Sept. 14, 2021

Stories From an Unsinkable Explorer Lawyer

Don’t discount the childhood pleasures that can shape your life. For David Concannon, hiking, exploring, and diving at summer camp fueled his lifelong passion for outdoor adventure – and a ridiculously cool legal niche along with a side business in exploration consulting.

Inspired by his grandfather’s fascination with the air and the sea, David became general counsel of The Explorer’s Club (comprised of the world's greatest adventurers ) after being inducted as one of its youngest members, sparking relationships that launched his career advising deep-sea explorers on the legalities of visiting the Titanic and other shipwrecks, serving as general counsel to the X Prize Foundation, and working with Jeff Bezos to recover the rocket engines that propelled the Apollo program to the moon.

Listen as David recounts tales that stretch from the courtroom to the deepest ocean depths and Earth's orbit. Not your ordinary law practice, to be sure.


Guest Insights

  • Describing his first dive to the Titanic wreckage [2:50]
  • The job of the lawyer during the dive [4:19]
  • Being involved in Titanic litigation since 1998 [5:23]
  • Working with film and TV storytellers to negotiate intellectual property agreements and develop Titanic-related content [5:58]
  • Intellectual property rights pay for explorations [7:33]
  • Persuading courts to grant access to salvage the Marconi radio from the Titanic [8:42]
  • Describing his unique law firm and practice [12:16]
  • Establishing Explorer Consulting separate from Concannon & Charles [12:53]
  • Growing up in Philadelphia and Ocean City, influenced by his grandfather's love of the ocean [13:31]
  • Learning to hike, dive, and explore at summer camp in New Hampshire [15:28]
  • Graduating college and making a strange turn to law school [16:51]
  • Travel to Kenya during law school provided adventure opportunities [18:23]
  • Clerking for a federal judge and researching a shipwreck dispute [20:25]
  • A brief history of The Explorer's Club [24:44]
  • Joining the Explorer's Club and becoming general counsel [25:39]
  • Leaving BigLaw to strike out on his own [27:16]
  • Fishing with Buzz Aldrin led to becoming general counsel of the X Prize Foundation [29:11]
  • Working with Jeff Bezos to find the Apollo F1 rockets [31:19]
  • Receiving The Explorer's Club award for his team's retrieval of the Apollo rockets [34:44]
  • Defending dive equipment manufacturers and hopefully putting himself out of a job [36:05]
  • David's next adventures [38:30]

Links From the Episode

Transcript

[00:00:00] John Reed: I don't have anything against museums, but when I want to visualize history, I much prefer to be where it actually happened. I want to experience it. Gettysburg, Walden Pond, the dunes and beach at Kitty Hawk –these are just a few of the places where I've had the chance to transport myself back in time.

[00:00:19] Oceans are a whole different ball game. Have you ever stared out on the water and imagined what conquerors, crusaders, soldiers, captured slaves, immigrants, and others saw or felt or feared or hoped as they sailed to wherever and whatever they would later encounter? For me, mountains are where it's at. Stare at a mountain, especially a craggy snow-topped peak, and you know your humble place in the world. Stand atop one and survey all that is below? Well, I can only imagine the range of emotions. 

[00:00:56] Before there was 24-hour cable and streaming, one could experience seafaring adventures and summiting peaks on PBS. This isn't a pledge drive, by the way, but please do consider giving to your local PBS station. Like one of Pavlov's dogs, my heart still races when I hear the opening bars of the National Geographic theme song. I remember the Sunday nights when Jacques Cousteau, Tenzing Norgay, Edmund Hilary, and other explorers would command my absolute attention. My friends and I used to call it the "National Geographic coma" – the open-mouthed, sometimes drooling trance induced by those exploits.

[00:01:35] Today's guest is himself a modern-day explorer whose travels have taken him around the globe to the highest heights and the deepest watery depths. And here's the wicked cool part. It's his job as a lawyer – a Sticky Lawyer – to go on these adventures. 

