John Nakahata has been a partner at the law firm of Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis since 1999, and has headed the firm’s Telecommunications practice since 2009. He works with many types of service providers and others on complex communications matters. Those who only recently joined the bar may not realize that John has had portions of his successful career in large law firms, on Capitol Hill, and at the FCC, ending that stint as FCC Chief of Staff for Chairman Bill Kennard. It must say something that I recall well John’s time as Chief of Staff and encountering John on the 8th floor of 1919 M Street, the same space that his law firm now occupies. I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with John and get his take on history and his career perspectives. And boy, did I learn things about John that I did not know.
Q. What attracted you to the field of communications?
A. Like perhaps many others, my choice of communications law as a career was both accidental and somewhat gradual. I went to Harvard Law and then joined Jenner & Block, which at the time was representing MCI before Judge Harold Greene in US District Court for the District of Columbia. It was quite interesting working on various MCI petitions and other matters. I did both communications litigation and general litigation for a couple of years. Then I had the chance to work for Senator Joseph Lieberman, first temporarily on an impeachment trial, and then permanently, where I worked on a number of different matters, including the 1992 Cable Act and rating systems for video games.
After five years on the Hill, it was time to move on. I had a wide range of things that had interested me. Honestly I was not sure what was next, but from my prior experience I knew that I liked economics so I started asking folks about what the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission do. It was chance that I ended up at the FCC rather than the FTC. I started there in early 1995, briefly with the Office of Legislative Affairs and then I moved to Chairman Reed Hundt’s office to be a legal advisor. I started out working on mass media and cable issues, at a time when the FCC was considering the DTV standards and continuing to refine its cable rate regulations. After about six months, I switched to handling common carrier and cable. When the 1996 Telecommunications Act passed, I did not have the bandwidth to also keep the cable portfolio. From then on, that really set my focus on wireline issues. That was an intense and interesting six months given the statutory deadlines in the 1996 Act. For two years, from a variety of positions in the FCC, I worked on implementing the 1996 Act’s local competition and universal service proceedings. Not only were there the key provisions on unbundling and interconnection, and universal service, but also number portability, pole attachments, and the initial approach to Bell petitions for entry in to long distance. Universal service was a particular challenge, with significant changes to high cost, which had to be coordinated with access charge changes, changes to Lifeline, and the creation of the E-rate and rural healthcare programs. Then Bill Kennard came on as Chairman of the FCC and he sought me out to be his Chief of Staff. How could I refuse? But after all those years in some rather intense roles at the FCC, when I left the agency I was a bit tired and didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do next. So, for about six months I did not have any affiliation, but I was informally working with the companies that formed the CALLS Coalition. Then in July 1999 I joined Harris Wiltshire, where I have been ever since.
Q. Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?
A. I would say my career was not at all planned but it has been propelled by a series of opportune events that have led me to where I am now. For example, when I was a Jenner & Block as an associate, I was doing a lot of commercial litigation. One case involved a document production in San Francisco, where I grew up. It was January and beautiful weather. That made me question why I was doing commercial litigation in Washington DC. That led me to ask to do more legislative and other DC focused work. Because I had made that request, when Senator Lieberman’s legislative director (a former Jenner partner) approached the firm to ask for pro bono assistance with an impeachment trial, I was offered the opportunity for a detail. That opportunity opened the door for me later to join the Senator’s staff. And, when I was looking to move on from there, that same legislative director was the person who sent my resume over to the FCC. I was incredibly lucky, and benefitted both from speaking up for what I wanted and from the assistance of mentors.
