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Brett Coffee is general counsel for Computer Systems Center Inc. and for the SemperComm Foundation, both based in Springfield, Va.
Let’s start with CSCI. Can you tell us about the company? The company I work for, CSCI — Computer Systems Center Incorporated — is a defense contractor that has a team of subject matter experts in engineering, analysis, and technology. It works primarily with the Department of Defense but also with other government agencies in solving some of their complex technology issues. We’ve been around for 20 years, and [it] was started by Linda LaRoche and Joe Link, and I came on board a little over two years ago.
Can you give us some examples of the kinds of DOD services you provide? It varies across the board — we’re involved with and have contracts in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and with almost all the different services: Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force. Our headquarters are in Springfield, Va., but we have presences at military facilities in Maryland, California, Florida, Alabama, Texas, and Virginia.
How big is the company? We’re approximately 160 people. We’re primarily in Springfield, but we do have people in all of our locations.
Can you provide an example of the kind of work CSCI does? Our flagship product is called the Trusted Information Infrastructure. TII is a compartmented computer environment that allows for a secure cross-domain transfer of information. An easy way to think about it is if you have classified and nonclassified information on the same network, and yet you’re keeping information restricted to people who have the need to know. Another example is over in Iraq. Every country in the coalition will have its own separate computer system, so our environment allows us to put all of them on a smaller number of computer systems. It’s less hardware, less electricity, less people guarding the sensitive equipment. We’ve been working on that for a number of years, and we have TII within some departments in the Department of Defense. Much of what we do is dealing not only with security, but we are also looking at policies, both current and future, to see how DOD assets can be more effectively applied to their challenges. TII is unique in that it relies on COTS: commercial off-the-shelf products. And that’s an effort to leverage the best technology out there for our clients.
How would you describe your job? What’s it like on a typical day? There’s really no such thing as a typical day. Also, at CSCI, I’m the head of business development, but that fits in well with my legal role because much of what we do is working with our commercial partners to get the latest technology for TII. There’s a big overlap between those two roles. For our contractual issues, we do have two people who specialize in the government contracts area, and they’re an amazing resource for the company’s government contracting matters.
And can you talk about SemperComm? SemperComm was started as an employee initiative here, because most of our employees are former military. They wanted to find a way not only to give back but to leverage what we do here and use that to help troops that are deployed worldwide. Our mission is to provide morale and communications equipment to bases in remote locations overseas.
How do you help with morale? That depends on the base. Our first sponsored base was in Okinawa at the Jungle Warfare Training Center. Their physical training was street hockey, so we replaced some of the street hockey equipment that had been used over the years. Every year we have a gala where we recognize members of the military who have gone above and beyond to support morale efforts in remote locations. At last year’s gala, one of the winners was a group that created a full-size regulation bocce ball court — in the middle of Iraq! It even complied with international regulations — at an outpost at an undisclosed location in the middle of Iraq. That was part of it — trying to figure out logistics, to get things to these locations. We also get DVD players and movies, just whatever we can get to give those service members over there a break.
Where do the items come from? We look for donations, and some of the equipment is purchased, but some of it is a function of what the troops want and what we can easily get our hands on. Microsoft has donated Xboxes in the past — the troops just eat them up.
And what about the communications element? It’s actually more computer-based, which grows out of CSCI’s expertise. We took the concept behind TII and made a version of it for this project that is able to securely compartmentalize information so that it doesn’t have the same security issues as a free e-mail system. And we restrict access to five family members or friends that are pre-screened by the troops’ commanding officers. We offer it on three levels. One is a secure place to talk with their families, and the only people that they can see are the people they have chosen. And there’s another level, where troops at remote bases can talk to others at other remote bases. And then there’s a level where SemperComm partners can talk to troops — it’s a community. There’s a lot of banter. So many of these service members are just out in the middle of nowhere, cut off to what we think of as basic information, such as who won the Super Bowl. We get a lot of interaction. Also, people will post pictures up there, and it’s just a really interesting way to interact with all these people.
Do you think the level of communications have changed things during this war? It’s interesting that you bring that up. There’s a fascinating book, called Operation Homecoming, which is a collection of letters sent by troops over in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the [National Endowment for the Arts], provided copies of the book. The big difference is the fact that they’re making this a public partnership with the Boeing Corp. We’re usually reading this sort of thing long after the history books have been written. But now it’s being read by the entire country at the same time the conflict is going on, which gives us a much better insight to what is happening in terms of troops. We’re just trying to do our part. It’s a small way to be able to support the people sent over there, whatever your position on the war. These are Americans who have been sent by our country to some desolate places, and it’s been a remarkable experience for me on a personal level to get to know some of these troops. Especially for my generation, because we haven’t had the same experience as previous generations with respect to the possibility of service in the military.