[00:01:52] David Concannon is perhaps the luckiest accidental lawyer you'll ever meet. Nothing about his upbringing pointed to practicing law or worldwide exploration, and certainly not a combination of the two. Yet, he has become one of the foremost legal experts on international exploration and salvage, serving as counsel to some of the most important foundations and academies devoted to underwater interests 

[00:02:15] He's also a successful courtroom litigator but with a rather unorthodox mission to make himself and the cases he defends obsolete. There's a lot to cover today. So, let's get started. 

[00:02:25] David, welcome to the podcast. 

[00:02:27] David Concannon: Thank you very much, John. It's great to be here. 

[00:02:29] John Reed: I'm going to start with probably the biggest question that people want to know, and that is, how many times have you made dives to the Titanic? 

[00:02:36] David Concannon: Only for four dives on four expeditions. 

[00:02:39] John Reed: You never forget your first, so give us a sense of the diving vessel, the crew, and what you were thinking and feeling as you made your initial descent to view the wreck. 

[00:02:50] David Concannon: I describe a dive to the Titanic as being like a 12-hour-long blind date. You feel everything you would imagine feeling - fear, anticipation, trepidation, elation, everything. It takes a long time to get there. For me, it took eight days to get out to the site. Then it took three hours to sink two-and-a-half miles to the bottom. You're in a featureless area. So, you have this anticipation of where is it? What am I going to see? Then you come upon it. And there's a sense of awe and wonder. Because fewer people have done that dive than have stood on the summit of Mount Everest in a single day, you feel privileged to be there. Then you start thinking about, “what would it be like if I had been here on April 14 and 15, 1912?”

[00:03:38] All of those things are happening. But it's also a very dangerous area to be, so then you start thinking about, “What can trap me? What can keep me here? Where am I? What am I looking at? What are my objectives?” I'm working. I have tasks to accomplish, and it is almost like going to the moon where everything's just scheduled out. You really don't get a sense of it completely until after it's over, sometimes on the way up and often the next day, when it really sinks in and you get an opportunity to review the film footage.

[00:04:09] John Reed: Jokes about lawyers of the bottom of the ocean aside, what was your role on that first expedition? You talk about this job you had to do. What was the job?

[00:04:19] David Concannon: Specifically, I was counsel to the company that had been my opponent in the earlier litigation, and I organized the expedition for them, hired all the ships and the submersibles and the remotely operated vehicles, and then went out on site to manage that. You really can't go to the Titanic without an attorney these days. There's a lot of political machinations, a lot of legal issues attached to it from a logistical standpoint and a legal standpoint. Specifically, my role was to go out and get things started and integrate it. I had been a diver, a wreck diver, for a long time, so it turned into more of an operational role where I organized the dives and decided who would be in the subs. And that's what I did every afternoon at four o'clock was decide where the subs would go the next day and who would be in them. And then at five o'clock, we would have the meetings with the staff and the expedition members and tell them and do it on camera for the cameras. 

[00:05:18] John Reed: That is a lot to organize. I'm tired just thinking about it. 

[00:05:23] You once wrote: " The Titanic is like an annuity for lawyers. It just keeps paying off. Litigation over the Titanic and its remains has raged in at least five different jurisdictions since the ship's discovery in 1985." You entered the practice in 1991. How much of that litigation have you been involved with? 

[00:05:42] David Concannon: All of it since 1998. On behalf of multiple parties, not always opposed to each other. Or we'd win a case and then we'd go and work for the other side toward a common objective. 

[00:05:58] I stepped away from it for a long time and then came back to it about two years ago, reluctantly actually. But I was convinced by people that I know and respect that I should get back involved. I represented the company that I had done the expedition for 20 years earlier, in the effort to recover the Marconi radio device and to tell the important stories of the unimportant people. My role at that time specifically, was to find those stories, to work with storytellers in film and television to negotiate the intellectual property agreements and to develop content. In addition to getting the court's permission to recover the Marconi from inside, you need court permission to work from inside the pod outside, and then helping to charter the ships and things. 

