Pennsylvania is where you more than likely will find Brett Heather Freedson, and in Pittsburgh more specifically. Brett spent plenty of time in DC, and despite its reputation as a communications law and policy mecca, she has found no impediment to advising electric utility companies on a range of telecom issues, most recently as a Member of the firm of Lerman Senter, from the Keystone state. While we do intend to meet in person as she makes one of her periodic trips to DC, we did a virtual meeting so that I could find out a bit about Brett and her career.
Q. What attracted you to the field of communications?
A. I’m not entirely sure what attracted me to the field of communications initially, but I’m certain of what has kept me in the practice for the last 20 years. I continue to be fascinated by the way that changes in technology shape the FCC’s rules and policies. I started my career shortly after the 1996 Act, and in my early years as an associate at a firm with a strong telecom practice, my focus seemed to be entirely on the needs of competitive telecommunications carriers as they entered the market to offer primarily telephone service. Discussions about whether and how the FCC would regulate internet service were rare because the internet itself was not fully developed and the available services were slow. That changed very quickly, and soon, with the introduction of more sophisticated internet access options, VoIP services, and triple play bundles, the business and regulatory landscape became much different. At the same time, the introduction of smart phones and wireless internet service created new ways to communicate, and to some extent replaced the traditional wireline services that had become a part of my core practice. The fact that the industry is always undergoing technological change affects the types of clients that I work with, and types of legal issues that I focus on. Right now it’s a great mix of pole attachments, middle mile deployments, and some wireless.
Q. Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?
A. I did not have a defined career plan when I first started law school. I dabbled in a few different areas as a summer intern during my college years, but I didn’t have a strong sense from those limited experiences where my career might be headed. In my first year of law school, a wonderful opportunity to work as law clerk for a boutique cable and broadcast firm presented itself, and after a few months, I was sold on the idea that I wanted to practice before the FCC. However, while I expected to continue my work in cable and broadcast space after law school, I instead joined a large firm that represented competitive telecommunications companies. At that time, the FCC was in the throes of implementing the 1996 Act, and countless new companies were entering local markets and negotiating to interconnect with incumbent carriers. It was CLEC city; and it was a busy and exciting time! I practiced in this space for about 7 years, and then I made a pivot as many of these entities merged or pursued other business models. In 2008, I joined a new firm where I became a part the energy practice. Here, I learned for the first time that electric utility companies have a number of legal and policy needs related to the FCC. I started off only with a small amount of pole attachment work, but that later grew into wireless matters, and within the last decade, it has expanded into an enormous amount of broadband policy work. I don’t think that I ever expected my career focus to be what it is now, but I once again feel like I am on the cutting edge of a changing industry. I am fortunate to have worked closely with several of my clients for a number of years, and that makes the work even more personally rewarding.
Q. What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?
A. Within the past year, I had a very unique opportunity to counsel a client on its broadband deployment process from start to finish. In most of my experiences to this point, my role has been limited to negotiating specific contracts associated with the project, and discreet regulatory counseling. However, in this particular instance, I was involved in discussions about the whole project, including funding, the route, the types of technology used, and the customers that would be served. It was interesting to see how my work feeds into and becomes part of the bigger picture.
Q. Is there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?
A. There are an incredible number of “someones” within this community who have pleasantly surprised me. As my career has developed over time, I have often reached out to my FCBA peers for advice. I am so heartened how individuals who I’ve met only once or twice took time out of their busy schedules to mentor me over lunch or a cup of coffee. For a younger attorney trying to figure out her next career step, that meant the world, and I will be forever grateful for their support. This experience of generosity has inspired me to “pay it forward” for other young lawyers as they make important career-impacting decisions.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
A. Mostly newspapers and magazines. I have a strong interest in fitness and nutrition and read books on that subject matter from time-to-time.
Q. Can you share perspective on the pitfalls to avoid or other career advice for those who are just getting started in the communications field?
A. First, seize on every opportunity that you have to meet new people, and cultivate relationships within your network. Second, learn from mistakes. No one is perfect, and inevitably, young lawyers will hit bumps in the road. It is important to acknowledge what went sideways, and use those opportunities to ask questions, and seek the advice of mentors. Use these and every other experience to learn and to improve. Finally, do take the leap if an opportunity looks really appealing, even if it is a bit scary. Change can be beneficial.
Q. What’s something interesting about you people are not generally aware of that you’re willing to share?
A. Despite having lived in downtown DC for a huge part of my adult life, I’m actually very much an outdoors person and love being close to nature. I started to ski probably around the same time that I started to walk and have been fortunate to ski all over the country. I also enjoy cycling and hiking. While I live pretty close to a small ski mountain near Pittsburgh, we, like many elsewhere are subject to winters with little snow, followed by others that are decent.
Q. How has your life changed as a result of COVID-19?
A. Well, for starters, I changed jobs at the end of 2020, and for the past 18 months have worked remotely from a small office space in the Pittsburgh suburbs. I travel to my “real” office in DC every couple of months, and very much enjoy the opportunity to connect with colleagues and friends. I have a special appreciation for the city that I didn’t necessarily have when I lived in the thick of it. Before COVID, I sensed that people were much more skeptical about the ability of professionals to succeed at remote work. That no longer seems to be the case, and for me, the new mindset has opened up an opportunity that may not have presented itself otherwise. I’ll also add that I have come to embrace video conferencing as a wonderful tool to stay connected with clients and colleagues. In the pre-COVID world, because I was not in the same physical location as many of my clients, I was lucky to visit with them in person just a few times each year. Now, I see my clients on video conference several times each week. This has made our interactions more personal and more productive. Also, since I don’t see my Lerman Senter colleagues in the office every day, video conferencing has certainly made it easier for me to get to know everyone and integrate myself seamlessly into my new firm.
On a personal note, my four-minute commute has given me back a piece of my life. I now enjoy more time with family and friends, longer walks with my dog, and even more time for sleep. I feel healthier now than ever, both physically and mentally. That’s something you can’t quantify but it counts.
Q. How long have you been an FCBA member and what to you is the value of FCBA membership?
A. I joined the FCBA either during, or immediately after law school. As I noted above, this is wonderful community of individuals who genuinely care about the success of their peers and invest in the younger members of the community. The networking opportunities have been fantastic! Additionally, I really enjoy the annual seminar and the educational programming throughout the year. It is impossible to stay on top over every issue that the FCC is tackling, and I really appreciate the opportunity to learn about related FCC practice areas on a high level and value the fact that many CLEs and other events are virtual, making them available to FCBA members everywhere.