUC. I had a really positive experience being exposed to the regulatory world. Texas bar results come back in November; I found out I had passed, and at that time, there were a few entry-level positions posted. I applied for one of them and got the job.

KMB: How do you feel about the Bridge-to-Practice program as a way to enter the legal profession?

MA: It’s essentially a way of having a trial period job interview. Whenever you’re embedded as a fellow in an organization, inevitably, they’ll be seeing your work product everyday and getting to know you on a personal level. I participated in that for 2 1/2 months until bar results came out and that was a good time for me to get to know people around here. It was also a good way to determine if this was an area I wanted to practice in. It doesn’t hurt that the program comes with a small stipend.

KMB: What does the Texas Public Utility Commission do?

MA: We regulate a complicated industry –  or really three industries. The first is telecoms, which has largely been deregulated at the state level so a lot of telecom regulation is federal. Thus, our bread and butter is electric and water regulation. What that means in the electric context is there are three entities in the Texas electric market: power generators, retail electric providers who sell the power (both of those are largely unregulated), and then the middle men, transmission and distribution utilities, which are more regulated.

We deal a lot with the transmission and distributions utilities. They have rates they’re allowed to charge and every few years they come to us to propose what their rates should be given operations and maintenance expenses as well as investments they’ve made over the past couple of years. The PUC looks at that request and often files testimony saying if we, the PUC staff, agree with their proposal. This gets hairy because we’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars to customers. Intervenor parties often get involved as well, such as industrial energy user groups, environmental groups, and municipalities.

Those cases are generally contested and get referred to another state agency, the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH), which is an agency filled with administrative law judges who hear cases referred to them from Texas state agencies. That’s where we litigate our cases. All of the parties file direct testimony in written form ahead of time and then the actual hearing has live cross examination and rebuttal. The administrative law judge ultimately issues a decision. The Commission has three commissioners that decide at an open meeting whether to adopt that ALJ’s decision.

With water regulation, the entities involved are a lot smaller. They usually have a couple hundred to a couple thousand customers. There are a lot more water cases but they are on a smaller scale.

We also do rulemakings, which I remember first hearing about in my administrative law class with Professor Pojanowski. And we deal with complaint cases, so if you’re a water or electric customer and have circumstances that arise, you can file a formal complaint.

KMB: What is your day-to-day life like?

MA: It varies. If I’m not preparing for a hearing, a lot of what I do is administrative filings. So, for example, with a water service area certification case, where the filings are often uncontested, I file staff recommendations on those uncontested matters. I also work on sale/transfer/merger cases, so if one utility wants to buy another utility, that is an administrative process and often not contested so we’ll file recommendations there. Attorneys in the Legal Division are almost a hybrid between attorneys and project managers. We work with other divisions at the PUC that have subject matter experts, such as economists, engineers, and accountants, to develop recommendations and testimony and then file those recommendations within deadlines.

If I am preparing for a hearing, I am reading testimony or talking with subject matter experts about what our position should be. I am also busy developing discovery questions or drafting briefs if a hearing has already occurred.  On hearing days, I am at SOAH cross-examining opposing witnesses or perhaps participating in mediation or settlement negotiations.

KMB: Did you know a lot about this area of law before you started working at the PUC?

MA: I didn’t know much about this world at all before I came into it. If someone told me about utilities regulation ahead of time, I would have thought it sounded terribly dry but it isn’t at all. It’s fascinating. There is a real mix of legal work from going to administrative law court and getting to make oral arguments there, drafting pleadings, spending time on the phone negotiating settlements, participating in mediations, and working with engineers and accountants to build testimony.

KMB: How are your hours?

MA: One of the perks of government life is generally, if I am not preparing for a hearing, my work weeks are 40-45 hours. I usually get in at 7 and leave at 4. I get plenty of vacation time. With government work, the pay is always the trade off and you won’t be making as much as your private sector colleagues but it is actually a reasonable amount of pay, I think, so it has been a good balance for me.

KMB: A lot of students worry that if they take a government job, they won’t be able to pay off their loans. Can you speak to that? 

MA: I took out loans for law school and I am in the process of paying them off. The public service loan forgiveness program is great because after ten years, my loans will be forgiven. I am also taking advantage of LRAP through Notre Dame, which is great, but I did just get a promotion the other day and my salary jumped up so I am sure I will be eligible for less money next year. There’s no doubt the interest continues to accrue on your loans but if you’re on track for ten year loan forgiveness, it’s not a bad way to work through your student loans. The plus of the ten year public service loan forgiveness is that you don’t have to pay tax on the forgiven income. Whereas with pay as you earn, when you finally hit the 25 year mark, you have to pay tax on the amount of loan that is forgiven because it is considered income. That said, talk to Professor Kirsch about all your tax questions!

KMB: You mentioned that you participated in OCI and since our students are about to go through that process, I want to ask if you have any advice for navigating OCI?

MA: You’re going to get a lot of rejections in OCI, no matter whether you are on law review or the bottom person in your class, so don’t let those rejections hurt you. My roommate and I actually taped all of our rejections to this one wall in our apartment to show ourselves how hard we were working in the job application process. Keep upbeat about it. Acknowledge to yourself there will be a lot of rejections but an opportunity will work out.

I didn’t really know while participating in OCI where in the country I wanted to end up. I didn’t know if I wanted to come back to Texas or go back to New York where I went to college, so I applied all over. You should make sure that you apply to a lot of small and mid-sized firms that aren’t going to be at OCI. If I had done it a different way, I probably would have devoted a lot more time to emailing and applying to smaller firms in Dallas and Austin and less time doing OCI applications to big firms in Chicago and New York. You can tap into contacts you have from wherever you’re from and those firms won’t be going to OCI but they need attorneys just like the big firms.

KMB: Does the Texas PUC have a summer program?

MA: Yes, we have summer internships for law students in addition to post-graduate internships with Bridge-to-Practice fellows. There isn’t really a structured internship application. You won’t find a place to apply on the website. But if you are interested, email me. If there’s interest, we’ll create an opportunity. We get a lot of law student interns from UT because it is just down the street, but we’ve had several good Notre Dame attorneys so my director is particularly interested in NDLS students. Interns have a good chance of getting hired as attorneys after graduation too because there are lots of entry-level attorney positions posted for our organization. We’re almost always looking for attorneys. There is fairly high turnover; people stay for 2 or 3 years and then go into the private sector and work for firms that practice in front of the PUC such as Winstead, Holland & Knight, Lloyd Gosselink, Jackson Walker, and mid-sized firms that specialize in this work. So the PUC can actually be a good first job to lead to private firm work.

If you aren’t looking to move to Texas, most states have the equivalent of this agency. It’s usually called the public utility or commerce commission.

If you would like to get in touch with Matt, email me at katelynn.mcbride@nd.edu and I will put you in touch.

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