Reflections on a Diverse Career in Communications Law and Policy

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Monday, September 25, 2023

Digital Beat

Reflections on a Diverse Career in Communications Law and Policy

Remarks as prepared for delivery at TPRC 2023

Thank you, Scott, for that wonderful introduction. I also want to thank Amit Schejter and Laura Verinder for asking me to speak this evening.

Gigi Sohn

It’s great to be back at TPRC!  I’ve really missed it these past two years. As a moderator and speaker, a former Board member, and a funder when I was at the Ford Foundation, I am just so proud of how this 51-year-old conference has grown and how it continues to serve such an important role in telecommunications, media, and technology policy. Congratulations to everyone who has contributed to TPRC’s success!

I’ve been asked to speak tonight about my career as a public interest communications lawyer and advocate, a grantmaker, and a public servant. When someone asks you to reflect on your career and perhaps offer some wisdom, it can only mean one thing – you’re old!

Seriously, though, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have had exciting and diverse experiences in civil society, philanthropy, government, and yes, even in the private sector.  But like cooking a great meal, building a successful career requires a mix of a lot of different ingredients. Mine include passion, willingness to listen, humility, flexibility, patience, great mentors, mentees, work colleagues, family and friends, and just plain luck.

My story starts with a lot of luck and a lot of great mentorship. Many people don’t know that I started my career in private practice—mostly representing airlines at a small law firm. I actually liked the work, but the firm, not so much. And I wanted to practice in the area that brought me to law school—communications law (which again, to date myself, was at the time almost entirely telephony, broadcasting, and cable). So, after two years at the firm, I was encouraged to look elsewhere. In those days, if you wanted a government or public interest job, you subscribed to a paper newsletter. I believe it was called The Federal Government and Law Reporter. And it cost $90 for 3 months.

I found a listing for a public interest communications law firm called the Media Access Project and I applied. Combining my public interest orientation with the practice of communications law—a match made in heaven!  But I didn’t hear anything for quite some time, so I just assumed that I wasn’t going to get an interview. But I did get a bunch of other interviews, including with the Washington Metro system for a trial lawyer position. I had a fine conversation with a Metro lawyer named Linda Lazarus who told me I was smart….and completely wrong for the job. What did I want to do, she asked?  I told her. And she said—did you apply to the Media Access Project? I said, "Yes, I applied months ago!" And she responded, "My husband is Andy Schwartzman, the Executive Director."  He had lost my resume under a pile of papers, and, if any of you know Andy, you would not be shocked.

Andy was the kind of mentor I wish every young person could have. He not only taught me how to be an appellate litigator and a persuasive advocate, but he also gave me opportunities that most young lawyers can only dream about—putting my name first on Federal Communications Commission and court filings, letting me argue in front of the DC Circuit, meeting with FCC Commissioners and Members of Congress. Perhaps my most memorable Hill meeting in those early days was my first—with Rep. John Dingell…man, was he a big dude. And he had animal heads hanging all over his office walls. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I’ll always remember those animal heads!

Andy introduced me to a veritable Hall of Fame of Communications Lawyers and Advocates, many of whom are still my friends today. From my very first days at MAP, Andy took me to every Federal Communications Bar and FCC event possible, where I met legends like Dick Wiley, Henry Geller, Donna Lampert, Bill Kennard, and the Reverend Everett Parker.

As great a lawyer and mentor as Andy was and is, he really hated raising money. So after I’d been at MAP about 4 or 5 years, he came in one day and said “Linda (his wife) and I were talking, and we think you should raise money.” I was just a young lawyer and still learning, but I also wanted to get paid! So, I started writing grant proposals. This introduced me to the world of foundations and other donors, and, more importantly, it introduced them to me. Learning how to raise money and how to talk to foundation officials and other donors was a skill that I have used throughout my career, and I always encourage young policy advocates and academics to learn to do the same. That’s because we are always selling—our organizations, our universities, our policies, our research, and ourselves.

I had been at MAP for 11 years when the Ford Foundation asked me to move to New York to start a grant program funding communications policy advocacy and to convince the foundation’s higher-ups to make it a permanent program. It was light years different from litigating FCC cases for a public interest law firm in Washington DC. I was the only lawyer in the Education, Media, Arts, and Culture Program, which was made up mostly of academics, filmmakers, and journalists. Instead of cocktail parties and networking dinners, I went to see Alvin Ailey, the Dance Theater of Harlem, and numerous visual artists and musicians the foundation supported. We sometimes discussed politics, but it was not the obsession there that it is here. I never spoke to the press; I was a panelist in a conference once or twice and I had to make difficult choices about which of my public interest colleagues I was going to support at a time when there was very little foundation funding for this kind of work. I also got a taste of what it is like to be in a position of power—when you are a grantmaker, everyone is your friend—you never tell a bad joke, never give a bad speech and you get invited to parties and events you never would have otherwise. Staying grounded took some effort.

While at Ford, I held a meeting with some of the brightest minds in copyright law, including Larry Lessig, Pam Samuelson, Jamie Boyle, and Julie Cohen. Also in attendance were Laurie Racine and David Bollier. Laurie was the President of what was then called the Red Hat Foundation and was later called the Center for the Public Domain. David was Norman Lear’s speechwriter. The group argued for an advocacy organization that would push for a more balanced copyright regime at a time when powerful media companies were looking to limit what consumers could do with the digital devices and content that they owned. It was from that conversation that Public Knowledge was born, co-founded by Laurie, David and me.

