Flexibility, Humility, Connectivity: Three Ingredients for a Successful Career
Thursday, February 7, 2019
Flexibility, Humility, Connectivity: Three Ingredients for a Successful Career
Remarks before the
Penn Law Women’s Association Annual Dinner
February 6, 2019
Sophia, thank you for that wonderful introduction. I also want to thank the Penn Law Women’s Association for honoring me and to the law firms and individuals who make this evening possible. I’m also honored to be joined by my brother Eric Sohn, two of my long-time friends, Ellen Walker, and Kyle Palmer, and my friend Adrianne Furniss, who supports my work in her role as the Executive Director of the Benton Foundation.
When I attended Penn Law from 1983-1986, it was a very different place. Biddle Law Library was located in what is now called Silverman Hall, and man, were those stacks dark and dusty! It was nothing like the open and airy Biddle of today. 1L classes were held in the basement of what is now Gittis Hall, with its sleek, modern classrooms. My classrooms were right out of 1972, with huge fluorescent lights that looked like flying saucers with not a window in sight. 1Ls had just 2 elective choices in their second semester – family law and income security, which was another name for poverty law. Now there are 13! And there were only two choices of clinics: a civil law clinic and a business clinic. Now there are 9 plus externships.
But while the building is bigger (and a lot nicer) and the learning choices have expanded, what has not changed at Penn Law is the outstanding quality of the legal education and the faculty who provide it. Throughout my career, I am constantly reminded of the tools that the law school gave me and what a privilege it is to be part of the community here.
I’ve been asked tonight to reflect on my career and talk about how I’ve been able to succeed in the field of telecommunications, media and technology policy. So, I guess I’m at that point of my career where I’ve accomplished enough to impart wisdom to the next generation of lawyers…. or maybe I’m just really old.
So tonight, I’d like to talk about three qualities that have allowed me to have a successful career: Flexibility, Humility, and Connectivity.
I can’t remember how many times I’ve been asked by somebody a few years out of college whether he or she should attend law school. I may be one of the very few lawyers who always says yes! Why do I encourage them to go to law school? One reason is because it teaches you how to analyze problems and solve them in a way that one doesn’t always learn in college. At least I didn’t. I did very well at Boston University largely because I memorized everything. I learned a lot about history and writing and language and the arts in college, but Law School taught me how to think.
Law school also taught me how the legal system works – which is no small thing in today’s society. I’m constantly amazed at how little my smart non-lawyer friends know about how the law and the courts work and how intimidated they are when they are involved in a legal proceeding of any kind. Even if you aren’t a subject matter expert or a litigator, having a strong sense of how legal processes work, what to expect and who to call makes the whole system a lot less daunting.
But I think one of the best reasons to go to law school is that you can do just about anything with a law degree short of practicing medicine. My career has been a good example of this. I haven’t practiced law since 1999, when I went to the Ford Foundation to start what has now become the largest portfolio funding communications and technology policy advocacy. After that, I co-founded Public Knowledge, a public interest advocacy organization that works at the intersection of communications law and intellectual property policy. At PK I served as a manager, fundraiser, spokesperson and occasional witness at Congressional hearings.
From Public Knowledge, I went to the FCC, where I worked for Chairman Tom Wheeler. While I certainly provided him advice on law and policy, my principal roles were to work with outside stakeholders such as industry, law firms, public interest organizations, and academia and explain the policies we adopted to the press and in speeches to the public. There is similarly little lawyering in my current role at Georgetown Law School – I write, speak, appear on media, build coalitions and provide strategic advice to policymakers, funders, and my public interest colleagues.
I’m certainly not alone among my fellow Penn Law graduates in straying from the practice of law. Here are just a handful of examples from my class of 1986: Safra Catz is the CEO of Oracle. My good friend Jack Krumholtz became Microsoft’s first lobbyist and now represents clients exclusively on Capitol Hill. John O’Keefe is a Dean of Students at Wellesley College and Cheryl Numark, who once owned a prominent art gallery in Washington DC, is a fine art advisor for institutions, corporations and individuals. Mike Smerconish, who graduated a year after we did, is a radio and TV personality. There are JDs on Wall Street, in C-Suites, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley, in Congress and state legislatures, in journalism and in teaching. We are everywhere.
Your possibilities are endless, so it’s important to have flexibility when considering your career choices. In law school, we tend to get caught up in who is going to what law firm or who is getting which clerkship. We’re looking for our ideal job right out of the gate: Can I get a position with the Justice Department’s honors program or in the Public Defender’s office? Will I be a litigator, a commercial, trust, and estates or family lawyer? We dream of becoming a Supreme Court clerk, a law partner, a judge or a district attorney.
