He may look young, but Sean Rhiney, Service Coordinator and Counselor for the College of Law's Center for Professional Development, has over 12 years of legal experience in his pocket, which he regularly draws upon to advise law students.
After being drawn to Cincinnati from Louisville, Kentucky to pursue his undergraduate degree in business at nearby Xavier University, Rhiney quickly realized that his path to the legal field would need to take a different direction. “I was in business school and Accounting II knocked me down to my knees,” he said. With a continued desire to attend law school, Rhiney asked a professor for advice about what to study to prepare him for his legal education. The answer? Philosophy.
“The professor told me that I should try to get more practice writing,” explained Rhiney. Where every class required a final paper or an essay exam, he was well equipped to enter Northern Kentucky University’s Salmon P. Chase College of Law as a “much better writer.”
As is the case with many who read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch’s passion inspired Rhiney to want to become a litigator. “I couldn’t wait to take Trial Practice, which I too in my third year. I knew from day one that I wanted to litigate and Trial Practice was the most functional class I ever took to that end,” he said.
Honing His Interests
Rhiney’s first job following graduation in 1995 was working for a small firm before passing the bar. The firm needed help for a month and ended up offering him a position to stay on as an associate. Starting off work in civil litigation and product liability, Rhiney developed an interest and expertise in product liability and intentional torts. “Ohio was going through statutory and Supreme Court changes at the time so it was cool to be part of it,” he said.
Even “cooler” was Rhiney’s work with amusement park litigation. Representing plaintiffs against parks such as The Beach Water Park and Surf Cincinnati, Rhiney had to overcome his fear of heights and ride every ride in the parks. “Luckily they were mostly water parks,” he joked. “You want to get a sense of what it’s like if you’re dealing with a case like that,” he explained. “You need to understand the law, how it affects people, the regulatory aspects, and how government plays a part [in amusement park operation]. You do something new almost every week so it makes it exciting as a young lawyer,” he continued.
It wasn’t all fun and amusement park rides, though. He also worked in the area of bad faith litigation against insurance companies, an area where he continued to enjoy fighting for individuals. Rhiney augmented his experience with corporate work in trade secrets and artist copyrights. . “My favorite case was representing an artist who was involved with an IP issue against Bath and Body Works.” His IP and trade secrets work had several perks. “I ended up traveling all over the country for the intellectual property cases because the experts were everywhere. One trade secrets case took me to London, Scotland, and Evansville, Indiana… all the big hot spots,” he added.
After six years of litigation, he decided to change his focus and accepted a position with Special Counsel, a legal recruiting firm, to direct attorney placement. About a year into the job Dean Mina Jefferson, Director of the Center for Professional Development (CPD), invited him to speak to 1Ls about resume writing. Six months later CPD expanded and he became a part of the team, focusing on public interest opportunities.
Moving from his position with Special Counsel to UC Law was a natural one. “It seemed like a strong move for me to make into something I really enjoyed,” he said. “I wanted to be more involved in the community and working at a university seemed like a great way to do that,” he added. Rhiney has been in his current position for five years and has watched the office and his position grow during this time.
“Dean Jefferson took over her position and changed the format into an office with three former practicing lawyers. That’s the norm for most, if not all, of the top 25 law schools,” Rhiney stated. “We’re very proud that we have that kind of experience here in the office. It has gone from the role of a ‘career office’ to a ‘professional development office’ and we have worked hard to bring in aspects not only of making students attractive to potential job opportunities, but also how we can make students better lawyers along the way.”
Helping Students Grow
Rhiney enjoys the opportunity he has to watch students become engaged in the legal community. As part of his work at the law school, he oversees the Legal Externship class where students are placed in legal practicum for a term and meet to discuss their experiences. “I love working with the class because it’s a chance to work with new lawyers, and there is a lot of diversity. The conviction that students come in with is different every year. Some students come in and have such a passion. That never ceases to impress me,” he said.
In addition to his responsibilities in the Center for Professional Development and with the Legal Externship program, Rhiney administers, with the help of Professor Kathy Lasher, the Street Law Program, a national program where groups of two law students teach high school classes about basic principles of law.
A Passion for Home and Hearth
As much time as Rhiney spends thinking about the law, he has other passions. “There are two things that rule my world right now,” he said. Philanthropy and his home. Currently, he sits on the board of trustees for the Over the Rhine Foundation and is responsible for the music at Second Sunday on Main, an Over the Rhine Chamber event. Additionally, he serves on the Mayor’s cabinet as chair of the Arts and Cultures Committee. Rhiney lives in a 130 year old house near Over the Rhine, purchased three years ago. He is renovating it himself and it is two-thirds complete. “I had a one-year plan and learned that when you do most of the work yourself it doesn’t happen that quickly,” he laughed. Other than evicting the squirrels and birds living in the home when he purchased it, Rhiney’s most challenging project was refurbishing the original damaged flooring with planks located elsewhere in the house. He noted that it was the exact math that gave him such a hard time. “Math is not my strong suit, which is why I became a lawyer” he joked. All toll, the project took about a month.
When he’s not sitting on a board or refinishing hardwood floors, Rhiney finds time for his other passion: music. At the height of his work in litigation, he would end his work day at 10:00 p.m. and would go home to record new songs until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. “Music is a passion of mine, it’s an outlet,” he said. “I would wake up feeling recharged and refreshed,” he explained.
Although he doesn’t perform or play as often as he used to, his passion for music has facilitated even more varied legal experience. Rhiney, who is a founder of the Midpoint Music Festival, one of the country’s largest independent music festivals, now in its seventh year, used his legal knowledge to set the foundation for the festival. “When we started, we had to understand corporate formation and liability and IP issues,” he said. “Being a lawyer and being an artist gave me credibility and allowd me to speak in front of artists from across the nation with a level of trustworthiness. I think it facilitated some of the success of our recruitment efforts,” he added. Additionally, he learned the “ins and outs” of copyright law while copyrighting his own music and doing pro bono work for other artists.
Not only did music influence his legal career, Rhiney’s legal career influenced his music. . His legal interest prompted him to name one of his early bands “The Restatements,.” (UC Law alumni will remember that as the name of the law school’s former student newspaper.) Having since expanded his repertoire, his band “Clabbergirl,” named after a brand of baking soda he saw on a sign at the Old Barley corns on Madison Road, was named band of the year by WOXY radio in 2001 and won a Cammy award for Album of the year in 2002.
Most would be interested to know that Rhiney didn’t play in the marching band in high school. Instead, he played on the football team which captured the high school state championship during his tenure. His love of sports is obvious upon entering his office, however, which is covered in Xavier basketball memorabilia next to UC plaques and letterhead. “I wasn’t a huge fan while I was in school,” he explained. Now Rhiney has season tickets and sits just a few rows behind the bench.