ACC South Carolina Chapter Member Spotlight: Mark Brandenburg, General Counsel, The Citadel
When did you “go in-house,” and what prompted your decision?
I joined the staff at The Citadel in 2005. I worked at Barnwell Whaley Patterson & Helms for the six years before I became the first general counsel at The Citadel. I went to Barnwell Whaley with the hope of doing work for The Citadel as outside counsel. Over the six years I was there, my work for the school gradually consumed my practice. The school decided to hire its first general counsel, and I was fortunate to be selected.
What do you enjoy most about being a general counsel?
I love working for a client that has so much meaning to me. I am a graduate of The Citadel – Class of 1990. My father was a graduate – Class of 1951 – so I grew up coming to parades and football games, etc. Both of my brothers graduated from The Citadel, as did numerous cousins, uncles, etc. and of course, I have hundreds of friends who are graduates. I enjoy going to work every day and trying to prevent problems – practicing proactive law, so to speak. Of course, there is PLENTY of reactive law – problem solving, etc. I feel valued at the school, and I feel like I am making a difference.
Do you miss anything about your prior position?
I often say that the best and worst part of my job is that I do not see other lawyers. Although I am not the only lawyer on campus – we have several professors who have law degrees – I am the only lawyer who is practicing law. I desperately miss seeing my friends in the bar. My other focus in private practice was construction litigation. There was a relatively small group of attorneys that I saw in most of my cases. They were all very good friends, so I miss seeing them on a regular basis. I miss seeing lawyers “in general,” though. I miss hearing about the wide diversity in the practice of law, the challenges that other lawyers face, and the creative ways that lawyers find to solve problems.
Have you had any strong mentors in your career? What did they teach you?
My first job after graduating from law school was as a law clerk for Judge William L. Howard. I worked for him for two years, at an incredible time in his career: he was a Circuit Court judge during my first year. During the second, he served on the S.C. Court of Appeals, filling Judge Bell’s seat after his untimely death. During that year, though, Chief Justice Finney appointed him to handle the Susan Smith case, in Union, South Carolina, so I finished my clerkship working on that case. I learned plenty about law, working with other lawyers, working with the public and the press, but much more about life “in general” from him: patience, humility, and, more than anything, kindness. He spent those two years, and the twenty-five plus since, drilling two words into me: Be nice. I have repeated that mantra to cadets, colleagues, and friends, and I hope I have lived up to it.
Dawes Cooke has also been an incredible friend, mentor, and colleague – even before I joined Barnwell Whaley, and certainly since I have been at The Citadel. He has been the school’s outside counsel since the mid-1980’s; the firm has served as the school’s law firm since the 1950’s (at least). His knowledge and experience as a lawyer is incredible, but again, the lessons outside the conference room and courtroom have been more important. As a young lawyer, I wanted to make every argument / fight over every issue / discovery question / etc. He taught me to look at the bigger picture. Some of his typical advice: “If we are probably going to have give someone a document, then do so voluntarily, and get credit for it, rather than making them file a motion, and have the judge force you to do so.”
What matter or accomplishment are you most proud of in your career?
Until this year, I would have pointed to our creation of a team on campus that seeks to identify and help students who are at risk. We created it after the Virginia Tech tragedy. I played a major role in writing the policy and I meet with the team weekly during the academic year. We have worked with many cadets and made a difference in lots of lives.
Given the events over the last year, though, I have to say that navigating the perils and pitfalls of COVID over the past year is my proudest accomplishment. We brought cadets back in August, gave them an extended Christmas break between Thanksgiving and mid-January, and will send this year’s senior class off with an in-person graduation. We did not have furloughs, layoffs, RIFS, or cut any programs or athletic teams. We had struggles and overcame hurdles, but overall, we have had a successful year. I played a small part in that success, but have been involved every day since the world changed on March 13, 2020, and I am incredibly proud of our work this year.
What key advice would you give to new in-house lawyers or those contemplating going in house?
Understand that you are part of a team. You have a key role in the organization, but it is also a limited role. I think often of a line at the end of the movie Bull Durham. Kevin Costner’s character, Crash Davis, tells Tim Robbins, as Robbins is headed to the major leagues: “You have to play this game with fear and arrogance.” That advice applies to in-house counsel. We play a special role in providing advice to our clients, and we have an ethical obligation to act independently and zealously. I interpret those responsibilities as requiring me to speak my mind and be fearless in defending it. As lawyers, we look at problems from a different perspective, with different education, training and experience (especially for those of us who were once litigators). At the same time, though, our role is limited. I frequently remind my colleagues at The Citadel: “I do not make decisions. My job is to provide you with my best advice. I will support your decision, whether it follows my advice or not.” Of course, we have certain ethical obligations in limited situations when our clients do not follow our advice. Identifying those situations and acting is probably the biggest challenge.
