VERMILLION, S.D. – Helping low-income residents on Crow Creek Indian Reservation file their annual tax returns may seem like a long way from assisting in the counsel of the Office of U.S. Solicitor General on matters before the Supreme Court, but for David Sahli B.A. ‘10, J.D. ‘14, the practical experience he received at the University of South Dakota School of Law has made all the difference as an attorney with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Originally from Aberdeen, South Dakota, Sahli knew from a young age he wanted to pursue a legal career. Whether pacing the halls of high school debate tournaments or volunteering on local campaigns, he eventually pursued and received a bachelor’s degree from USD, double majoring in Political Science and American Indian Studies.
When it came time to decide where to attend law school, Sahli said it 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 achieve,” Sahli said.
This passion propelled his academic career in law school.
“I was the president of the Volunteer Income Tax Assistant Clinic, president of Native American Law Student Association, Secretary of the Student Bar Association, 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 that contributed to his future professional success, especially his exposure to American Indian communities.
“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, etc. – 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 prestigious Presidential Management Fellowship program and the Legal Honors program for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
“I wanted to do more law than policy, so I took the legal honors position. One of the main reasons they chose me was my experience in Indian law,” he said.
Sahli believes that was his edge when he began seeking jobs with the federal government. Of his class in the legal honors program, he’s one of the few persons not from an Ivy League law school selected for a position.
“A lot of people look at legal issues as just black and white, very pragmatic, what is the law, what does it say,” Sahli said. “But of course, 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 the communities in certain ways and that knowledge, that experience, put me on a different plane than a lot of other applicants.”
But more than just helping him get a foot in the door, Sahli credited advice he received at USD from Emeritus Professor Barry Vickery for helping him advance professionally.
“Everything in law can be analogized to baseball, at least litigation,” Sahli said, retelling Vickery’s parable. “Don’t swing for the fences on every project, 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.”
Sahli, who has worked at HUD since 2014, was selected for an extended detail as Special Assistant to the General Counsel.
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 decision, Lummi Tribe of the Lummi Reservation et al. v. U.S.—a case decided before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.
He’s also had the opportunity to be a representative on behalf of HUD to prepare 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 said. “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.”