Q. What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done professionally?
A.I’d say looking back that there are three main things that stand out as things I am really proud of playing a role in. One happened when I was working with Joe Lieberman on the Hill; I was part of a group of staffers that did a deep dive on videogame violence. That process led us to suggesting rating standards, which led to the video rating system that is still in use today. Second, after I left the FCC, I remember an occasion where I attended a student-teacher conference at my child’s school. Looking around, I saw lots of computers in the classroom for student use. It struck me that this was no accident. Having this technology in the classroom was because of the FCC’s implementation of its E-rate program. That made me feel pretty terrific about having been a part of the whole thing. Finally, I was sort of the linchpin person that put together and put forward an industry proposal known as “CALLS” that was adopted by the FCC. It was a key intermediate step between the post-1996 Act universal service and access reform orders and the major 2011 universal service and intercarrier compensation transformation order. Looking back that’s another thing I’m proud of, as it was a complex and was a novel, industry-negotiated approach that laid very important groundwork.
Q. What is something or someone that is surprised or impressed you during your career and why?
A. When I look back I see that I’ve had the opportunity to be part of or interact with the FCC under a number of different Chairs: Reed Hundt, Bill Kennard, Michael Powell, Kevin Martin, Julius Genachowski, acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn, Tom Wheeler and now Ajit Pai. That’s a lot of FCC Chairmen and I think from seeing the FCC both on the inside and the outside, I appreciate more than most the difficulties of running an efficient and effective government agency or organization. Looking back, I am impressed by how Reed did a great job hiring strong leaders as Bureau and Office Chiefs, and provided some latitude to them to create frameworks that allowed for some flexibility and improvisation. There’s been a bipartisan trend towards centralization at the FCC and in the Chairman’s office, but looking back, I think that that framework empowering strong leadership led to impressive results.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
A. I’m always interested in history, although I do have a time and a place for junk novels. In terms of reading and personal history, my family was one of the many Japanese American families that were forced into special camps, incarcerated during the course of World War II. I find this sadly to be incredibly relevant to some of the things that are happening today. I have read extensively about this period of history, as well as history more generally. I do have a project I want to pursue that involves my grandfather. He was arrested right away after Pearl Harbor as one of the group of Japanese-American business leaders in San Francisco. He was taken and was kept apart from his family and he died a year and a half after he was detained without ever seeing his family again. But he wrote letters back to his family during that time and I have them. I’m excited to be able to review them, and who knows whether I might write something about this myself.
Additionally, since I’ve been living in Virginia I have increasingly been looking at southern history and African-American history and the history of race relations in general. I’m also particularly interested in the history of post-World War II as it addresses questions about how people go about rebuilding what was destroyed; not just buildings but bonds of community and trust, the fabric of society. I’ve spent some time going through museums at Normandy and elsewhere focused on this question and it’s fascinating to me.
Q. Can you share perspective on pitfalls to avoid or other career advice to those who are just getting started in the communications field?
A. I would say to the extent you can maintain the financial flexibility to do so, you ought to try and spend time in government. I think there’s really no substitute for the sort of learning that you get working in government. It provides anyone with the ability to meet and work with and know well agency folks and grow professionally. It is truly rewarding, even if you don’t spend your whole career doing that. Of course, I take my hat off to those that do.
Also, I look at the FCBA itself as a bit of a small town: the older folks are perfectly willing help the younger ones coming along. We try and nurture one another and mentor and sponsor when we can. However, as all small towns, reputations for honesty and integrity are important and they are earned, not assumed. So cultivate those qualities from the beginning of your career and it will be far more likely that the townspeople will welcome you and be friendly to you.
Q. What something interesting about you that people are not generally aware of that you are willing to share?
A. Well my daughter sings and she’s really pretty good at it. So, that developed in me a desire to accompany her instrumentally. I started taking piano lessons and it’s a project.
Q. How long have you been an FCBA member and what to you is the value of FCBA membership?
A. I don’t really know how long I’ve been a member but it’s been at least since my early days at the FCC. As to FCBA membership, I’ve been coming to events for well over 20 years and it seems to me the value is in making or renewing friendships. I would also highlight the possibility of personal and professional learning that comes from attending brown bag and CLE events. I do also have a soft spot in my heart for the FCBA Moot Court activities that I have volunteered to be a part of for the last couple of years. It’s a great way for to show interested students why communications cases problems and policies are complex, compelling and fun. It also gives law students a great venue to showcase their abilities.