Can you talk about both of your jobs? I’m the one lawyer for SemperComm. In that work, there are a number of DOD requirements we have to deal with, IRS issues, normal contracts for our gala and our golf tournaments. There’s quite a bit of advising I do on that level. For CSCI, I have a very nimble team that includes myself and two contracts specialists. And then our director of administration is not a practicing lawyer but has a law degree and spent 20 years at the Patent and Trademark Office, so he can head off a lot of issues before they become legal issues. My role encompasses a little of everything else: a number of IP issues, employment law issues, corporate governance matters. Those are the kinds of things that keep me up at night. And then whatever else comes up. Being in an organization that trusts and relies on its people very heavily, you find yourself having to deal with a lot of very novel issues that provide a constant challenge. So many lawyers are trained as specialists, and when you get to be a GC, you find an employment issue one day and a tax issue another day. You may not have specific training in a specific issue, but your job is to guide the company through this issue.
What outside counsel do you use? Probably our most important outside counsel is Manesh Rath of Keller and Heckman. That’s who lets me sleep at night. We really try to treat our employees well, but when it’s not reciprocated, that’s who we call. We also use John Barker of Arnold & Porter for some regulatory work. On the SemperComm side, we use John Pellegrin, who is a solo practitioner, for our IP and regulatory matters. He’s just fantastic.
What would you say are the biggest legal challenges in the job? As a small company, we always have to be wary of the issues that can come up and have ramifications that can affect the livelihood of everyone who works here. My job is to protect the company from many of those risks. You have to keep a vigilant eye on all fronts. But the category of employment law is one of those areas where something seems small in the beginning [but] has to be treated with humanity, and also [one needs] to appropriately address the legal issues. And as with any small government contractor, dealing with our client is our No. 1 priority and there are some headaches involved in dealing with the government and sometimes with our large prime contractors. But generally, those get worked out in an equitable manner. It’s a management issue.
And what is your favorite part of the job? It has to be the people. I work with amazing people who are touching the most advanced technology and are fascinating to work with. From a legal point of view, that makes going to work a joy. We get to deal with a lot of really interesting issues, and we get trusted with a lot of issues. We also have full support of the management team. And then I get to spend my free time with projects like SemperComm.
How do you juggle both jobs? I was general counsel at SemperComm before I came into CSCI. Because of the close tie between the two, we are all careful about the potential for conflict. But it’s a dual role now, and I went in with the understanding that those two priorities would take a significant amount of time. But there’s enough flexibility in both roles that I can do it. Also, we use outside counsel to manage the workload.
What’s your background? I grew up in Chicago and went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I studied political science and international affairs. And then I received my law degree at Fordham Law School in New York and practiced there for a number of years in law firms, most recently for Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle. I spent half my time doing domestic and international corporate and securities law, and the other half working with hedge funds, investment advisers, that sort of thing. Then I went to California initially to work for RealNames, a dot-com company, and ended up getting my LL.M. in corporate and business law and a diploma in tax law from the University of San Diego. I was working at a company called Leap Wireless in San Diego when I met my wife. We decided to settle in Northern Virginia, where she’s from. I started with SemperComm then, and about eight months later, I joined CSCI. My wife is executive director of SemperComm and vice president of marketing and communication at CSCI.
There must be a lot of shop talk at home. We try to avoid it. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. But we’re both involved in so many other organizations, we have enough other things to talk about.
And those things are? Cycling, golf, and travel are probably the three top things in terms of activities. I’m also involved in a number of community activities. I’ve been named to a board in Fairfax County called the Citizens Corps Council, which focuses on emergency preparedness in the area. And I’m a member of the West Springfield Rotary Club, Association of Corporate Counsel, and the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Just recently, I became a graduate of the Emerging Leadership Institute, which is a program for younger leaders from the community to encourage the development of community organizations. They take people from government, nonprofits, and business and train them to become leaders of both their own sectors and other nonprofits.
That’s quite a lot. My wife keeps telling me to stop joining activities. But people keep needing help. I’m also involved with politics as well. I’ve been supporting Pat Herrity, who’s running for Springfield supervisor.
Have you had time to read any good books lately? It’s hard for me to read just one book, but it’s also hard for me to finish any of them. Two books I’ve been reading are Guests of the Ayatollah [by Mark Bowden], which is about America’s history with Iran. And T.R.: The Last Romantic [by H.W. Brands], a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. We share the same birthday, so Roosevelt has always been particularly interesting to me.

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