[00:06:51] John Reed: My thinking would be the disputes are all over ownership rights, claims, salvage, but you've opened up a whole new area to me, which is the IP side of these disputes for the Titanic. When we're talking about IP, you're talking about content. You have to organize the expedition, that's for sure. But beyond that must you have permission to take footage, to capture that content, and reproduce it?

[00:07:18] David Concannon: No, and because that's the case I won that went to the Supreme Court. That was called Haver vs. RMS Titanic Incorporated. And it was over the intellectual property rights and how they fit into international salvage law and the law of the sea. 

[00:07:33] I'll give away a little secret – intellectual property rights pay for exploration, for the most part. Most of the time, you are going to be on television, or you are going to make a film, or you're going to be in a book, or you're going to be working for Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Disney, whomever. And the licensing or the sale of the intellectual property rights will pay for the expedition. Many times, that's the only profitable part of it. 

[00:08:02] In the Haver case, I represented the people who found the Titanic and it was over the intellectual property rights specifically, and the right to photograph, and the right to film, and the right to decide who can go there and for what purpose, and whether or not intellectual property rights are part of salvage rights. Through that case, I got to know everyone that had been involved in exploration and filming and eventually would then advise them. And that's what I still do. Getting people into the field, getting them to be able to film a certain thing, and produce the content is a huge part of my practice in exploration. 

[00:08:35] John Reed: The case you described involving the Marconi, wasn't there an overnight decision that you got from the court to be able to access that? 

[00:08:42] David Concannon: I started working on that in November of 2019 to marshal the evidence we needed to prove to the court that the shipwreck is deteriorating. The Marconi is at risk. The damage that would be done to remove the roof to recover the Marconi was merited by the value of saving the Marconi and the stories that it could tell. The U.S. Government opposed that. The British government opposed that. And we had to persuade the federal court sitting in admiralty in Virginia that it was a legitimate thing to do, and we succeeded in May.

[00:09:18] Specifically for lawyers, I had to get the court to reconsider an order that was entered 20 years earlier forbidding cutting into or detaching anything from the wreck site, which ironically, I pulled off a fax machine on the bridge of a Russian vessel with two submersibles when it was entered and sent to me at sea. So, I was the lawyer who had to explain it to the client and enforce it at sea, and then I was the lawyer who had to persuade a subsequent judge to reconsider that order and allow the recovery of the Marconi. Kind of bookended it. 

[00:09:52] John Reed: See, now I can't get Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin out of my head because you went with the Russian submersible thing. But I'm curious, what was the US and UK government's opposition? Was it leave the remains intact? It's sacred burial ground. One should not own those materials or those objects. What was their counter to what you were trying to do? 

[00:10:14] David Concannon: It's all of the above, but what, when it really boils down to is one single word and that is control. As the Titanic goes, from a precedent standpoint, so goes the rest of underwater exploration and historic shipwrecks and salvage and things like that. So if you can set a precedent over the Titanic that says you can't recover anything, or you can't do this, you can't do that, then that can be applied elsewhere. 

[00:10:37] John Reed: You've represented various interests vis-a-vis the Titanic. Where did these relationships start? Who was the first client, and how did that happen? 

[00:10:46] David Concannon: I was the general counsel to an organization in New York known as the Explorers Club. I was at a board meeting and one of the board members, Don Walsh, who was the pilot of the Bathyscaph Trieste when it made the deepest dive in history in 1960, was sitting next to me, and he had a brown envelope. And during a break, he said, "Hey, I got this in the mail yesterday. Can you take a look at it? Tell me what it is." I said, "Sure." I opened the envelope and looked inside, and it was a motion for preliminary injunction to prevent Don Walsh from going to the Titanic and leading an expedition there for exploration. This was in 1998. So that was the first. 

