Thaila Sundaresan is a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine in San Francisco, where her practice encompasses both appellate litigation and telecommunications. She leverages her years of practice in government and the private sector to solve client problems in matters before state and federal regulators as well as before courts. Thaila has argued and briefed numerous cases in the federal and state courts of appeals. She also represents communications clients before the California Public Utilities Commission, advising them on a broad range of regulatory and legal matters. Prior to joining her Davis Wright Tremaine, Thaila served as an appellate litigator with the FCC General Counsel’s office for six years. She currently serves as a co-chair of the FCBA’s Northern California chapter as well as the Chapter Representative on the FCBA’s Executive Committee. I was able to virtually meet with Thaila to get a better sense of how she has evolved and developed as a communications lawyer and litigator.
A. I came to the field of communications quite indirectly. I had a break between college and law school and then went to law school, had clerkships and was a litigation associate at two large law firms. We moved often due to my husband’s line of work and in 2015, my family and I were moving to DC from Boston, and I was on the lookout for a new opportunity. I saw that the FCC had an opening for an appellate litigator, and I decided to apply. At the time, I had zero background in communications, but I loved doing appellate litigation. So, I figured I had nothing to lose by applying. Joining the FCC was the best thing that could have happened to me, professionally. I loved being at an agency where there was such deep institutional knowledge about communications. Prior to joining the agency, as a general appellate litigator I had a broad ranging set of clients and issues. And while I initially thought that communications law and policy would be a bit of a niche, that has not proved to be the case at all. The FCC allowed me to begin to build subject matter expertise in a single fascinating area that continues to grow and evolve. I also loved drafting briefs and arguing cases entirely on my own – in private practice as an associate, there were always several people working on a brief but in government, it’s usually just the line attorney doing it all – it was both intimidating and exhilarating!
In addition, the FCC lawyers, and engineers whom I worked with in the bureaus were uniformly helpful in helping me get up to speed on relevant issues and were generous in taking time to answer questions to better educate me, so that I could successfully defend FCC orders on appeal in the DC Circuit. Finally, it was a pleasure to work with some of the brightest minds in the General Counsel’s office – I learned so much from my colleagues.
A. It has not been linear! I knew in law school from the moment I participated in a moot court competition that I wanted to be an appellate litigator, but never even thought about practicing in communications. Right out of law school, I was fortunate to clerk for two federal judges – Judge Chasanow in the District of Maryland and Judge McKee on the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit – and those experiences helped me become a stronger writer and editor, as well as provided the opportunity to develop relationships with two excellent judges. After that I worked as an appellate and general litigation associate for five years at two large law firms. A family move brought me to DC, where I spent 6 years in the FCC General Counsel’s Office. So, I was 6 years out of law school before I became a communications lawyer. While I was happily working at the FCC, Davis Wright Tremaine recruited me to join their San Francisco office as a partner in the communications practice. I was not expecting to return to the world of private law practice, much less be a partner in a firm, but it has worked out very well.
Q. Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?
A. Not at all. As I never expected to become a communications lawyer and came to the field by chance, there is no way I could have dreamed that I would be a partner at a large law firm handling a range of communications policy and litigation. Nor did I expect to leave the FCC, where I was very happy, challenged and fulfilled as a professional. However, Davis Wright Tremaine offered me the opportunity to grow my appellate practice while working with leading communications clients on important regulatory matters. That opportunity was too good to pass up.
Q. What are a few of the most interesting or challenging things that you’ve done?
A. Probably the most challenging thing for me recently has been transitioning back to private practice as a partner after working in government for so long. At the FCC, particularly as an appellate litigator, I knew my schedule well in advance and there were few surprises. I knew when my brief was due, when oral argument was scheduled, etc. Now, I have clients calling me regularly and I manage a large team where there are frequent deadlines to be managed. On the plus side, there’s never a dull moment, and it’s also taught me how to manage my time more efficiently.
At the FCC, the most interesting and challenging thing I did was to argue regularly before the DC Circuit. Prior to joining the FCC, as a litigation associate, I had never argued anything in any court. My first federal court appearance was arguing a complex intercarrier compensation case in the DC Circuit before Judge (now Justice) Kavanaugh, Judge Srinivasan and Judge Tatel – three giants of the bench. Both my mom and husband were in the courtroom audience silently cheering me on. I was so nervous, but it went well. And every subsequent oral argument became that much easier. Looking back, arguing on behalf of the FCC in federal court was the best part of my job.
Q. Is there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?
A. Jake Lewis, Litigation Chief at the FCC, was a great teacher and a wonderful mentor! Jake is one of the smartest, most humble people I know. Every time I thought I wrote a good brief, he reviewed it, edited it, and made it 100% better. I feel very lucky to have been able to work with him and learn from him during a formative time in my career in government.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
A. I’m a huge reader of fiction and am lucky to be a relatively fast reader. At one point I read a book a week. Back in 2018 when I was at the FCC and we had a five-week government shutdown, I read nearly 40 books during that time! I now have a 5th grader who is a voracious reader too, and I have started to read some of his books as well – recent favorites are Amari and the Night Brothers, and Wonder.
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. My best career advice to someone getting started is to join the FCBA! I wish I had gotten involved earlier, when I first became a communications lawyer working at the FCC. I joined later once I moved to California. There are so many informative CLEs, panels, and mentoring opportunities at the FCBA for a young communications lawyer or other professional starting out that can help you as you think about how to build skills, ignite your career and just general career development.
Q. What is something interesting about you that people are not generally aware of that you’re willing to share?
A. I’m a life-long singer. I grew up singing in the San Francisco Girls Chorus, sang in a few operas, and performed in an a cappella group in college. Back when I lived in DC, I sang with the City Choir of Washington. I currently sing, teach, and perform Indian music in the Bay Area. Our San Francisco Davis Wright office puts on an awesome Diwali event every year, where I have sung and even taught my colleagues a song or two! Music is a huge passion of mine; it makes me very happy to sing.
Q. How has your life or work changed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
A. I’m an extrovert, so being at home for so long did bother at me first. Fortunately, I never felt lonely because my two boys and husband were with me all the time! I was very happy we had a house with a backyard when COVID struck as we could just as easily have been in an apartment with no place for a kid to run around. I really like my current hybrid work format, where I go into the office twice a week. This way I get to interact and socialize with colleagues and build connections, but I’m also able to get work done at home and chat with my kids when they come home after school. I also enjoy taking an afternoon walk around my neighborhood whenever I can.
Q. How long have you been in FCBA member and what is the value of FCBA membership?
A. Ironically, I only became involved in the FCBA after I left DC and moved to the Bay Area three and a half years ago. I had very young children (two kids under 4) when I lived in DC and worked at the FCC, so it was hard to find time to attend after work events. I joined the Northern California FCBA chapter when I moved because I did not know any communications lawyers in the Bay Area and wanted to find my tribe! Soon enough, I became a co-chair of the Chapter and this year I’m on the Executive Committee as the Chapter Representative.
I have loved being a part of the FCBA. It’s a very inclusive, supportive bar.
I have to say one side effect of the pandemic that was positive for the FCBA members outside of Washington was the necessary FCBA pivot to virtual programming. Suddenly, it didn’t matter where you lived as we were all in the same boat largely working from home and wanting to maintain professional connections. Virtual programming is what allowed me to begin speaking on FCBA panels, attending, and speaking at the Women’s Leadership events, and getting involved in a way that would have been very difficult to do pre-pandemic. The Chapters feel much more engaged and connected to the FCBA now with the hybrid programming that the FCBA continues to offer.