At 30, attorney Matthew Sanderson has already racked up an impressive list of professional accolades: he’s been counsel in a presidential campaign and co-founded PlayoffPAC, which is challenging the way college football selects its champions. As part of the latter effort, he helped uncover allegedly lavish spending and inappropriate campaign contributions that led to the Fiesta Bowl coughing up $1 million in sanctions.
Last spring, just three years out of Vanderbilt University Law School, he represented Stephen Colbert in the comedian’s quest to get Federal Election Commission approval for a “super PAC” or political action committee — a spoof on the campaign contribution process that raised provocative questions about the role of media corporations in campaign financing.
Sanderson, an associate at Caplin & Drysdale, shares how he made it at a time many young lawyers are struggling to land work in a dismal market for legal jobs. Here’s an edited transcript of his conversation with Capital Business.
Capital Business: 2008, the year you joined the McCain-Palin campaign, was the same year you graduated law school. How did you land that job?
Matthew Sanderson: Trevor Potter, a partner here [at Caplin & Drysdale], was McCain’s general counsel. I did an internship through the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit Trevor runs, so I’d worked with him on a couple different occasions. I started doing McCain-related work for his leadership PAC in 2006 when I was a summer associate, and I kept doing it through law school. The last semester of law school, I decided to do a semester-long externship through the McCain campaign. I started full-time December 2007.
CB: What role did you play in the campaign?
MS: I was one of the original four lawyers on the campaign that grew to about 16. I basically handled all campaign finance issues. Campaigns are fun because they’re a startup on steroids. When I got there, it was basically just a few paid staffers and blood relatives. My first all-staff meeting was around a small conference table. Then McCain caught fire, did well in primary states, and a couple months later, we couldn’t fit in the conference room. All the legal headaches and concerns that come with a regular business — like employment contracts, liability issues ... add onto that the extra layer of campaign finance rules, it makes for a really exciting time as a lawyer.
CB: How much were you getting paid as an employee of the campaign?
MS: $4,000 a month.
CB: What would you say to young lawyers looking to break into campaign finance law?
MS: It’s a small niche, there are really only a handful of firms that do this full-time. Presidential campaigns are a good way to get involved. Getting in early is important. Campaigns are so short-staffed. If you’re willing to not get paid or get paid a small amount to keep gas in your car, you have a great professional opportunity. A year’s worth of work will cross your desk in a couple months. It’s an all-hands-on-deck, 90- to 100-hour-week affair.
CB:Tell us how you ended up on Colbert’s legal team for his super PAC.
MS: Someone referred Colbert to Trevor [Potter] to come on the show to talk about Citizens United [the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that loosened restrictions on corporations, unions and wealthy individuals contributing to political campaigns]. It blossomed into full-blown legal representation. Colbert asked Trevor to represent him. I was fortunate enough to be involved. I was always a big fan of Colbert, it’s been a lot of fun to work on the project.
CB: What is it like working with Colbert?
MS: He’s incredibly polite and smart. He has a tremendous amount of respect for the process, as far as wanting to really understand the nuts and bolts of what was going to happen. People were expecting him to be off the wall [at the FEC hearing], but he went in and we had a great hearing.