By: Laura Phillips
Mark Denbo is someone I’ve known for quite a while, and I was happy when he agreed to be featured in the column this month. We met up for our caffeinated drinks of choice and reminisced a bit about the vagaries of life and our times. Mark is Of Counsel with Smithwick & Belendiuk, P.C., a boutique communications firm specializing primarily in radio and television broadcasting regulatory and transactional work. The firm has been in existence for over 30 years, and Mark has been with them for almost a decade, but his time in the communications bar stretches beyond that.
Q. What attracted you to the field of communications?
A. As a kid, I was always intrigued by radio. From my bed at home in Bethesda, Maryland, I would try to tune into distant stations. I remember vividly listening to broadcasts of the Fort Wayne, Indiana minor league hockey games and Chicago Bulls games on WMVP. I was this close to attending the Newhouse School for Communications at Syracuse University before deciding to head to University of Pennsylvania.
Becoming a lawyer was not something I really focused much on in college, although my dad was a lawyer. Rather, a friend encouraged me to study for the LSATs because he didn’t want to do it alone. Ironically, I was the one to go to law school; he eventually became an educator. I’m certainly glad I took the path I did, otherwise I might not have met my wife!
I attended law school in the mid-1990s and was lucky enough to have a family friend who helped me score an internship with the NBC Washington office. At the time, the lobbyists were working on the legislation that ultimately became the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and everything about it was fascinating to me. That experience led to another internship in what was then the Common Carrier Bureau at the FCC and all of a sudden my resume was filled with communications-related experience that has translated into a fulfilling career.
Q. Tell us about the various places you’ve worked through the years.
A. Before going to law school, I worked in advance on Presidential campaigns and for the White House. As part of the advance team, I once was at a meeting in the Kremlin with a room full of Russian staffers when one of my colleagues excused herself to get sick. You guessed it, our team had been drinking vodka until late in the night the previous evening and she was a bit worse for wear. There’s probably not too many Americans who can bear witness to that kind of experience in the Kremlin!
My internship at the NBC Washington office was amazing. I learned the basics of television broadcasting law from the legendary Howard Monderer and got valuable advice from Diane Zipursky, John Hane and Bob Okun. Plus, I got to pick up from the airport Joey Lawrence and the actors who played Screech and Mr. Belding from “Saved by the Bell,” so there’s that.
After law school, my first government affairs/communications-related job was with Arthur Andersen (before the accounting scandal that I thankfully avoided). Then my good friend from college lured me to Fleischman and Walsh (later Fleischman and Harding), telling me how great it would be to work together. He left less than a year later. But I could not possibly have asked for a better place to cut my teeth as a lawyer, learning everything there is to know about broadcasting and cable law from Howard Topel, Chris Wood and Art Harding, among others.
After ten years, I moved to Drinker Biddle & Reath, where I continued my practice with a great group, which included Howard Liberman, Mark Dever, Eduardo Guzman and one Laura Phillips. Working at an AmLaw 100 firm was an incredible experience. But I am grateful now to be basically on my own, with Gary Smithwick, Art Belendiuk and Scott Johnson as the best colleagues anyone could ask for.
Q. Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?
A. Not really. I honestly did not have a “plan” per se, and I can’t say I really had any career goals while I was in law school or just coming out. I really have just strived to provide my clients with excellent service, while simultaneously preserving an excellent work-life balance. I always found time to make every parent-teacher meeting, and to coach both of my sons’ soccer, basketball and baseball teams. I am thrilled with the way things have worked out.
Q. What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?
A. Currently, I am helping a television broadcaster with the advent of 5G Broadcast, an exciting new technology that delivers broadcast television to smartphones, tables and traditional TV sets. Because it works in Internet Protocol, it also can simultaneously deliver data and ease network congestion, the same as ATSC 3.0. It is pretty cool to be on the ground floor of this opportunity broadcasters have and to be part of the ever-changing technology landscape. I also think it’s interesting that 10, 15 and 20 years ago we were hearing that over the air broadcasting was toast. But it’s still vital and I am glad to report there is still plenty to do as technology changes, but the service remains.
Q. Is or was there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?
A. Beyond the folks I mentioned above, I am constantly impressed by the attorneys (and engineers) with whom I interact on a regular basis in my practice. The FCC staff is remarkably knowledgeable and always willing to assist with any issues that my clients may encounter. I also have the opportunity to work with attorneys at large firms and small, and our bar is quite collegial. My sense is that that is not always the case in other areas of the law.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
A. I am a voracious reader of the Washington Post Sports section, and I try to read the Sunday newspaper, but depending upon the day, I’m not always successful. I also like reading biographies and mystery novels. But honestly, after being in front of a computer all day, I’d rather watch a game or some comedy on TV.
Q. Is there something (a hobby or other tidbit) people don’t know about you that you are willing to share?
A. Although I was not born in the DMV, I have lived here all of my life (except during college). I sometimes thought we would move elsewhere but that never happened, and that’s just fine. My heart bleeds for all of the local teams, and sharing the 2019 National World Series win with my Dad and kids was a true blessing.
As far as a little tidbit, I have an encyclopedic knowledge of 1980s music and movies (mostly comedies). And I love seeing live music, especially Wilco and Tedeschi Trucks Band.
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. I recommend that any law student take some type of Administrative Law class, and if it’s possible, absolutely try to get an internship at the FCC while in law school. Understanding the way that the FCC works from seeing it on the inside is a tremendous boon for anyone who wants later to work in private practice.
I would also recommend that a person not be fully and exclusively committed to any one field within communications. Although my area of expertise is primarily in radio and television broadcasting, I have never shied away from learning about many of the other areas that members of our incredible bar spend their time and attention perfecting. Always say yes if someone asks you to take on a project, even if it is a little outside of your normal comfort zone. Know your limitations, but also be ready and willing to challenge yourself.
Q. How has your life changed as a result of COVID-19 and what are you looking forward to doing next?
A. Not all that much, actually. I have a small office in Northwest DC, about an 8 minute drive (10 minutes with traffic) from my house, which I share with just one other person. And when COVID came around, my wife basically took over our home office. So after about a month or so of using the kitchen table, I decided just to resume heading into the office and that has continued to be my routine.
When I think about the last few years and what we’ve learned and observed, I look forward to telling my as-yet-unborn grandkids about the era. I think future generations will be amazed by how politically polarizing it was to proceed with the simple act of getting immunized against a virus that killed millions of people.
Q. How long have you been an FCBA member, and what to you is the value of FCBA membership?
A. I believe I have been an FCBA member since 1996. The value of membership to a student is immeasurable. I strongly recommend that anyone, even non-lawyers, involved in the field of communications law join the FCBA. I’d like to think that we have a pretty unique bar, as there are not all that many of us, so we all get to know each other pretty well. The FCBA also offers interesting monthly “Lunch and Learns” and CLEs that provide a better understanding of our field. As I’ve progressed in my career (read: aged), I have come to rely on the FCBA more and more for the educational and networking opportunities it offers to us all. And yes, I play in the golf tournament because it’s just fun.