It wasn’t until after legal secretary Nancy Cedeno sent a funny cartoon by email to attorney Dan Matzkin that she realized her mistake.
Cedeno doesn’t think of Matzkin as blind, nor does anyone else at his office at Squire Sanders in Miami.
"From day one he’s always had a great sense of humor," Cedeno said.
Blind since birth with a condition called Leber congenital amaurosis, Matzkin, 29, never let his disability stand in his way through undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University and law school at the University of Michigan, as a litigation associate at Squire Sanders and in applying for a clerkship with Judge Adalberto Jordan of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
Matzkin beat out more than 100 applicants to land the clerkship starting this fall. According to the American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys, few blind attorneys have ever clerked for a federal judge. Isaac Lidsky is an exception. He clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2008.
"It’s so competitive you have to be surprised when you get a federal clerkship," Matzkin said. "I know folks with great credentials who didn’t get it. I think it will be a great opportunity to see how the court works."
The judge previously worked at Steel Hector & Davis, which merged with Squire Sanders. So when Matzkin applied, Jordan called around to inquire about him. Hearing only positive feedback, he decided to bring in Matzkin for an interview. Knowing Matzkin was blind, the judge had reservations.
"I wondered how it was someone with that kind of issue can manage the rigors of a legal practice," Jordan said.
After all, a law clerk routinely reads hundreds of pages to prepare a judge for oral argument and conduct legal research.
Matzkin showed up at the interview last year with his laptop outfitted with JAWS screen-reading software, which instantaneously translates computer text into spoken word. But the audio is so fast it takes training to absorb it.
"We were just amazed at how someone can do what he does with that sort of a problem because so much of legal practice is reading and digesting what you read," Jordan said. "The other clerks and I talked to him together, and he blew us away in the interview."
Matzkin’s boss at Squire Sanders, partner Lewis Murphy, fully expected Matzkin to ace the interview. Murphy also picked Matzkin from hundreds of applicants to become an associate in 2007.
While he had the grades from a top school, it was a personal item on his resume that caught Murphy’s attention.
"He said his hobbies were classic rock and Greek and Roman literature," Murphy said. "We instantly made a connection. We talked an hour and a half about literature."
Matzkin, who wears dark glasses, also had a good answer when asked whether he might struggle as a litigator without being able to make eye contact with jurors.
The young lawyer responded that his disability would make his appeal on behalf of a client all the more real.
"It seemed like a great opportunity to work with someone different," Murphy said.
STRONG WORK ETHIC
Matzkin has performed well on the job, Murphy said. He helped on an appeal involving a prominent Latin American family, settle a shareholders’ case against loan officers at Colonial Bank and obtain a dismissal for a Venezuelan client on forum non conveniens grounds in a state court commercial dispute.
"I trust Dan to work with my clients face to face," Murphy said. "That’s a talent. He’s also been on the cutting edge of research."
Matzkin has fit in with his co-workers, too. They call him for help on a case — sometimes late at night.
"He called me at 9:15 last night for help with a case," senior associate Jason Joffe said. "I took the call because he would help me if I called him at that time. He has a strong work ethic."
His self-effacing humor is evident the moment one meets him.
Meeting visitors who got lost on the way to his office, he quips, "It’s the blind leading the blind," a grin creeping across his face.
Matzkin does not use a guide dog but relies on a cane to help him navigate the office. A friend picks him up and drops him off at work every day, taking him to his nearby apartment.
Chris Prentice, president of the American Association of Visually Impaired Attorneys, said Matzkin is one of several thousand blind attorneys practicing in the country. That number could be higher since many older attorneys are loathe to acknowledge visual impairments, he added.
Prentice applauded Matzkin for attaining a coveted federal clerkship.
"I think it’s great," he said. "I think it’s a great opportunity for him and the people who appear in his court."