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The rewarding work of public service

Julie Riggott • June 17, 2024
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David Michaelson (JD 1988) had spent 17 years working for the people of Los Angeles as chief assistant city attorney when an unexpected opportunity arose.

“A number of people on Karen Bass’ transition team knew me from my work in the City Attorney’s Office,” Michaelson says. “They asked if I’d consider joining her team as her counsel.”

Bass, also a Trojan, had won the 2022 Los Angeles mayoral election, after serving in the U.S. House of Representatives since 2011.

At first, Michaelson was not convinced it was a move he wanted to make. He loved his job in the City Attorney’s Office and was looking forward to working with the incoming city attorney, Hydee Feldstein Soto.

But after his meeting with Bass, he knew he couldn’t say no.

“She was laser-focused on addressing some of our most difficult challenges, most notably homelessness,” he says. “She too was leaving a job she loved, representing L.A. in Congress. But she was drawn to serving as our mayor because she recognized our city was at a critical moment in our history.”

“I told her I shared her sense of urgency and commitment. I knew the opportunity to serve her and our city as counsel to the mayor would be the pinnacle of my long career in local government.”

A collaborative approach

As Mayor Bass’ counsel, Michaelson helps the mayor and her team identify goals and priorities, working collaboratively with their partners in the city council and at other levels of government, most often the county.

“Tackling the crisis of a lack of affordable housing and staggering levels of homelessness remains a top priority,” he says, “and I spend a considerable amount of time working on the complicated legal and related policy issues that make those intertwined issues so challenging.”

On Day One as mayor, Michaelson says, Bass declared a first-of-its-kind homelessness emergency and issued her first executive directive to accelerate affordable housing projects. Within days, she launched Inside Safe, which has helped more than 2,500 unsheltered Angelenos by leading with interim housing and social services instead of law enforcement.

“These innovative programs require substantial legal support, which I’ve been proud to provide,” Michaelson says.

“Being proactive in dealing with the numerous and at times complex issues we face is key. It’s a client-oriented approach. It’s similar to my management style when I ran the Municipal Law Branch of the City Attorney’s Office, where I was responsible for leading over 100 attorneys spread among a dozen legal divisions. Many of those lawyers were USC Gould graduates, and it was nice having that underlying Trojan bond.”

He also maintains an open-door policy and encourages the many members of the Mayor’s Office to reach out and seek his assistance, even on issues that are not strictly legal.

“I always take my job seriously but never take myself seriously,” he says. “It allows people who come to me for guidance to feel relaxed and comfortable saying what’s on their mind.”

A path to public service

If he had to distill the essence of what it takes to be successful in public service, Michaelson says, it would be this: Be available, be a problem solver, and be a good communicator.

He got a solid foundation in those skills at USC Gould.

“The people I met while at USC Gould were vital in helping me develop as a critical thinker and effective collaborator,” he says. “My professors and classmates challenged me intellectually and taught me how to be a better listener and a sought-after problem solver.”

Michaelson grew up in the Midwest, and coming to USC Gould, he says, exposed him to a diversity of people and ideas he had never experienced before.

“My first-year discussions with Professors Judith Resnick and Erwin Chemerinsky were inspirational,” he says. “My many friendships with classmates have been a constant and important part of my career and my life generally, and I’m incredibly thankful for all that USC Gould offered me.”

Moot court, he recalls, was a transformative experience. In partnership with classmate Warren Wellen, their written brief and oral argument got them to the semifinals, which opened up the opportunity in their third year to compete in a national moot court competition on the East Coast.

Michaelson was a summer associate at Musick, Peeler and Garrett during his 2L summer, then joined the firm after graduation, where as a litigator he primarily represented companies with labor and environmental law compliance issues.

He was ready to accept an in-house counsel job at Texaco, a client at his second firm Baker Hostetler, when then-USC Gould Associate Dean Rob Saltzman recommended he consider an alternative path, encouraging him to meet with L.A. County Supervisor Ed Edelman. Michaelson ended up turning down the much-higher paying corporate law job for a position on Edelman’s policy staff.

He has remained on that path ever since. Over the past 30 years, he has served L.A. county and city in multiple capacities: a decade as a principal county counsel for public works and transportation law and two decades as chief assistant city attorney managing the Municipal Law Branch of the City Attorney’s Office.