[00:11:24] And then I represented Ralph White, who was a National Geographic cinematographer. He got a similar motion for preliminary injunction to stop him from going. And another guy named Fred McLaren. and I represented them. I represented the Explorers Club. And through that, I was involved with Bob Ballard, National Geographic, Jim Cameron, and everyone who had any interest in going there for exploration or photography. And that was the Haver case. 

[00:11:50] John Reed: So, in addition to the Titanic, what other vessels and shipwrecks have you been involved with when it comes to exploration? 

[00:11:58] David Concannon: I was on an expedition to the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic. I was on an expedition where we found the world's deepest wooden shipwreck, a slave ship, that foundered in 1810 in 16,000 feet of water. I went to 16,000 feet in the same Russian submersible that we did on Titanic. 

[00:12:16] John Reed: You are the founding partner of your own law firm with offices on the Jersey Shore and Sun Valley, Idaho. What does your practice cover? Obviously, there's exploration law, but you do other things. Could you tell us about that?

[00:12:29] David Concannon: We do a lot of intellectual property. We do a lot of litigation for clients that are mainly in the outdoor space, whether they're equipment manufacturers or training agencies or tour companies, mostly on the defense side. And then we just do general run-of-the-mill local work for our clients.

[00:12:53] I found when I established the law firm that it had a problem. If I was doing exploration work, they weren't sure why they're hiring a law firm. And then if I was doing general commercial litigation, they were afraid I was always running out to the Titanic, which in reality I would do for two weeks a year, every couple of years. So, I had to split it off. And the consulting work was through Explorer Consulting, and litigation is purely through Concannon and Charles.

[00:13:22] John Reed: I want to go back and talk about your origin story or origin stories. Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? 

[00:13:31] I grew up outside of Philadelphia and also here in Ocean City. My parents split when I was a little boy and the seminal figure in my life was my grandfather. And he was down here in Ocean City, and he was a big reason why I do what I do. And I went to summer camp, which was a big deal for me. It got me out, taught me what I was capable of. And my mom was a Catholic school teacher, so we didn't really have any money and it was a pretty decent upbringing. 

[00:13:59] So was it your grandfather that introduced you to diving and the ocean? And did he instill in you this adventurous spirit? 

[00:14:08] David Concannon: Yes, without a doubt. He was a guy who didn't know how to swim, but he loved the ocean. And he was afraid to fly, but he loved airplanes. And he couldn't imagine that in his lifetime, he was born a little bit after the Wright brothers first flew, but not much after. But in his lifetime, Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. He was astonished by that. So, he would talk about that. And he would take me into the little airport on this island across from where his house was. And we'd walk up and down the flight line. And he'd say that's a Cessna, that's a Mooney, that's a Piper and we'd watch the planes take off and land. And then we would go half a mile east to the ocean. And there was a shipwreck on the beach, and you could see the tiller posts and it sank in the early teens, around the turn of the century, the last century. He would say this was coming from Japan and imagine the stories it could tell and where it had been. And it was only 50 feet from shore, but he was afraid to walk out to it, up to his knees because he couldn't swim. And that, that set the hook for me. Later on, when I did the Apollo project for Jeff Bezos, we codenamed it Murphy in honor of my grandfather.

[00:15:28] John Reed: What a fantastic way to celebrate his life. That's pretty touching. Where did the technical education come in terms of the diving, the climbing, and the hiking. Where were you introduced to those things? 

[00:15:41] David Concannon: Summer camp. So, all of it came from summer camp. I was a boy scout for about 20 minutes, long enough to smash my thumb trying to start a fire with a file and a rock. I said, "This is stupid. I'll use a match." But I went to summer camp in New Hampshire, which was as old as the Explorers Club and also hugely influential. And we were on scholarship, my brother and I, and it was New Hampshire. Two months in the woods, learning how to row and swim and kayak and climb mountains and hike and start fires with matches instead of rocks. And it really changed my life and made me understand what I was capable of. And I was a lot more than I thought I was. So, the first time I ever saw a shipwreck underwater was in the cove that the camp owns. A little wreck from 1912. And the first time I ever climbed a mountain was there. And slept outside. And did the types of things that, in my opinion, young boys and girls should be going instead of being on X-Box.

