Bruce Collins Photo by Mary Calvert

Scenario: You sit down to take the LSAT. The room is hot, you’re feeling anxious, and you briefly regret not taking a prep course–remembering almost immediately, that you couldn’t afford one. Your nose begins to bleed, and in the chaos of answering questions while trying to wipe away the red droplets now covering your test form, you break not one but both of your No. 2 pencils. You begin to sharpen them with the only tool you have–your thumb–resulting in a nasty blister. Weeks later, you receive your results. Not surprisingly, you scored miserably.

Most folks would chalk a situation like this up to fate: It simply isn’t in his cards to be a lawyer.

But Bruce Collins, the victim of this sad scenario, took a bit of a different approach. “I spent the summer traveling the U.S. in a car. I went to work in a factory, and then I went to Europe,” he explains.

Becoming a lawyer is all Collins knew. His father was a sole practitioner and politician in their small upstate New York town, and Collins always admired the work, knowing someday he would follow in his dad’s footsteps. He majored in industrial labor relations as an undergrad at Cornell, and at 19 ran for vice chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee (he lost), believing these would prepare him for a life in law.

So after returning from Europe and enjoying a stint working on a local politician’s campaign, Collins landed a job at the National Cable TV Association as director of government relations, retook the LSAT (this time, taking the prep course and getting a far better score) and attended law school at night. The position eventually led him to C-SPAN, which airs nonstop government proceedings and public affairs programming on cable, where he was hired as director of operations.

Collins continued to go to law school at night, and after six years, he graduated. “Most of my classmates were getting government jobs, but not me,” he says. “I went to work and told my boss, ‘I just graduated,’ and he said ‘Congrats, Bruce. You’re now our general counsel.’”

Twenty-three years later, Collins is still with C-SPAN–now its corporate vice president and general counsel. He also has served as the “Inside Non-Profits” columnist for InsideCounsel (formerly Corporate Legal Times) since the early 1990s.

Q: Not many GCs have been in their positions as long as you.

A: When I started at C-SPAN, I thought it was temporary until I got out of law school. But it was a natural step to become GC. It wasn’t a powerful corporation or law firm, but by this time, I had seen enough of my friends do things they weren’t happy with. My lawyer friends were telling me I had the best legal job around. So I stuck with C-SPAN.

Q: Tell me a little about the work you do as GC of C-SPAN.

A: As the only lawyer, I am responsible for the corporate organization–bylaws, articles of incorporation and election of officers. I maintain tax statuses, deal with conflicts of interest and whistleblowers. I handle all of the contract work, which involves all the agreements with all the distributors. We now have a radio station, and there are a lot of FCC obligations.

I am also the chief representative to the government. We have taken on a few issues on cable regulation. We have taken positions on First Amendment issues, such as indecency rules.

Q: How has your department evolved over those years?

A: We’ve never had more than a one-person legal department. We don’t need one. I am surprised; I thought by now we would have one. It’s incredible what the Internet can do for someone like me. If I can’t find what I need on the Internet, I can always find it through my colleagues.

I am unique in being a one-person department at a non-profit–my colleagues are not single-lawyers. We can get by with me offering day-to-day advice. When I need help, I hire outside counsel.

Q: What is most challenging?

A: Getting people to take my advice. That’s true of all lawyers. I am the only one here with a law degree. I am supposed to be the trained and knowledgeable expert, and when people would ask me a legal question, I would tell them the answer. And sometimes, they don’t see it that way. At first, I was shocked. I had to adjust to the fact that the lawyer’s word is not always the final word.

Q: What do you love about your work?

A: I have a lot of discretion. Example: My chairman was getting requests from some board members. C-SPAN has something of a good name in the industry. For us to be associated with any regulatory effort is considered a plus, so we get some of these requests, and this one is from a board member. My chairman says to me, “Look it over and see what we can do.” I looked at it, and I realized we don’t want to be associated with 90 percent of it, mostly because it was irrelevant to us. But I figured out a way that we could get involved but still be true to our mission.

Q: You’ve been an IC columnist for years. How did you get involved?

A: As a lawyer, a lot of publications come across my desk. But almost all are aimed at law firm lawyers. It was the early ’90s, and I get Corporate Legal Times (now InsideCounsel). I leaf through it and realize almost every article is something I want to read. I’m ecstatic! Finally, someone is thinking of us.

There was a letter from the publisher, and he asked for ideas. I sent him a letter and let him know that he needed something on non-profit law. I told him how big the sector was and that there were a lot of non-profits that would appreciate this magazine. A few weeks later he called me. He said, “Do you want to write a column?” I said, “No, I want to read one.” But he eventually talked me into it.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become GC of a non-profit?

A: I would tell young lawyers to pick an area that interests them. The non-profit sector runs the entire gamut. It doesn’t have to be a life of poverty. All the major industries are represented by non-profit trade associations. If money isn’t a factor, your talents will be in great demand across the non-profit sector.

Q: If money and family weren’t an issue, what would your dream job be?

A: I would be a young Pete Seeger. He taught me the meaning of free speech. He wrote the song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” which led the anti-war movement. He was a leader in the labor movement. He wrote and popularized the song, “We Shall Overcome.” At one time, he was the world’s greatest
banjo player.