Has the COVID pandemic changed your perspective in any way?
I spent about two months working from home. With email, a cell phone, and Zoom, there were times when I felt there was little difference between being in my office at school and being in my office at home. As the weeks continued, though, I realized how much I missed by not being at the office - both personally and professionally. I enjoy working with my colleagues every day, so I missed seeing them. But, I quickly concluded I was not nearly as effective as the lawyer working from home as I was working in my office. I missed so many “unofficial” / unscheduled / informal / chance interactions. I realized I did not have the full picture in many situations. I learned the value of the day-to-day interactions, both in official meetings and everywhere else. I was eager to get back to the office, and I am confident I provide much better service than I did from home.
Aside from the law, what professions are interesting to you?
Teaching. Of course, that’s an easy - and perhaps obvious - answer for the general counsel for a college. But, before I joined Barnwell Whaley, I was an adjunct professor at The Citadel. I occasionally teach a “Freshman 101” class at The Citadel, and frequently give presentations on FERPA, FOIA, Clery, Title IX, and a host of other topics to cadets, faculty, staff, and administrators. I feel like I am “teaching” in many of those situations, and based on both my experience as an adjunct and my observation of “real” professors over the past 16 years, I have a tremendous respect and admiration for authentic teachers.
Are you an “early bird” or “night owl”?
At my age, effectively “neither.” During my second and third years in law school, I was a “residential assistant” in the undergrad dorms. My dorm did not get quiet until after midnight, so I typically went to the law school between 10 and 11 at night, and studied until 2 or 3 am. There was a group of us on that schedule. As a result, I did not wake up until 10 or 11 am; most of my classes were in the afternoon and evening.
When I began my career, as a law clerk, I tried to get to the office before Judge Howard, which was usually between 8 and 9 am. During that time, and for a few years afterward (perhaps until our oldest child was born) I was able to stay up late - til midnight or slightly later. In the last few years, though, I have lost that ability, and find myself going to bed between 10 and 11.
Of course, many of my colleagues are retired military officers, so they are used to getting to work between 7 and 8, at the latest. I am famous, in house, for not meeting that schedule. I arrive around 9 (hopefully), and frequently stay at the office later than most of my colleagues. My wife and I typically eat dinner between 7 and 8, but my day ends at home between 10 and 11.
What do you enjoy outside of work?
Fishing from my boat and golf, with roughly equal success. I am typically the worst golfer in any foursome, even though my father gave me my first set of clubs when I was 9 years old. Considering my skill (or lack thereof), though, it’s hard for my friends to believe I have been “playing” that long.
My fishing is not much better. I know a few places around Charleston where I can catch small fish, but I don’t fish for food. If I did, we would starve.
Otherwise, I am a Citadel football fan in the fall, and I am a Duke basketball fan during the winter. I go to all home football games and at least one Duke basketball game each year.
What book or movie do you recommend, and why?
Bull Durham, above, is one of my all-time favorites, though of course, there is absolutely nothing “law-related” about it.
My wife and I are fans of Masterpiece, on PBS. (Growing up, I NEVER would have predicted saying that.) They recently showed a “re-boot” of James Herriot’s “All Creatures Great and Small.” We recorded every episode and have watched them several times. I have gone back and read the books again; I read them - at my mother’s suggestion - when I was growing up. Again, there is nothing “law-related” in the books. But, the stories are wonderful, and a throw-back to a simpler time in many ways. Of course, it was also a much more difficult time, in many ways. But, the small-town life, and his descriptions of the countryside, the people, and the life-style in general are an incredibly attractive alternative to the frenetic pace at which we live life today.
How long have you been an ACC member, and what is your favorite part about it?
“Officially,” about a year. I convinced our VP for Finance to budget the membership fee during COVID, as I wanted (desperately needed) access to the online resources. The written resources, of course, are fabulous, but as with my “specific” professional group, the National Association of College and Univesity Attorneys, the people are the best part of ACC. Jeff Winkler, formerly with InterTech, and Ben Glass, at Ogletree Deakins, among many others, have been very generous in inviting me to events for years. In so doing, they have given me the ability to see lawyers, interact with lawyers, etc. A few of us - all ACC members - try to get together for lunch once a month. So, being able to see people who deal daily with similar issues as those I do, who are South Carolina lawyers, is invaluable, and easily the best part of ACC.