Helping low-income residents on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation file annual tax returns may seem incongruous with assisting the Office of the U.S. Solicitor General on matters before the Supreme Court, but for David Sahli ’10 B.A., ’14 J.D., that practical experience, acquired from the University of South Dakota School of Law, has made all the difference.
The attorney with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development knew from a young age that he’d pursue a legal career. During the course of pacing the halls of high school debate tournaments and volunteering on local political campaigns, Sahli received a bachelor’s degree from USD, double majoring in political science and American Indian studies.
When it came time for the Aberdeen, South Dakota, native to decide where to attend law school, Sahli said the choice was an easy one. “I knew there were enough opportunities at USD that if I took advantage of them, I could achieve what I wanted to,” Sahli said.
This is the passion that would propel his law school career.
“I was the president of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistant Clinic, president of the Native American Law Student Association, secretary of the Student Bar Association, and on the moot court board and trial team. I was also a teaching assistant my entire time in law school,” Sahli said.
He said it was this experiential foundation, especially his exposure to American Indian communities, which contributed to his professional success.
“Having the opportunity to serve in all those capacities helped me distinguish myself,” Sahli explained. “Notably, the time I spent in law school working with tribal leadership – doing election poll monitoring, the Voluntary Income Tax Assistance clinics – coupled with my previous background working with American Indian communities provided me with practical experience and a unique perspective of how their cultures drive their communities.”
After law school, Sahli was selected for both the Presidential Management Fellow program and the Legal Honors program for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“But when you are trying to implement a federal program at a national level, you have to know what's going on within the communities and what policies will affect those communities.”
“I wanted to do more law than policy, so I took the legal honors position. One of the main reasons I was chosen was because of my experience in Indian law,” he said.
Sahli believes that was his edge as he began seeking federal government jobs. Of his class in the legal honors program, he was one of only a few not from an Ivy League or top 15-ranked law school selected for a position.
“A lot of people look at legal issues as just black and white, very pragmatic,” Sahli said. “But when you are trying to implement a federal program at a national level, you have to know what’s going on within the communities and what policies will affect those communities. That knowledge and experience put me on a different plane than a lot of other applicants.”
Sahli, who has worked at HUD since 2014, was selected for an extended detail as special assistant to the general counsel.
Sahli credits advice he received from Professor Emeritus Barry Vickrey for helping his advancement.
“He told me, ‘Everything in law can be analogized to baseball, at least litigation,’” Sahli said, retelling Vickrey’s parable. “‘Don’t swing for the fences on every project or you will burn yourself out and likely deliver a product that your client or the judge did not ask for. Find the value in the singles and when the big opportunities come, you’ll be in the position to hit a homerun.’ I took that advice to heart.”
In his current position, Sahli handles issues ranging from oversight and investigation to national litigation issues. He was recently recognized for his role in the precedential, Lummi Tribe of the Lummi Reservation et al. v. U.S., case decided before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
He’s also been able to represent HUD in preparing the U.S. Solicitor General. “When the solicitor general decides whether to take a case to the Supreme Court, they perform a survey to see how their position would affect the executive agencies,” Sahli explained. “We go into the solicitor general moot courts and provide critiques and feedback. It’s been a wonderful opportunity to see how the varying aspects of the judicial system work at the very highest level of our nation.”
And it all started with a dream realized, in part, by his experience at the USD School of Law.
“The P.R. answer is to choose USD because of the student-to-faculty ratio,” he said. “But it’s not that you have an opportunity to just meet with a professor. It’s that the faculty and staff want to invest in you. That’s important.”