Interview with Professor Christopher Brummer of Georgetown University

‘To get to where you want in life, you always have to go through a period of hard work.’

Only 36 and already highly successful. I interviewed Christopher Brummer, law professor at the prestigious Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He started his career at a young age in Germany, and has traveled the world since. He is a great fan of Star Wars and has built quite a collection. I spoke with him over skype, and asked him more about his fascinating life.

Emilie Kerstens: First some history, where are you from?
Professor Brummer: I am originally from Arkansas, the same state where Bill Clinton is from. When I was 16, I wrote a paper about Germany’s constitution and I won a competition, so the next day I woke up and I was in Germany for a year. Then I went to college in St. Louis and got my doctorate in Chicago, and while I was getting my doctorate I lived in South Africa for two years, because I wrote my dissertation on German imperialism in South West Africa (Namibia). Namibia is a great country by the way, you can go sandboarding (snowboarding on sand). Then I went to law school in New york, and my first big job was as a lawyer in London.

Do you think living in Germany has influenced your life?
Brummer: It made a huge impact on my life. I stayed in a host family, and I did not speak German, but my host family didn't speak English so I was forced to learn German very quickly, I went to a German high school and I had German friends. Even now, all these years later, my host mother is still very dear to me, I have known her since I was 16, she’s like a second mom. Unfortunately my host father passed away, about five or six years ago. When I got married, my host mom came down to Atlanta and my wife is French, so we had this West African, Arkansas, German, French wedding. My host mom even forced me to translate her speech. Living in Germany certainly opened my eyes to how big the world is, and how interesting and necessary it is to learn foreign languages. It helped me to develop a real interest for  Germany and for European affairs. Later, I ended up getting a doctorate in German. I then went to law school and most of my clients were Germans; as a result even while I lived in London, I was always flying back and forth, doing business for Germans as an American lawyer in London.

Where have you worked in the past?
Brummer: As a professor I’ve taught at London School of Economics in Britain, University of Basel in Switzerland, Heidelberg University in Germany, and Georgetown University. I started working at Vanderbilt University and before I was a professor I worked at the London branch of a US law firm.

You’ve been all over the world, which was your favorite place you’ve been/lived?
Brummer: I think my favorite place to live is probably London, but my favorite place I've ever visited is Bali, Indonesia. I also speak French and when I was a kid I spent a lot of time in Southern France. The thing is that as you get older you see more and more of the world and the best places all have something cool but no one place monopolises everything. That is one reason why I travel a lot and I think other people too, because you know that you can't get everything everywhere, so you constantly move around to experience as much as you can.

Currently you work at Georgetown University, so what exactly is your job?
Brummer: I don’t know! Many people ask me “So Chris what do you do?” The fact of the matter is that a very small percentage of my time is spent teaching, and there are a lot of other things I do. I only spend 3-5 hours a week teaching and I have something called tenure, which means I can’t really get fired, unless I end up assassinating somebody or something. That frees me up to do lots of research but also get involved in policy conversations on finance, financial regulations and stuff like that. So I actually have three offices in Washington DC. I have my Georgetown office, but I also have two ‘think tank’ offices at other organisations designed to just research and write about policy and convene fancy people together to talk and think about stuff. I have an office over at the Atlantic Institute and a temporary office at the Milken institute. There I meet people from all over the world all the time, and lots of time they come to me because they just want to talk about stuff, like banks and financial institutions and they will say “We have this problem”, “We think we have a problem” or  “Is it a problem?” So I sit around and think about it and sometimes I’ll have a answer, and sometimes I’ll say “Thats a really good question, I have no idea, let’s talk to some people and try to figure out what the answer is”.  Sometimes we convene meetings about that specific financial or economic issue, and that then in turn will get an answer and a lot of times I’ll have to fly around and talk to business people about what I think the answer is [explains his week - comment of the interviewer]. On the one hand I have the academic stuff but then I also have to go talk to lawyers, and financial institutions. My life is divided between lots of different things, but I’m always learning which is really amazing. Being a lawyer is very useful, because people ask me about rules, but most of the rules that I deal with aren’t really rules, they are more what people think the rules should be. That’s a pretty high level of ‘lawyering’, because some lawyers just say well here’s what the rule is. I don’t really do that, I say “Here is what the rule probably is if it existed or would be in the future”.

So you have a lot of time to do different projects, what are some of the different projects you have worked on?
Brummer: I’ve done lots of projects. On the academic end, I write books [is going to the LSE to talk about his book - comment of the interviewer]. However I also do projects for think tanks, the biggest one being a project comparing EU and US financial regulations, where I drafted a report and then that report was examined on Capitol Hill, by the US congress. I was able to testify over at the EU parliament, then we went to London where we had a big presentation. Right now, we’re doing another report that is going to be just as big and it’s going to be about China’s financial regulations in comparison with the EU and US and that is also going to include a lot of travel to Hong Kong and Singapore!

