I’ve known Trey Hanbury for quite a while; we first met when he was an associate at Dow, Lohnes and Albertson. Since then, he’s been in government, in industry and now in private practice as the co-chair of the Communications, Internet and Technology practice at Jenner & Block. We managed to find a day where our hybrid work schedules made an in-person lunch possible, and it was terrific to see Trey, hear from him directly about what he’s up to and be able to share some of his career perspectives.
Q. What attracted you to the field of communications?
A. Every first-year law student has mandatory classes. Most cycle through contracts, torts, property with all the enthusiasm you might bring to a six-month dental checkup. For me, though, property law stuck. We had a professor who gave these wandering romps of lectures that would move seamlessly from the case we had read to grand theories of why people would want property rights to the countless ways we have bought, sold, traded, rented, fractionalized, mortgaged, and conceived of this fundamental resource. He would also occasionally throw a loafered foot onto the desk of a student in the front row so he could pull up the too-loose socks that he seemed to wear special for lecture days. Seated a good three rows back from the front, I loved him and, to the bafflement of my classmates, I took every class he offered. The professor was Glen O. Robinson, a former FCC commissioner who taught for years at the University of Virginia School of Law until his retirement in 2008. The next class offered by Professor Robinson – “GlennO” to us students – was Communications Law, where the professor’s interest and mine came together in the form of spectrum allocation and assignments. If there was anything I disliked about property law, it was the stasis that comes from established policies. You may not like the rule against perpetuities, but it was settled law and you had to deal with it as an unchanging element of the landscape. The changing nature of technology made the hoary old concepts of property new and innovative, and I made up my mind to try to make a career of it.
Q. Tell us about the various places you’ve worked through the years.
A. In college, I worked at the student paper and then worked at local papers, writing every chance I could get. Most of my work was intensely local, but every story I read and much of what I studied revolved around changes in the geopolitical environment. The fall of the Soviet Union. The rise of China. The liberation of much of eastern Europe. I wanted to be a part of that grand historical narrative, and the hunger of so many newly free people in Europe to learn English opened opportunities that seemed a lot more interesting than taking a job processing on oil-and-gas leases for the Department of Energy. To find something new, I got ahold of a list of every school district in Hungary and wrote all of them. I explained my qualifications, such as they were, and said I would come teach students English for a year or two if they would give me room and board. Email was still several years off, so the whole process took months. But eventually a technical school three hours south of Budapest said they would give me a room and a salary for expenses that translated to about $200 per month. I went, and teaching English turned out to be, hands down, the best job I ever had. Eventually, though, the tug of friends, family, and the woman who would later become my wife pulled me back to the U.S. Plus, while you can, in fact, survive on Croatian Chicken Paste for a long time, returning to fresh fruits and vegetables and consumer goods had its appeal, too.
After graduating from UVA law school, I was supposed to clerk for Judge Richard Kellam on the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia. I thought I wanted to be a litigator, and the clerkship would offer a hands-on opportunity to learn from one of the greats. Unfortunately, Judge Kellam died before I could start. News of his death arrived while I was studying for the bar, and the court clerk asked whether the firm I had worked for the previous summer might consider taking me early. It was 1996, and the Telecom Act had just passed. Lucky for me, the firm, Dow, Lohnes & Albertson, was swamped with work and glad to take me on right away. After several years working as a law firm associate, I had an opportunity to work at the Federal Communications Commission. I started at the International Bureau and wound up working in various positions including what was then the Common Carrier Bureau and eventually took a position working for then-Chairman Michael Powell. I subsequently left for the private sector to join Nextel Communications, which Sprint Communications subsequently acquired. After working at Sprint for eight years, I moved back to the law firm environment, first to Hogan Lovells and, as of 2022, Jenner & Block, where I work on issues related to terrestrial wireless, satellite spectrum, and technology with a group of amazingly talented people.
Q. Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?
