Extended version: Joe Brennan combines many interests as GC of The Field Museum

A love of law, technology and evolutionary biology equipped Brennan for the role

As a child, Joe Brennan dreamed of becoming a marine biologist, but when a post-college stint as a paralegal at Mayer Brown instead convinced him to attend law school, it appeared that his love of science would remain a personal interest, not a professional calling. Little did he know that, more than a decade later, he would find a job that combined those two passions.

Upon graduating from school, Brennan worked as a litigator, but he found the idea of in-house work more appealing. With only two years of legal experience under his belt, however, he found it difficult to make the transition to corporate law, so he bolstered his business knowledge by taking a job in the City of Chicago’s contracts and commercial law division.

After about five years with the city, Brennan went in-house at a series of tech companies, eventually landing the general counsel spot at Deutsche Telekom subsidiary T-Systems North America, an experience that he likens to “standing on the bank of a rampaging elephant and juggling.”

Then, in 2005, Brennan got an unexpected opportunity to combine his legal experience with his childhood love of biology when The Field Museum in Chicago—one of the largest natural history museums in the world—hired him as vice president and general counsel.

A few years ago, Brennan, who studied computer programming as a kid, found a way to use his tech expertise when he became the museum’s chief information officer (CIO). In his dual capacity, he manages the Field’s technological side—including its web, new media, social media and IT groups—as well as its legal department.

 

Q: When did you first decide to become a lawyer?

A: I realized I wanted to go into law after working as a paralegal in Chicago for a year at the law firm of Mayer Brown, and my interest at that time was very general. I just was interested in the grand dialogue more than anything else.

Q: How did your career progress after college?

A: I started working as a litigator and it really wasn’t for me. I wanted to work in corporate law, [but] after only two years of practice, it’s actually very hard to make that transition. So I took a job at the City of Chicago in their contracts and commercial law division, and that was just a wonderful experience. I walked in there, and ended up working almost immediately on these enormous and complicated IP and outsourcing contracts. You couldn’t learn more in less time than I did in the first year I was there.

After that, I worked at a company called BlueMeteor, which was a rather flashy start-up in 2000 and 2001. I guess the truism is, don’t name your company after something that destroys itself by hitting the ground, because that didn’t work out.

When BlueMeteor ceased doing business, I found a job at [an IT outsourcing company]. It was subsequently purchased by Deutsche Telekom and rolled into a company called T-Systems International. I became the general counsel, and then because we then merged with another subsidiary, I became the general counsel not only of an IT outsourcing company but also of a telecom company.

So that was a lot of standing in the right place at the right time. Actually, it was a little bit like standing on the back of a rampaging elephant and juggling.

Q: How did you get the job at the Field Museum?

A: All my life, I had had a very profound interest in evolutionary biology and our cultural response and thought process about evolution. So when I heard about the job being available, not only did I have an unusual and very applicable diversity of experience to offer…but I also knew, from a personal avocation standpoint, an enormous amount of evolutionary theory.

I really, fundamentally believed that I would not be considered for the job. So when I got the opportunity to interview with these guys who were lions of evolutionary biology, people who work here, people whose books I’d read… I used the opportunity to talk about their science and their perception about evolution, figuring that it would be my best and only chance to have any real conversation with these guys. Correspondingly the conversation was actually very interesting, went on for a long time, and it was actually a good basis for establishing a relationship with a client.

So I think partially it was my diversity of experience, but it was also partially because I came in as a somewhat educated true believer.

Q: What was the transition from corporate to museum life like?

A: Well, I always say there’s a reason all my hair fell out. You don’t know what you don’t know until you have to answer questions about it. This is a large, complicated, academic institution. We have a tenure model. We have a large staff. We have collecting activity that goes on across the world. We have stores. We have intellectual property that we manage. It’s an enormously complicated endeavor, and [there are] a whole lot of very specialized laws that apply to it.