[00:16:45] John Reed: Let's talk about your education, college. Where'd you go? And what did you do? 

[00:16:51] David Concannon: Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which at the time was one of the best educations you can get for the money. I'm the only person in my family to ever go to college. But I knew if I, I had to, and I knew if I was going to, I had to pay for it myself. So, I went there, and I had a finance degree, economics minor, and just before I graduated, the stock market crashed, and all my job offers in finance evaporated three days later. 

[00:17:18] I didn't know what to do. I knew we were headed into the recession. So, I decided to stay in school. I thought about getting my MBA, but I thought that I would be done in two years, and I'd come out in a recession with more student loan debt and whatever. So, I decided on law school because I thought I could go anywhere with a law degree and go back into business and apply it anywhere. 

[00:17:40] John Reed: You had never considered law as a career? 

[00:17:43] David Concannon: Absolutely correct. I didn't care for law school. I finished as quickly as I could in two years in 10 days. I studied internationally both summers, first in Kenya, and then in Holland. My third year of law school was just ten Tuesdays, and I worked for the chief judge of the federal court in Philadelphia, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

[00:18:08] John Reed: So, in your two years and 10 days, and then overseas, what were you doing for your, lack of a better word, your extracurriculars? How were you feeding your mojo to have your adventures outside the classroom? 

[00:18:23] David Concannon: I really loved business and I wanted to study international trade and finance. I felt if I wanted to learn it from the U.S. or Western perspective, I could read the Wall Street Journal. And if I wanted to learn this from the European perspective, I could read the Wall Street Journal. But if I wanted to understand it from a different perspective, I should go to a developing country and study it there. So that's how I ended up in Kenya. I was also interested in the outdoor space and had been and so I studied international environmental law, and I worked as a volunteer for the United Nations Environment Program, which is headquartered in Nairobi. And through that, I spent a lot of time in the field, a lot of time out on "safari," a lot of time. I worked on an elephant population survey to get elephants listed as endangered species under the CITES treaty. And I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in 1989 before it was popular. And did a lot of the things that I had been doing as a teenager. But I just did it in Kenya. 

[00:19:27] And then the following year I was accepted to an international program. I was one of 12 Americans accepted at the Hague Academy of International Law, Peace Palace. And so, I did that as private international law. And I also was by this time interning for the chief judge. And I was still scuba diving, doing a lot of rec diving. And so, I was always doing that stuff on the side and finding that more fulfilling. 

[00:19:52] I loved working for the judge. I adore Judge Bechtle. I worked for him, and we had a phenomenal working relationship and a deep, close personal friendship that continues to this day, even though he's in his nineties now. He was probably second only to my grandfather in influence and where my life ended up. 

[00:20:11] John Reed: And he had a pretty interesting approach to giving you files to work on. And in fact, there was one particular matter one particular file you pulled out of the pile and homed in on. Can you talk about that? 

[00:20:25] David Concannon: We were in San Francisco and there was a backlog of cases, and we were asked to go out and help out. And every single day, the clerk would bring a pile of case folders down and throw them on the desk next to mine. And it was huge, enormous. It was up to your eyes. And then one day the judge walked in and said, "What's all this?" And I said, "That's every lousy case in the Northern District of California that they're dumping on the visiting judge." He said, "Oh, no. We're not doing that. Just go through here and pick out something you like." And I went through the piles and one label said, "Deep Sea Research vs. The Wrecked and Abandoned Vessel Believed to be the Brother Jonathan." It was a shipwreck case. And it was an interesting case that had to deal with sovereign immunity and the territorial jurisdiction of the State of California and abandonment, and I pulled that out. It dealt with the rights to salvage lost artifacts and the state's ability to interfere or to claim ownership and therefore sovereign immunity. And it's a pretty seminal case in that area. I looked at every single published decision in the history of the United States on shipwrecks and underwater exploration. 