But to borrow from last year’s speaker – one’s career and indeed one’s life rarely, if ever, go in the direction we set for it. It’s really hard to get your ideal job right off the bat. I didn’t – I practiced aviation administrative law for 2 years before an opportunity opened up for me to be a communications lawyer at the public interest law firm Media Access Project. But even though I hadn’t practiced communications law right out of law school, the man who hired me, Andy Schwartzman (Penn Law Class of 1971), saw that I had administrative law experience, albeit in a different field, and that was the kind of experience he wanted.
But even there, in my chosen legal field, an opportunity fell into my lap that changed the course of my career. Or maybe I should say it was thrown into my lap. Andy was a wonderful boss and a great mentor, but he really hated raising money, which is not great when you are the Executive Director of a non-profit! One day he mentioned to me that his wife thought that I should write grant proposals for the organization. Well, I thought to myself, I’m a young lawyer and I really want to work as a lawyer, not as a fundraiser, but I also want to get paid. So, I started speaking with foundation officials and writing grant proposals, and soon I became known within the world of large foundations. This led to my eventual hire at the Ford Foundation, which led to the founding and funding of Public Knowledge and then after my stint at the FCC, to the foundation support that I receive today.
Keeping your options open is one ingredient to success. So is humility, for which the legal profession is not usually known.
In the cut-throat world of law and especially in Washington, DC, it seems that nearly everyone wants to make their mark and with all deliberate speed. The problem is that acting like the smartest person in the room, whether you are or not, is so off-putting that it hurts your effectiveness as an advocate.
I remember my first years working for Andy at the Media Access Project. He was extraordinarily generous with the work meetings he took me to. At the tender age of 28 I was meeting with senior Hill and FCC staffers, members of Congress and FCC Commissioners. But rather than show them how much I knew (which to be honest wasn’t much), I said almost nothing in those meetings for two years.
Instead, I listened. And I learned. When I listened, I heard the concerns staffers and policymakers had, which sometimes weren’t addressed by our prepared talking points. I learned that policymakers and their staffs want to be asked what they think about an issue and they don’t simply want to be passive vessels for what you think. By listening to what staffers said and asking them about their concerns and questions, I became a more effective and respected advocate because I was able to better shape my advocacy to the staffers' needs.
The idea that one should listen to and really hear a colleague, a client, a judge or a policymaker is so obvious, right? But I can tell you that in my 3 years as a senior staffer to the FCC Chairman, many of the stakeholders who met with my colleagues and me spent the vast majority of our 30-minute meetings focused on making sure they got through their talking points and little else. I rarely got questions like “What would you like to know?” or “what most concerns you?” Those advocates who did take time to ask those questions were more likely to get a fuller picture of what holes they needed to fill to get what they wanted from my boss.
The other thing I learned as a young lawyer was to show respect to everyone, from the FCC security guard to the file clerk to the Commissioner’s confidential assistant to the staff who cleans your office every day. You may be a high-powered lawyer with a JD from an Ivy League Law School, but you aren’t going to get that important meeting with that Commissioner if you are rude to her assistant.
I remember early in my career going to the FCC’s second-floor library to get files on certain broadcasters for my research. The room was crowded with paralegals and young lawyers like me. It was hot and dark – no windows anywhere. You filled out a piece of paper and handed it to the clerk, who handed it to someone else who went back into the stacks and got the documents. Remember, this was before the Internet became a thing. If you were disrespectful to the clerk and trust me, some folks were, you could wait for an hour or more for that file.
Again, this seems like common sense – don’t be a jerk – to anyone! But over the course of my career, I’ve seen this honored in the breach, and it can have far more severe consequences than just waiting an extra 30 minutes for a file. Here’s a recent story from my neck of the woods. Last summer, the Tribune Media Company sued Sinclair Broadcasting after the proposed merger of the two companies fell apart. Now, this was a deal that everyone thought was certain to be approved. According to Tribune’s complaint, Sinclair’s General Counsel was displeased with the Department of Justice’s insistence on divestitures of some broadcast stations, so he insulted the career staff and the Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust, accusing them of “misunderstand[ing] the industry” and calling the AAG “more regulatory than anyone before you, under any other president for 21 years.” When talks broke down, Sinclair’s General Counsel told the AAG: “sue me.” Soon afterward, the FCC (doubtless at the urging of the Justice Department), killed the deal for all intents and purposes. While ultimately the deal collapsed because some of the proposed divestitures were shams, the lack of respect for DoJ staff and the AAG certainly did not help.
