Matthew DiCianni (BA, ’07, history and political science) is a labor and employment attorney at the law firm Cozen O’Connor where he has taken on cases of all sizes, from Fortune 500 companies to small family businesses. Now a U.S. citizenship case has become his proudest achievement.
“My four years at the University of Illinois laid the foundation for the rest of my life,” he said. “I use the skills that I learned in college – critical thinking, time management, effective communication, leadership, and networking skills, among many others – every single day. Had I not attended the University of Illinois, I would not be the person I am today. I am, and always will be, a proud Fighting Illini.”
Describe your proudest achievement.
In October 2022 the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) presented me with an opportunity to prevent a mother and her son from being deported back to El Salvador where they would have likely been murdered by the MS-13 gang, an international criminal gang. Several years before then, the son, who was ten years old at the time, was told by three gang members that he had two choices: either join the gang or die. This was not an empty threat. His neighbor, a boy around his age, had refused to join the gang and was found murdered in his home shortly thereafter. After the gang members threatened the son, they also threatened to murder his mother if he did not join the gang.
Hours after receiving these death threats, the mother and son fled the country with little more than the clothes on their back. They traveled by bus for five days until they reached the Rio Grande, which they then crossed in a makeshift raft. At one point during this crossing, they thought the raft would sink and that that they would drown. Luckily, they were able to make it across, and were picked up by border patrol. They were granted temporary asylum pending a court hearing on their asylum application and moved to Chicago.
When I met them, they had been living in Chicago for several years and had made a life for themselves. The mother was working full time and the son had learned English and was excelling in high school. I was moved by their harrowing story and felt that it was my obligation to help them attain U.S. citizenship so that they would not be forced to return to El Salvador.
Working with the NIJC, I helped the mother and son prepare for their court hearing, where they bravely testified about their experiences. Due to their testimony and my legal arguments, we were able to convince the judge to grant them U.S. citizenship. After the judge made his ruling, the mother broke down in tears and said that she was proud to be a citizen of the United States, which she called the greatest country on earth.
Describe a typical workday. Also, what is an example of the most interesting aspect of your job?
As an attorney at Cozen O’Connor, I usually start my day by attending court, either in person or over Zoom. Court hearings vary from providing the judge with a quick update on the status of the case to engaging in an hour-long hearing on why the judge should or should not dismiss a case.
After court I usually head to the office, where I will answer emails or make phone calls. After that, I spend several hours on whatever projects I happen to be working on. This might include writing a brief, drafting employment agreements, or preparing for an upcoming presentation or court hearing. I typically end my day by organizing my case files and preparing for the next day.
One thing I love about my job is the intellectual challenge. I am constantly encountering new problems which require me to learn new things. This has helped me adapt to the latest technology, sharpen my writing skills, and become a better critical thinker. These skills have aided me in both my professional and personal life.
What was your first job out of college?
I taught English in Seoul, South Korea. I originally planned to go to law school right after college, but my study abroad experience in Granada, Spain changed that. I had never really traveled before then, and doing so taught me how incredibly valuable it is to live abroad. I knew that once I went to law school, I would probably not have another opportunity to live and work in another country until I retired. I liked teaching English abroad so much that I delayed going to law school another year so that I could teach English in Honduras.
In hindsight, what about college best prepared you for your life and career?
When I entered college, I was a somewhat shy, introverted kid. College forced me out of my shell, and I learned how to actually talk to people. This helped immensely in my personal life – I have a great group of friends that I met in college – and in my career – I learned the skills that allow me to present arguments in court, connect with clients, and deal with difficult opposing attorneys.
How did your majors prepare you for your career?
My history and political science classes taught me how to analyze complicated ideas and use them to develop my own unique ideas. Learning how to do this has been incredibly valuable to my career. Every day I have to educate myself on the relevant laws and then apply them in a novel way to a unique situation. My majors taught me how to do this.
My majors also taught me how to write in a direct and cogent manner. I owe this almost entirely to a few professors who taught me how to write clearly and concisely.
What do you like best about your work?
Helping my clients solve their legal problems. There is nothing more satisfying than working with my colleagues at Cozen O’Connor to come up with creative and novel solutions to a problem that appears to be unsolvable. The range of issues that I deal with keeps my job interesting. I have clients of all sizes, from Fortune 500 companies to mom and pop shops, and therefore encounter a wide range of legal issues.
This profile originally appeared in the LAS@Work series, a series of profiles that feature College of LAS Alumni and their careers.
By Kayleigh Rahn