[00:21:37] John Reed: So, all the pieces are starting to come together at this point, the pieces are all there. 

[00:21:41] David Concannon: I'm no different than an aviation lawyer who's also a pilot. That's really the best analogy I can bring to it. There are a lot of people in our profession that are really interesting to talk to and really dynamic and I'm attracted to that type of person anyway, but it's not unusual to see a climber on top of Everest whose also a lawyer. Or somebody who's a marathon runner who's also a lawyer. Or a child advocate. Something along those lines.

[00:22:12] John Reed: Sounds like the makings for a great podcast.

[00:22:18] David Concannon: That's a great idea. I wonder if anybody's thought of that. 

[00:22:22] John Reed: I'm really enjoying our discussion, David, but let's take a quick break to check our oxygen supply. 

[00:22:27] David Concannon: Sure. 

[00:22:28] John Reed: When we return, David will talk with us about his relationship with a particular space baron and the years-long expedition David led to retrieve remnants of the Apollo missions.

[00:24:28] We are back with adventurer, lawyer, and problem-solver David Concannon. 

[00:24:33] David, you talked a little bit before about the Explorers Club, and you mentioned some of its most recognizable members. Can you give us a little more history about it? 

[00:24:44] David Concannon: Sure. It was founded in 1903, and it was dedicated to promoting exploration of land, sea, air, and space. So, among its active and notable members are Thor Heyerdahl and Ernest Shackleton, Roald Amundsen, Jacques Cousteau, Bob Ballard, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Now Jeff Bezos, Jim Cameron, me -- not really in their league. All my heroes growing up were pretty active members of the Explorers Club, not just in name only. It's not something you'd send them 20 bucks and become a member. If you go there, you'll see Teddy Roosevelt's application for membership. And it's a really cool organization. It's international, but it's headquartered in New York City. 

[00:25:34] John Reed: And you became general counsel when? How did that happen? 

[00:25:39] David Concannon: I became a member in 1996. I was one of the 10 youngest members in the world within the organization of 3,000 members. But I was one of only three lawyers. And I was very quickly asked by the existing head of legal committee, which is the title for general counsel, if I wanted to join the legal committee. I said, "God, that would be great. I'm a lawyer with all my heroes. That's fantastic." And he said, "How would you like to be the vice chairman of the legal committee?" I get a title. This is my lucky day. He didn't tell me that the legal committee consisted of him and me. He was the chairman, and I was the vice chairman. 

[00:26:17] He brought me to a board meeting, and he introduced me to the board. And here's Sylvia Earle, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Don Walsh, and all my heroes. And then he excused himself to make a phone call, and I didn't see him again for three years. After a couple months, the president said, "I think he's not coming back. How'd you like to be the chairman of the legal committee?" And that made me general counsel. And that was 1996, 97. Very quickly. And here I was a young lawyer. I finished my clerkship in ‘95, and I'm now advising my heroes on matters that don't have any precedent and are complicated and international in scope. It was a great experience. It was a great way to cut my teeth. 

[00:27:04] John Reed: As a law clerk, you worked on that particular opinion for the judge that went all the way to Supreme Court and was affirmed. Did that translate into a job after your clerkship? Where'd you go to work after that? And what were you doing? 

[00:27:16] David Concannon: It had nothing to do with the job I got after my clerkship. It did have everything to do with me leaving that job, but it didn't have anything to do with me getting that job. I worked for a well-known firm in Philadelphia that did 50 percent class action work and 50 percent high-end commercial litigation. The patriarch of the firm took a shine to me, and he put me into every single trial that the firm had, so I gained a lot of trial experience that way. He passed away, eventually, and after five or six years with the firm, I didn't care for class action work at all. Loved trial work. And had the case over the Titanic, and the managing partner pulled me into the conference room and said, "We know you have this case, and we would like you to withdraw from the Titanic case, drop the Titanic case." And I said, "Why?" And he said, "Because it's too much fun. It will distract you from the work that we want you to do." "Oh, what is the work you want me to do?" "We have a toilet paper price-fixing case in Tallahassee, Florida. We want you to go down there two weeks a month, every month, for the next 18 months, and sit in a windowless room and code documents for this class action." I said, "Okay, Bob. That sounds stupifying." So, I left the firm and kept the case. I started my own practice. 