The third and final ingredient for success is what I call connectivity. Usually, when I talk about connectivity, I’m referring to broadband access or net neutrality or the lousy Wi-Fi on the Amtrak train I rode from DC. Tonight, however, I’m talking about the connections we create with just about anyone, be it classmates, work colleagues, clients, friends, family, neighbors, mentors, and mentees. These connections don’t just happen. They are the byproduct of many years of hard work and also lots of play. Those connections, that community, will bring you success as a lawyer, but more importantly, they will bring you success as a person.
I’m not just talking about networking, although networking is extremely important, especially for women. Being a member of the Penn Law Women’s Association and attending events like these are great. So are memberships in voluntary bars and on committees in mandatory bars and the ABA. I don’t know what it’s like in Philadelphia, but in Washington DC you can probably attend 2 to 3 networking events each week. And in my 20’s and 30’s, I often did, thanks again to Andy Schwartzman who brought me to every work-related panel, party and cocktail hour he attended and introduced me to everyone, no matter how senior or how important. And I remain connected to many of those folks some 30 years later.
But all work and no play make Jane a very dull girl. Make time to relax, have fun and actually get to know people – even during the workday. Go to lunch or dinner with colleagues and friends. Learn more about them, their families, where they grew up and what they like to do when they aren’t working. Hang out with Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. Do something with your spare time that has nothing to do with work - be it a book club, a sports league, a knitting circle, attending a house of worship or volunteering for a good cause.
As a young lawyer, my primary non-work activities were as a member and then President of GAYLAW (now called the LGBT Bar Association of DC) and as a member and then President of the Washington, DC Furies Women’s Rugby Football Club. Very different activities, to be sure, but equally critical to my professional and personal growth.
I joined GAYLAW not long after coming out, and it became a formative experience for me - my first, though certainly not last, foray into LGBT activism. During that time, I was named by the then President of the DC Bar to be a member of the Bar’s Committee on Sexual Orientation and the Law. The Committee put together a survey and wrote a report that detailed discrimination against gay and lesbian lawyers in the legal profession. It was a game-changing document, leading just a few years later to a marked increase in openly gay and lesbian partners and associates in law firms. On that committee, I met men and women who were legends of the DC Bar and whose support became critical when I ran for and won a seat on the DC Bar Board of Governors – the first openly gay or lesbian lawyer to do so.
Playing rugby for the DC Furies satisfied other needs for me, like my need to be around people other than lawyers and…hit them. But seriously, the sport was a wonderful way to meet interesting people, to not think about work, to get in shape and to blow off steam. Which made me more relaxed and more focused when I was at work.
Both of these activities taught me the value of teamwork, of listening and respecting alternative points of view and being open and inclusive. These are values that I’ve tried to carry with me running an organization, being part of a large and diverse group of extremely smart people at the FCC. and in my current work wrangling public interest, industry and state officials, to work together to promote broadband competition and preserve an open Internet.
These days you won’t find me at multiple weekly networking events, doing much in the way of bar activities or playing rugby (I practice Krav Maga – Israeli self-defense. So, I still have a need to hit people). But I still work hard to maintain the connections I worked to build over 30 years. Lunches, dinners and house parties are still staples of mine. I love to connect people who don’t really know each other but have something in common – a hometown, a hobby, a school or a friend. I’ve made myself available as a mentor, a resource, a validator, a reference, and an unofficial job coach – sometimes it feels like career and job advice is my second job! But few things give me more joy than helping friends and colleagues figure out the next step in their careers or get jobs that they covet.
When you plant seeds for decades, you’ll land up with a beautiful, lush garden. Among others, my garden has in it Members of Congress, Chiefs of Staff and legislative directors; high ranking officials and key staffers of executive and administrative agencies; States Attorneys General, state legislators and senior staffers to mayors and governors; undergraduate and law professors and deans; corporate counsel, entrepreneurs, CEOs, partners at major law firms and subject matter experts of all kinds. I probably won’t ask most of them for anything. But because of the connections I’ve made, I know that I can.
It’s never too early or too late to start tending your garden. When you get home tonight, take a moment to think – did I meet anyone who I’d like to get to know better, to have a deeper connection with? If the answer is yes, then make it happen.
Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to share some insights and for honoring me tonight. I especially want to wish the students all the best in your future endeavors; if even one bit of my advice tonight helps you along the way, it will make this honor that much sweeter. Good night.
Gigi B. Sohn is a Distinguished Fellow, Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate. She is one of the nation’s leading public advocates for open, affordable and democratic communications networks. For nearly thirty years, she has worked across the country to defend and preserve the fundamental competition and innovation policies that have made broadband Internet access more ubiquitous, competitive, affordable, open and protective of user privacy.
Benton, a non-profit, operating foundation, believes that communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities to bridge our divides. Our goal is to bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all people in the U.S. to ensure a thriving democracy.
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