Along the way, he has held a few non-traditional legal positions: deputy to Supervisor Edelman, assistant deputy mayor to former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan and now counsel to Mayor Bass. Michaelson also served on two city commissions: the Environmental Affairs Commission and the Board of Recreation and Parks Commissioners.

“The legal issues have been wide ranging and incredibly interesting and meaningful,” Michaelson says, listing Constitutional law, especially First Amendment; public safety; ethics and governance; health; pension; transit; eminent domain; housing and homelessness; procurement; employment and more.

For USC Gould students and graduates considering public service, Michaelson has a few suggestions. “The L.A. City Attorney’s Office has a robust summer intern program and also participates in fellowship opportunities. The Office also posts job openings for deputy city attorney jobs, so law school alumni considering public service should keep an eye on the City Attorney website.”

Solving problems, big and small

For Michaelson, the highlights of his work over the years are numerous.

“My public service career has always focused on solving problems, big and small, and I have had the satisfaction of doing it while managing wonderful public sector lawyers and engaging with interesting and passionate elected officials and their staff,” he says.

For instance, he recalls working with Edelman in his last few months as L.A. county supervisor to save hundreds of acres of pristine habitat in the wooded hills above Malibu from being bulldozed and developed into luxury housing and a private country club and golf course. Today, Summit Valley Edmund D. Edelman Park includes a network of trails and wilderness across 650 acres just outside the city.

Working for Mayor Riordan, Michaelson helped resolve one of the region’s most challenging transit strikes and lay the groundwork for expansion of the region’s growing rail system. At the county, he was co-general counsel for the Southern California Regional Rail Authority (Metrolink) and the trial lawyer for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) defending lawsuits that secured the property for the Universal City Subway Station.

Michaelson says his accomplishments at the City Attorney’s Office have been particularly rewarding. He tackled the proliferation of illegal super-graphic signs on office towers two decades ago; played a role in the overturning of Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment intended to ban same-sex marriage; and battled the Federal Aviation Administration over environmental impacts to communities under new flight paths. Then the pandemic hit.

“2020 put all my experience to the test, when I took a leading role as chief of the Municipal Law Branch, working every day with Mayor Garcetti’s team and the City Council to urgently address the many challenges caused by the pandemic,” he says. “In the first few months, it was a 24/7 job. I often was at the Council table late at night advising the Council who were convening remotely and whose faces were on large TV monitors above where the Council members would normally sit in City Hall. It was a surreal time.”

Together, they crafted dozens of public safety laws in record time, including requiring masking in public, quarantining the public, temporarily shuttering many businesses and providing first-of-their-kind protections for workers and tenants who were heavily impacted by the pandemic.

“Between these urgently enacted laws and critical public safety executive orders released by Mayor Garcetti,” Michaelson says, “L.A. was at the forefront nationally in addressing the pandemic.”

Hooked on law and L.A.

As a young adult, Michaelson left southern Ohio after graduating from the University of Cincinnati with a Bachelor of Science in biology. His father wanted him to go to medical school, but a college dean convinced him in his junior year to take a class called Philosophy of the Law.

“I was hooked and decided to take the LSAT instead of the MCAT,” he says. “A year later I landed at LAX with only a suitcase and soon found myself at the first-week orientation at USC Gould law school. I quickly fell in love with L.A.”

His wife, a corporate partner at Sheppard Mullin, is also an L.A. transplant, who was raised in New Jersey. “We met at a Dodgers game!” he says. “We raised two amazing children, a daughter who recently graduated Barnard College and is starting a job in sustainable finance in New York City and a son who is graduating from high school and this fall attending Grinnell College in Iowa. Not sure I’m ready to be an empty nester!”

As his own children celebrate these educational achievements, Michaelson notes his own milestones as he marks 36 years out of law school and a year and a half into a new leadership role. And there’s one thing that runs through them all: USC Gould.

“The Trojan Network was instrumental in my career,” he says. “It was key in my first job at Musick, Peeler and Garrett and, most importantly, guiding me to my true career path in public service thanks to Associate Dean Saltzman keeping tabs on me after I graduated. Throughout my career, the law school has been a constant presence; the most important being the incredible classmates who have remained my closest and dearest friends all these years later.”

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