Rock climbing and ERISA, an odd couple on the surface, share one quality: both are difficult to master. And that quality is exactly what attracts the passion of Matt Wessler of Public Justice.
An avid rock climber, Wessler tries to pursue that avocation two or three times a week at a gym and once a month outside with friends.
“Being outside and getting up is a great way to add some dimension to what could otherwise be a rigid schedule,” the father of two young children said. “It has been an experience trying to balance and juggle doing these Supreme Court cases and at the same time being home. My wife works full time, so each day is an adventure. I don’t know what people did before shared Google calendar.”
Wessler made his second high court argument on October 15 in Heimeshoff v. Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co. His client, Julie Heimeshoff, asks the justices when the time limits begin to run for a challenge to the denial of a claim for disability benefits under ERISA, the Employee Retirement and Income Security Act. Wessler’s first argument was last term in U.S. Airways v. McCutchen, another ERISA case with tort and equity issues.
A graduate of Cornell University School of Law, Wessler is a New Englander who, after graduation, reversed the traditional clerkship path. He migrated south to a clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and after completing that job, took a district court clerkship in Providence, R.I.
“Part of the motivation was to learn how to be a trial lawyer,” he said explaining the flipped clerkships. “They were very different experiences. I wanted to understand how you litigate cases at both levels.”
He headed south again after the district court job to Washington and the law firm Williams & Connolly. “I couldn’t imagine a better place to learn to be a litigator,” he said. “It’s just a wonderful family and a great place to cut your teeth. I’ve always wanted to litigate, so going to a place like Williams & Connolly is a good step in that direction, because that’s all the lawyers there do for the most part.”
The litigation process is what he enjoys most, he said. “I’m not the most creative person to ever walk the earth. I like some of the rule-based movement that litigation creates. I find that fits well with the way I think about stories and process. But really what I enjoy most about it is the strategic thinking and writing process. What pushed me into appellate work is I enjoyed sitting down to write briefs more than the hustle and bustle of discovery phase of a case.”
Wessler also loves the give and take of oral argument. “I find that performance side of my work both intellectually engaging but also there’s a pressure there that I sort of enjoy. I like getting to resolution in a case. I enjoy working on a project for an intense period and then coming to an end and getting some resolution. All of that for me was the underpinning of my decision to go to the firm.”
It also was preparation for his ultimate goal and inspiration for becoming a lawyer: to do public-interest law. “There aren’t that many public-interest law firms that have a national platform and which consider themselves general litigators, which is what I consider myself—not focused on one particular issue. I was looking for a place that kind of had the same mold as Williams & Connolly—open to doing lots of different kinds of cases, but all focused on significant issues in the public interest.”
About four years ago, Wessler found his niche at Public Justice. His practice includes a broad range of areas, including environment, tort, employee and consumer rights.
“I’ve developed this ERISA practice,” he said. “Had you asked me five years ago what ERISA was, I may not have been able to give an answer. It has become clear to me how important this particular law is for both companies and employees and their families. It basically provides health and disability insurance for half the country. It’s also really complicated and complex. It’s a hard law for everybody to understand, also for courts, and a lot of confusion about what it requires. There are a lot of issues that have percolated up.”
Besides the variety of work and the ability to help people in a direct way, another advantage to Public Justice, he said, is that he is able to take the lead on cases at a younger stage in his career than if he had stayed in a law firm.
“I have a ton of latitude to pick and choose which cases to get involved in. I wouldn’t want to give that up.”
Contact Marcia Coyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.