That sounds great, getting to travel a lot and having time to work on projects as you choose…. earlier you mentioned tenure, so how did you become a tenured law professor?
Brummer: I had to work really hard to write when I first got into the job. A lot of times smart people that are reflective can get a little frustrated earlier on because to get where you want you always have to go through a certain level of crap, of tough work that’s not always fun. But then you get past that level and you’re job becomes much more fun. So just like anyone else I had to go through a certain amount of difficult work, and I was also a little lucky because I got tenured quickly, since different universities wanted to hire me and so after three years I basically said: “I’ll stay if you give me tenure”

What is your greatest achievement?
Brummer: Well one of the things I'm kind of proud as a professor is that on a number of occasions I've been able to get students jobs, and they've really done well. Then I feel like if I had not intervened they might not have found the job that they needed. I really enjoy the fact that now I’m becoming old and senior enough that I’m increasingly able to pick up the phone and call people to suggest that they hire people that I know would do well, and when they do well, it makes me very happy.

And for myself a moment where I was proud of myself was when I was a junior professor, before I got tenure. I wrote an article and I submitted my article to a journal that only published maybe one article out of every three thousand, and my article was accepted.  At that moment I knew that my life was about to get much easier, and I remember because I got the call that my article was accepted at one o'clock in the morning, and I was like yelling in happiness, and I remember thinking “This is awesome!”.

Another moment was when I was doing my interview to work at a law firm.  It was the London branch of a New York law firm, and the New York one is supposedly the top law firm in the United States, and I remember at the end of my interview they said: “Would you like to have a job here?” and I was like “Wait, you’re not gonna think about it” and they said no and at that moment I was amazed.

Have your students ever pranked you?
Brummer: No, my students don’t prank me, I prank them! I do all kinds of things to mess with my students because it’s fun. For example, I teach international financial regulations, so law students think there must be so much math involved, but there is not because it’s law. So this year I came in on the first day of school, very serious looking, and I said “Welcome class to International Financial Regulations, before the semester is over, I want you to be able to understand this” and I wrote a completely nonsensical formula on the board. They all looked terrified and then I said: “I'm just kidding”.

Did you always want to be a law professor?
Brummer: Well I had always thought about being a law professor, and my dad teaches juvenile justice family law at the University of Arkansas. I remember in the mornings before I went to school, he would be in his robe, and when I came back from school he’d still be in his robe watching parliamentary sessions. and I thought to myself: “I don’t know what you do, but I want that job.”

How has your family affected where you are today?
Brummer: I think I knew about the job of being a law professor, because I had one in my house, even though we do very different areas of the law. I think everybody’s family influences them in terms of how they act and behave, because we are all social creatures, and my family is a pretty goofy family, we’re not very serious, we’re very informal and as you can probably tell, we’re very loud. So I work very very hard but I try to not to take everything too seriously, and when I’m around people who are very serious or snobby, I like to laugh at them (chuckles), because there is just no need for it, and that is what I think I thank my family for most.

I also heard from my dad that you have a Star Wars collection?
Brummer: Star Wars is awesome and I think besides the light bulb, it is humanity's greatest creation. There’s electricity, and then there’s Star Wars. One other thing that I do, is act as a judge for certain regulatory matters, and for my decision in terms of legal reasoning, I have made reference to Star Wars. (chuckles) So one of the times that I was talking through the decision making I said “Well if anyone is familiar with Star Wars, one can see in episode 9 that...’, so the person that was recording what I was saying, just stops and looks at me and I said: “Continue” (chuckles).

When I teach it’s fun to use Star Wars, because there are certain types of words that I use to describe my students. For example in Star Wars, there is a term for Jedi learners, like young people who are trying to learn ‘the Force’ , and they are called Padawans in the world of Star Wars, so when I teach class I’ll say “Excellent, Padawan, excellent!” or I’ll ask a question and my students won’t know the answer and I say “use the force” and so every year my students and former students will come by my office with Star Wars related gifts like lightsabers, and Darth Vader potato heads… Its awesome!

Who is your favorite character in Star Wars?
Brummer: Well as professor I love Yoda, because he is like the teacher, however my wife thinks of me more like Anakin who becomes Darth Vader. In fact for my birthday she created a bobble head with my head and it was put on an Anakin Skywalker body, and I asked her why did you choose Anakin because he becomes Darth Vader and she says: “I know what I did”.

If you had to choose between being Yoda or a tenure Law professor, which would you choose?
Brummer: Absolutely Yoda, there is no question that if I could be a tiny little green guy with superpowers and a lightsaber, I would choose the little green guy, absolutely, Yoda is awesome! But law professor is a close second. (chuckles)

I have one last request: I want to ask you if you’re in your office with the star wars memorabilia later this week to take a Starfie.
Brummer: a what?

A Star Wars selfie

Brummer: (Laughs loudly) a Star Wars selfie, I have never heard of that. That is hilarious, I can not believe that there is a term involving Star Wars that I did not know. I will take a starfie and send it to you. (see picture above)

by Emilie Kerstens


  1. your definition of a fascinating life is fascinating.

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