A. Not at all. My plans ran into one obstacle after another, but I’ve been lucky enough to be able to reorient when I needed to do so.
Q. What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?
A. One of the things I love doing is to work with experts from other fields, especially engineering and economics, in ways that allow their brilliance to come to the surface. I have had the privilege of working with some of the best engineers and economists in the country to develop new communications policies, many of which the FCC has adopted in ways that I like to think have helped people. I also liked the FCC because it gave me the opportunity to focus on one client and take the time you often cannot in private practice to dig deep into a subject area and gather best thoughts and ideas from talented engineers and economists, many of whom also work at the FCC and can be generous with their time and counsel.
Q. Is or was there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?
A. When I served in the FCC’s International Bureau, I attended international conferences as a subject matter expert on communications matters for the United States. At the time, we were meeting with regulators and policymakers around the world extolling the virtues of competition in telecommunications markets. The issue was an easy one for me to support because competitive rivalry generates much more investment and innovation than state-owned monopolies. We came to Geneva armed with reams of data, countless case studies, exhaustive economic analysis, and endless earnest good intentions. But we immediately encountered a torrent of opposition from an assortment of countries deeply opposed to even the most modest nods in favor of competition. After months of strategizing, weeks of speeches, and countless person-to-person conversations, the opposition outflanked us. They used canny alliances and deft twists of International Telecommunication Union procedures to hold off much of what we had hoped to accomplish. After the final votes had largely cemented our loss, I went to one of the ringleaders of the opposition to find out why he was so opposed to reaching an agreement. I sensed he knew the value of competitive markets and I simply could not understand how or why such a brilliant person had fought us so long over so many weeks. With delegates from the various administrations milling about the main conference hall, I asked him why he was so opposed to what seemed like a transparently beneficial policy. He looked at me square in the eye and said simply “because we hate you.” A long silence fell between us, and I had no idea what to say. He waited a few more beats and then laughed off the comment. But his words, and the way he held my gaze as the seconds ticked by, stay with me to this day. Sometimes the argument you are having is simply not about the argument you are having.
Q. What do you enjoy reading?
A. Fiction helps me think and recharge. I read Herve Le Tellier’s novel, The Anomaly, recently. I like novels that take reality, twist it just a little, and see how people behave. Le Tellier’s work does that brilliantly. A good mystery helps, too. Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black offers slow-burning intrigue that keeps the pages turning.
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. Communications law seems like an enormous industry, but it is not. People stick with it. They may change jobs or specialties, but people have a way of recognizing good work and remembering it, especially if the task was not especially appealing. Bring your absolute best to every job you do. I would also suggest that you not be afraid to say you don’t know something – no one knows everything and sometimes that simple admission can break the ice and allow for a deeper mentoring relationship.
Q. How has your life changed as a result of COVID-19 and what are you looking forward to doing next?
A. My grandmother died of Covid. She was this larger-than-life presence in our family and never failed to make me smile. I miss her. On a more positive but not entirely unrelated note, working remotely never seemed possible as a lawyer, but now I work from home at least twice a week. My grandmother’s passing and the new-found flexibility at law firms has made me more willing and able to shift my work to different days and locales so I can spend more time with my family, and we appreciate the value of our shared time together.
We’ve got 17-year-old and 13-year-old children and given the demographics; we are anticipating college visit trips soon. While I admire the spunk of our son who has never met a board sport he does not totally embrace, I do hope he takes it easy, so he makes it to college a couple years after his sister.
Q. How long have you been an FCBA member, and what to you is the value of FCBA membership?
A. I’ve been an FCBA member for twenty years or more, at least. I’ve been active on a number of committees, and the value of FCBA membership to me lies in the opportunity for fellowship of other practitioners in firms, the government, and industry. I am glad to be part of such a positive, active bar, and very proud that Jenner & Block is participating in the FCBA’s Diversity Pipeline program, just one of the many great things the association does.