Julie Kearney is a well-known and well-respected member of the FCBA and she recently took on a new and important role at the FCC as the first Chief of the FCC’s new Space Bureau which launched in April 2023. I was so happy to catch up with her and talk a bit about what she’s done over the years and to get her perspective on growing a career in telecom and in what a difference the FCBA has made in shaping and assisting her career. Julie is truly committed to the FCBA; she is a former President of the FCBA as well as former head of the FCBA Foundation. She humbly describes herself as a tech and telecom attorney who also loves music, friends, politics, travel, the outdoors, reading, and her wonderful family. And she is that but so much more.
Q. What attracted you to the field of communications?
A. The Telecom Act of 1996 was the talk of DC when I entered law school six years post-college (I thought I was “old” at 28)! As a student at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, this landmark legislation was particularly relevant because Catholic Law had a renowned program focused on communications law: the Institute for Communications Law Studies (now called the Law and Technology Institute. When I realized that the Institute was dedicated to many aspects of communications law, like media, telecom, First Amendment, and this very cool developing thing called wireless, I wanted IN. The internship requirements and opportunities for practical experience were also a huge draw. One of my beloved law school professors and Institute founder, Harvey Zuckman, was so encouraging of my application to the Institute. Where I saw a slim chance for a college music major/political science minor to gain acceptance, Professor Zuckman saw a prime candidate. As he recently told me when I expressed to him my ongoing gratitude for accepting me and thus, launching my career, he responded, “It was obvious; music is a form of communication.” There’s nothing better than an “aha” moment 25 years into one’s career.
Q. Tell us a bit about the various places you’ve worked through the years.
A. My law career has spanned a wide range of roles and employers, but the thread connecting each role has been rooted in enabling technologies that connect people. I had the good fortune to join a boutique law firm, Haley Bader and Potts (HBP), as a summer associate and then as an associate. The firm was the first counsel for MCI back in the 1960s, representing the upstart telecom company that disrupted the whole telecom industry by precipitating the breakup of AT&T in 1984. I loved working at HBP, where I worked with incredibly smart, kind, and fun lawyers/mentors on media transactions, international telecom, and implementation the Telecom Act of 1996 (ah yes, those CLECs)! I was drawn to the firm’s small size and also that they helped to launch a major regulatory disruptor that changed the telecom world as we knew it. The firm also represented radio and TV broadcasters, including non-commercial educational broadcasters, with whom I had a special affinity (I later worked at NPR). Most of all, I had thoughtful mentors who gave me interesting work and taught me how to be a well-rounded lawyer.
My first in-house job was in MCI’s (known as MCI WorldCom) International Affairs group. It was an exciting time post-reform of international settlement policies and the burgeoning Internet, including global regulatory interest in regulating it. While I had had a taste of this area during my 1L summer at Baker and McKenzie in Kyiv, Ukraine, this was when I really jumped into international telecom as a full-time focus. At MCI, we had a close-knit team in the U.S. and around the globe, many of whom remain great friends. I must do an important plug here: I found this job through the FCBA Newsletter job postings!
After MCI, I spent almost 13 years at the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) in two separate stints, sandwiched around almost two years at NPR. Both organizations allowed me to explore and to build regulatory, legal, and policy structures for traditional and emerging technologies. One of my most interesting roles was at Loon, an Alphabet company. Loon’s mission was to bring Internet access to unserved and underserved communities around the world via a network of balloons on the edge of space. One of my colleagues dubbed us “Space Balloon Lawyers.” While we ultimately folded our tents because of funding decisions, it was fascinating work with a great team. I am so proud that the technology we pioneered (and deployed!) for every day communications, but also for disaster communications, stratospheric wind monitoring, network orchestration, and other applications has been parlayed into other places and companies — and is in use today. That work is enduring and life-changing.. After Loon, I worked at a cloud communications company called Twilio. But the best job so far is my current one as Chief of the FCC’s newly launched Space Bureau. The Space Bureau, the FCC, and the U.S. are key leaders in the global space ecosystem. It’s incredibly exciting to be a part of that and the opportunities are, well, out of this world.
Q. Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?
A. As much as I love to plan, I’ve always been flexible and open to change and opportunities. This is what has made my personal and professional journey so interesting.
Q. What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?
A. I’ve been at the FCC since February 2023 and every day is so energizing. It is a privilege to lead a team that is executing the vision of Chairwoman Rosenworcel, the first permanent female FCC Chair. Just last week, I accompanied the Chairwoman on a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, where she had a meet and greet with the crew of Artemis II. This is the first crewed Moon mission in 50+ years! The FCC’s role in the Space Age keeps getting more exciting as we partner with our government colleagues to advance U.S. leadership in satellite and space-based communications and activities.
Q. Is or was there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?
A. Throughout my career, I have worked with diverse populations around the globe, from government to industry to NGOs. I find all people interesting in their own right – everyone has a journey, a story to tell, and a path they’re either on or are seeking. I enjoy people who take the time to make connections and see the person behind the transaction or the regulatory ask.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
A. I love to read fiction and always have my nose in a book (or in my case, a Kindle)! I just finished Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng. Other recent favorites include Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver (I love all of her books) and Gilded Mountain by Kate Manning. I also have a stack of New Yorkers, and still love my paper copy of the New York Times on the weekend.
Q. Can you share your perspective on the pitfalls to avoid or other career advice for those who are just getting started in the communications field?
A. Career advice? Say yes to everything because every project is a learning experience, positive or negative. Also realize that you can learn from everyone, from the security team in your building’s lobby to the CEO..
Q. What is something you are willing to share about your hobbies or interests that people don’t already know about you?
A. Many people know that I’m a musician and that I love to sing, but my first instrument was piano and I took lessons through college. I opted not to attend conservatory because I wanted a traditional liberal arts education. On the athletic front, I was always a runner, but I became hooked on swimming about eight years ago. I swim up to five times each week for about a mile each swim. I just learned butterfly! Don’t expect to see me competing though – my pace is about the speed of a manatee.
Q. How has your life changed as a result of COVID-19?
A. The pandemic changed all of us, whether those changes are temporary or permanent, positive or negative. I learned a lot about acceptance and resilience as members of my family and friends were affected by Covid — the virus itself and the whole shutdown environment. I think it changed me — and all of us — at least a little. My mindset is a bit more “carpe diem” than it was pre-Covid. Take the job! Take that trip! Get that new pet!
Q. How long have you been an FCBA member, and what to you is the value of FCBA membership?
A. I joined the FCBA in 1996 when I was a law student. I could talk all day about how much I love the FCBA. It’s not just a bar association – it’s a community of great people who share myriad professional and personal interests. It’s like a family and a home to me that is just so valuable in a career where lawyers and other professionals can struggle to connect with others in their bars or technical areas. The value of the FCBA is its ability to meet the needs our members no matter where we are in our careers. You really do get out of it what you are willing to put into it. I am so grateful that the FCBA has grown with me in my 25+ years of practice and we’re still growing together. Thank you, FCBA!