Following a successful internship at Rocky Mountain PBS, Marissa Johnson continued to volunteer at the company during her 3L year while studying for the bar. After making herself indispensable to the organization, she was the first attorney hired there in almost 60 years, after being told that the chances of being brought on full-time were slim.
Tell us a little about your work. What do you do, and what might a “typical” work day look like?
I'm corporate counsel for Rocky Mountain PBS (Channel 6 in the metro area) and KUVO (jazz radio station 89.3 in Denver). As the only attorney for our nonprofit, my work is a little of everything: contracts, regulatory compliance, employment, copyrights—it really depends. On a typical day, I might have my first meeting working with a cross-functional team to suggest improvements to company processes so that we can function effectively and efficiently across departments. Then I'll go back to my office to negotiate a tower lease for a site in the far-off areas of Colorado (we operate five transmitters, 25 translators, and provide free, over-the-air television to 98 percent of Colorado's population). Usually, while I'm in the midst of a project, one of my coworkers will swing by with a question about creating a contest to promote our latest episode of Colorado Experience, our local history show. While we're speaking, several emails will come in asking me to review an independent contractor agreement or to work with a board committee chair to draft an agenda for an upcoming meeting.
In the afternoon, I might take my laptop and go to our radio studio building (located a mile from our television studio building) and spend time with a coworker getting some background about a software services agreement so that I have enough context to review the contract to make sure it meets our needs. Then I'll visit with the sales staff to review copy for a radio support spot to make sure that it doesn't cross any FCC prohibitions against advertising. Finally, I'll go back to my office in the TV building and sit down with a cup of coffee to read the latest applicable public notice or notice of proposed rulemaking from the FCC or the U.S. Department of Labor to see how it will affect our business and what we can do to prepare for regulatory changes.
Each day is different, and though I do some of the same types of tasks each day, I don't find the work repetitive. There are too many interesting things going on in media for me to get bored. And at a smallish company (we employ fewer than 100 employees across our five regional locations), there are many hats to wear—hats that require me to exercise common sense, others that require legal analysis, and still others that require business acumen. Rocky Mountain PBS is a wonderful place to avoid boredom, that's for certain.
How did Colorado Law help you in your job search?
Todd Rogers in the University of Colorado Law School’s Career Development Office suggested I apply for an internship with Rocky Mountain PBS during my 3L year. I interviewed over spring break and worked with the company through graduation. Once I graduated, the CEO and COO were willing to let me continue volunteering as I studied for the bar and looked for a different job. By October, nothing as interesting as my volunteer work had come up, and by that time, I had crafted a role for myself at the network. The corporation brought me on board as the first attorney hired in the company’s nearly 60-year history. Without Todd's recommendation for the internship, I never would have found the position and realized how much I enjoy working in-house.
What skills do you utilize on a daily basis and how did your experiences or courses at Colorado Law help you develop these skills?
The most obvious skill that I use is common sense. For me, that means drafting reports that answer the questions that are likely to be relevant to my audience and thinking through the issues that matter to us as a team. That also means thinking through how we can use changes in the regulatory landscape to move ahead and continue our public service, even in the face of a changing media landscape. I developed other skills that I use regularly through my coursework at Colorado Law: contract drafting, regulatory and statutory analysis, and communicating technical issues to a non-technical audience.
Please talk a little about “people skills” and networking specifically. How has your professional network made a difference in your career?
I can't overemphasize the importance of people skills in what I do. When I need to change a process to bring us into compliance with a new legal requirement or to educate our staff about the importance of well-written contracts, I have to be personable and easy to work with; arrogance and being a know-it-all won't get me anywhere. That's actually why, when I select an intern for a summer or semester, I meet with him or her first for an informal coffee just to see if they are considerate and affable individuals. Networking is a key skill I need as in-house counsel who is new to the practice of law. I'm a member of a few bar associations, so I have the opportunity to meet other attorneys and continue my own development as an attorney. It can be a little lonely as the sole lawyer in a company; without networking, I couldn't learn as much and wouldn't ever be able to get over the hump of inexperience (that's still a work in progress, of course).
What advice would you give to current students with respect to finding a job?
The Career Development Office is a great place to start, but even if you aren't initially successful in finding a job, at least find someplace to go regularly to learn the skills that you didn't pick up in law school. I think it was Stanton Dodge, the general counsel of DISH, who worked for free for a while and ended up getting a job—it's not sustainable forever, but even a part-time volunteer legal position keeps you in the field, even as your other job pays the bills.
Why did you choose Colorado Law?
I always wanted to go to CU—I'm a Colorado native and it was my first choice. Unfortunately, I didn't get in, so I spent my first year of law school at the University of Minnesota. I enjoyed my time there and it is a great school, but I wanted a law school with a focus on technology, and particularly telecommunications. For me, the deciding factors were seeing the tech and entrepreneurial clinics that were advertised on the school's website, as well as the annual Interdisciplinary Telecommunications Program (ITP) Fall Challenge with the ITP students. Knowing that I wanted to settle in Colorado made the decision to transfer very easy and I haven't regretted it for a second.
I'd recommend that students who are interested in Colorado Law visit the campus and see how friendly the students are, even as they are studying hard in the library. Another selling point is the access to other on-campus classes (I took both Hindi and Russian on campus my 3L year) and activities (Silicon Flatirons conferences, ATLAS lectures, international festivals, rec center). Inside the law school, the professors are world-class and the school itself is focused on preparing students for any number of career paths, including those outside big law.