I didn’t know very much about cultural property. I didn’t know much about Native American relations. I didn’t know about the importation or exportation of biological specimens. So I had to learn a lot very quickly.

Q: What are some of the most common legal issues that you address at the museum?

A: We have a lot of cultural property issues, including litigation in federal district court about some Persian antiquities. We have an enormous amount of work we do with intellectual property. Because of our expansion into digital realms, we’ve put a lot of thought into data preservation, privacy and the related issues that you need to [consider], especially when dealing with children.

Any institution that has 1.3 million to 1.5 million visitors a year is going to have a series of what you would think of as slip and falls.

We build exhibitions and we rent exhibitions, and some come from overseas, so we have laws that we comply with to make sure that we transport things in the right way.

We have scientists who create research material. We have people who write books and other things for general publication, and we have rules for how we address both of those. It’s not the kind of practice in which there are down days. It’s great fun.

Q: Is there such a thing as a typical day?

A: I used to counsel attorneys who worked for me that they should never fill any day past 70 percent, because something will come up, and if I’m the manager, I want them to have some flexibility.

I build to about 30 percent, and then just push forward on various things. It is a very diverse and fast-moving environment, and so we manage accordingly. There’s no day that is really like any other.

Q: You’re also the museum’s chief information officer. How did that come about?

A: I’d always worked in and around technology as a lawyer, but before that I actually worked in technology. I took programming classes when I was a kid. I went to computer camp—that’s my sordid admission.

A couple of years ago, [I told] then-CEO John McCarter and members of the board: “We need to upgrade our infrastructure. We need to upgrade our storage and how we interact with the public. We need to streamline our website.” And I guess I would counsel my brothers at the bar to be careful for what you advise. Because the response was: “Why don’t you give it a shot, and take it over and manage it, Joe?”

I’m really beholden to the people who work for me—I really didn’t do much of it myself—but we have fundamentally revamped the technology structure here at this museum.

Q: What are some of those major projects?

A: We’re building a giant database, and we’ve built a portal so that the public will be able to search our scientific collections and see all the things that we look at when we do our research.

We have a grant from the Grainger Foundation which is going to allow us to image at least 500,000 of the most interesting things in our collection, if they’re not already imaged. We’re going to be doing that in 2-D and 3-D, with our goal being that we can share images with people.

What we want to get away from is this behind-the-glass-wall, abstract, hands-off interaction with objects, and really get to a different kind of personal interaction with these grand complexities.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: Switching back and forth fifteen times a day between being a lawyer and being the technology advocate. It’s challenging, and I constantly say to people it’s a little bit like speaking English and then a foreign language, and switching back and forth again and again throughout the course of the day. Not that I’m complaining—it’s actually a wonderful challenge.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of the job?

A: I’ve been fortunate to have some very positive things happen both as a lawyer and as a repatriation guy. Repatriation is return of sacred objects to Native American and other indigenous cultures. We’ve have some incredibly positive success in that area.

And then, this technological advancement for the museum is going to allow us to do some really important things for children. Some of my intellectual role models in the world are scientists who wrote for the public, and I feel that what we’ve been able to do with the technology is going to allow this institution to become like a meta-example of that. 

Q: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would your dream job be?

A: I would probably follow through and become some sort of evolutionary biologist. 

Q: Do you have any advice for young lawyers who want to go in-house one day?

A: Diversity of experience. Just going in-house is one thing, but if you’re looking for that unusual kind of position, you should build the knowledge that qualifies you for the spot.

Q: What was your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: Probably my first appointment as general counsel at T-Systems North America. I was bowled over at the challenge. I was thrilled to take on the leadership responsibility. I was incredibly enthusiastic about the company and, to be honest, I had no idea what I was getting into. But if I look back, that was a very happy time.

Q: What is your favorite exhibit at the Field Museum?

A: The evolution exhibit, meaning the dinosaurs and everything. It’s the best of its kind in the world. It’s really the story of life through the entire 4 billion years of Planet Earth.

Alanna Byrne

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