Building an organization from scratch and then running it was one of the biggest challenges of my career. I had very defined tasks at the law firm, MAP and Ford, but at Public Knowledge I had my hand in everything—developing a mission statement, goals, and strategies, obtaining nonprofit status, forming both a board and advisory board, fundraising, hiring and firing staff, and, of course, engaging in advocacy both on copyright and communications policy issues. Once I had the resources to hire more staff, I focused mostly on fundraising and managing, although I still did plenty of writing, talking to the press, and testifying before Congressional Committees.

What I enjoyed most at PK was being a manager. I find that organizations and government agencies often make the mistake of promoting long-tenured employees or subject matter experts to managerial positions. But managing people takes an entirely different skill set. Luckily, my funders provided me with corporate coaching and management training, and the Public Knowledge staff also helped me become a better manager. I learned to delegate more and micromanage less, to empower my younger colleagues, and to not delay letting go of a staffer who didn’t carry his weight. And I learned the power of having a diverse staff that challenged me and each other. When I left PK to go to the FCC in 2013, the staff was 1/3 people of color and I’m proud to say that both of my successors surpassed me, increasing not only the diversity of the staff but also the diversity of the Board of Directors.

As for my time at the FCC, I can’t say enough about working in Chairman Wheeler’s office. It was the best job I’ve ever had—really, it was three jobs. First, I was the main stakeholder outreach person—I would gather support for the FCC’s decisions and served as the contact stakeholders would call to get a meeting with the Chair or his staff. Second, I would talk to press off the record to explain what the Chairman was trying to accomplish with his agenda. And third, I was a policy advisor. I never drafted or edited an order, but I did meet with scores of stakeholders on a wide variety of issues and gave input into some of the most important matters we worked on, including reclassification of broadband and net neutrality, Lifeline and E-Rate modernization, and broadband privacy.

Going from being an outside advocate to an inside policymaker was a huge transition for me, but it was also an invaluable experience. As an outside advocate, I almost always spoke on the record, and I never saw a camera I didn’t want to be in front of. At the FCC, I was always off the record with press and if I was in front of a camera, it was because I was participating in a conference panel or giving a very carefully crafted speech. While I tried to be thoughtful as an advocate, I could say what I wanted for the most part. At the FCC, I was a staffer who worked for a strong principal, and it was my job to promote his ideas, not mine. I always found it laughable when someone portrayed me as some sort of Svengali who made Tom Wheeler do my bidding. They obviously didn’t know anything about the Chairman. Nobody told Tom Wheeler what to do.

It was amazing what I learned working in government. Even though I had been a communications policy advocate for 25 years prior to joining the FCC, I didn’t know how the agency really worked. Because I had a multifaceted role at the agency, I got the opportunity to work with a wide range of staff in nearly every bureau and office. And they were some of the smartest, nicest, and hardest-working people I had ever collaborated with. They also challenged my preconceived notions about FCC staff—that many wanted to cash in with a high-paying industry job. I learned instead that the civil servants, many of whom had been at the agency for decades, were there to work for the public good. I tell anyone who will listen—if you have an opportunity to work for the government, take it. It will make you a better advocate, a better lawyer, a better academic, and even a better person.

Leaving the FCC after three years and returning to civil society was also an adjustment. I came out of the FCC with an appreciation for the agency, its processes, and its people that I didn’t have before. Many advocates in civil society and private practice who lack government experience don’t share that sensitivity, and that can sometimes be frustrating. But I do enjoy the freedom that being a public advocate brings and I have been extraordinarily fortunate to have the generous support of foundations and organizations like the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Currently, I am working on two projects. The first is a Benton project that is building coalitions in three states that will be active on broadband deployment and digital equity issues. The pandemic forced states and local communities to become much more engaged in broadband policy, and with tens of billions of dollars about to be spent to build affordable, high-quality networks, the involvement of state and local officials and residents will continue to be critical. The second is serving as the Executive Director of the American Association for Public Broadband, which promotes and defends community-owned broadband networks and makes sure they have fair access to federal and state funding. And I just joined my first corporate board—Tucows Inc., which includes Ting Internet, a competitive ISP that builds and runs networks for cities and towns, including Alexandria, Virginia. This is a whole new experience for me, and I’m learning a ton about financing, the day-to-day operations of a for-profit enterprise, and the challenges of being a small publicly traded company.

There is one last ingredient that is part of nearly every successful career, including mine, but that people rarely talk about. I’m referring to setbacks, disappointments, and falling short of one’s goals. Whoever said whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger is right. I don’t talk about this much, but when I say I was encouraged to leave the law firm, I mean I got fired. After I built the program at Ford and convinced the officers to make it permanent, I had to apply for the permanent job, and I didn’t get it. And everyone knows about my latest setback—not getting confirmed to the fifth seat on the FCC.

I’m not blowing smoke when I say that setbacks are a key to success—you learn from them, pick yourself up, and move on to greater things. After I left the law firm, I was determined to get a job in communications law, I got a great one and the rest is history. Not getting the permanent Ford job meant moving back to DC, where I started an institution that lives on today and got the opportunity to work at the FCC for a smart and active Chairman. I also met my wife Lara soon after returning, and having the support of a loving family has played a huge part in my career success and in my ability to survive the confirmation process with my head held high. So far, things are going well for me after my last setback, but that chapter has just started to be written, and I can promise you that it won’t be my last.

I want to close by thanking everyone in this room who has helped me, worked with me, and even done battle with me over the past 35 years. Many of you have become dear friends. You have all helped me become a better advocate, grantmaker, public servant and, hopefully you’ll agree, a better human. The field of telecommunications, media and technology law and policy has some of the most intelligent, interesting, and funniest people. The work we do is important, and I look forward to continuing to work with all of you to ensure that everyone, in the US and around the world, is connected to essential communications networks that are robust, affordable, and open.

Thank you and enjoy the rest of TPRC!

Gigi Sohn is a Benton Senior Fellow and Public Advocate.

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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