[00:28:40] John Reed: And hence the Concannon law firm was born. 

[00:28:43] David Concannon: Correct. In the conference room of the beer distributorship in Edgemont, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. That's how much I wanted to be out of the big firm practice and doing my own thing.

[00:28:50] John Reed: Yeah. it doesn't sound like much of a choice. 

[00:28:56] David Concannon: It's actually, or it's a true story, but you just cannot really make up how profound that the choice was between do what you love for the people who you worshiped and admired your whole life and do something brainless. 

[00:29:11] John Reed: You at one point became general counsel to the X Prize. Was that your first brush with space exploration and space-related law? 

[00:29:22] David Concannon: Yes. What had happened through my involvement with the Explorers Club was that I got to know a lot of astronauts and a lot of explorers, primarily among them Buzz Aldrin. I've known Buzz for 25 years and I truly adore the man. We were on a dive trip to the Bahamas, probably around 2001. Buzz and I had been to the Titanic on separate expeditions, and we were talking about it, and he said, "You ought to become involved in space law." And I thought, “Okay, Buzz Aldrin. How do I become involved in space law?”

[00:29:54] You have to remember, there was no such thing as private space lawyers. They all work for NASA or the US government or the state department. But what was coming up on the horizon was Peter Diamandis had formed this organization called the X Prize Foundation. He put up a $10 million cash prize for the first private space flights. And Buzz was attracted to this, and he knew Peter. So, he introduced me to Peter, and I became general counsel of the X Prize Foundation. Elon Musk had sold PayPal, and so he founded Space X. And Paul Allen had put up the money for what became Spaceship One. Now it's known as Virgin Galactic. And so I was there at the ground floor of all of that, helping them solve problems to be able to achieve a private space flight. So, I was at the first flights of Spaceship One in 2003, 2004. I was standing next to Paul Allen when Richard Branson signed the contract for Virgin Galactic. And I was in on the ground floor of all that. And I really loved that. And it was lightning striking twice for the second time, for the second time, just like it had at the Explorers Club before. 

[00:31:05] John Reed: Lightning may have struck a third time because Buzz Aldrin told you about a feat that might set you apart, and it led you to Jeff Bezos. Maybe you can talk about your work with the Apollo F1 rockets. 

[00:31:19] David Concannon: About 2010, I got a call from someone. They didn't identify themselves or who they worked for, but they asked me if it was possible to find and recover an F1 engine from the Saturn 5 rockets. What they meant was go find the first stage from Apollo 11 and recover the engines. And I thought, okay. Yeah, it's possible. Anything's possible. Deeper than the Titanic. Nobody tracked it. Unlike the Titanic, they didn't know where it landed. And nobody's ever looked for it before. And the technology exists, but we'd have to develop more. But yeah, it's possible if you want to commit to all this. And they said, "We'll call you back."

[00:32:01] I got a callback, and it turned out that it was Jeff's private family office, and he was interested in doing this. And they asked me if I would do it. So, I did. And for the next four years, my company Explorer Consulting was Bezos Expeditions. And we refurbished a large ship, and we did it all in secrecy. We went out ten years ago in 2011 and I led the expedition to find the eight first stages from eight Apollo missions. 

[00:32:36] We had a pretty good idea which one of them was Apollo 11. It was nowhere near where NASA had predicted that these things would land. But okay, we found them. And then we had to narrow it down because an F1 engine is about the size of a Ford Explorer pickup truck. It's not the size of the Titanic. And Titanic's at 12,500 feet. These were 14,000 feet or 14,500 feet. And we found eight Apollo missions and 40 engines. So, we had to figure out which were from Apollo 11. And so, it took a year to do that. In 2013, we put together and led another expedition for a month to recover the engines from Apollo 11. And Jeff came out, ran Amazon from the ship, and brought his family. And we recovered the engines from Apollo 11, two of those, and one from 13 and one from 16 and one from 12. They went into conservation for two years and then they went on public display in Seattle.

[00:33:34] The whole reason, the only reason we did it was, in Jeff's words to inspire five-year-olds. Because he was five when he watched the Apollo 11 landing, and that really, he believes, was the catalyst for all of his success that followed. That's a seminal moment in his life, which he's talked about often. And we did it. It's, it's great. These engines are on public display. They're touring. 

[00:33:57] John Reed: So, what was space junk has had such an incredible legacy. It seems you found a kindred spirit in Jeff Bezos. He's, of course, had his symbolic flight on the anniversary of Apollo 11 . So, you really have an appreciation for the past and for legacy. Everything you've done really. It kind of honors that appreciation that you have. 

[00:34:18] David Concannon: I really try. Jeff and I are very similar. We talked about it a lot, and he's only a year older than I am. His biggest influence was his grandfather like mine. And so, he shared his dream with me, and I helped achieve it. And I thanked him for that regularly. In any event, it's true. Look, we all have people that come into our lives and will mentor us, even if it's for a moment or if something inspires us, even if it's for a moment.

[00:34:44] John Reed: Your heroes at the Explorers Club, in recognition for your retrievals of those rockets, gave you something very important. What was it? 

[00:34:53] David Concannon: Well, they recognized us with the same award that was given to Bob Ballard for discovering the Titanic. So, we became the first team to receive that award in 50 years after the first American expedition to summit Mount Everest in 1963. 

[00:35:12] The award was offered to me personally, and I refused it. I turned it down. I felt that the team that I had assembled of more than a hundred people was responsible for our achievement. So, I refused the award to me personally. And in doing so I followed the example that I felt was left by Neil Armstrong. If you look at the mission patch for Apollo 11 and all the other Apollo missions, there's only one that doesn't identify the three astronauts that were in the space capsule, and that was to pay homage to everybody that was responsible for the achievement of them walking on the moon. And that's Apollo 11. So again, as you recognize, I'm big on paying homage to things that I think are important. If you look on bezosexpeditions.com, Jeff credits me for organizing the team. That's exactly the credit I wanted. 

[00:36:05] John Reed: Your diving and underwater expedition experience has translated into all sorts of work for you and your practice, but it's your familiarity with specific equipment that has made you the go-to guy for a particular type of product liability case. Can you talk about your defense of diver injury claims and the founding of the Rebreather Education and Safety Association?

[00:36:28] David Concannon: Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell into advising and then defending a lot of scuba equipment manufacturers. And specifically, where I seem to have found a niche, although I didn't choose it, is in this one apparatus, which recirculates the gas that a diver breathes. And it allows you to stay down longer and go deeper and explore further and take more risks. And when you do that, oftentimes there are injuries and, unfortunately, fatalities. And there were a lot of lawsuits that came out of that. I defended all but one, and I won every trial and every case. And I realized that these lawsuits kept happening because it wasn't so much that the equipment was malfunctioning. It was that divers were improperly using the equipment. 

[00:37:12] In advising my clients, which is pretty much everybody that sells these devices in the United States, we really started to see a commonality in injuries and fatalities occurring due to product misuse. We felt that the warnings were not getting out there adequately. We saw deficiencies in the training courses. So, we founded a trade association known as the Rebreather Education and Safety Association specifically to increase awareness of how to use these products properly and safely. And we developed minimum training standards, and we published them, and we did all this stuff specifically to reduce fatalities and serious injuries. And we've been successful in that. 

[00:37:54] Ironically if I reduce fatalities and injuries, there are fewer product liability lawsuits, fewer wrongful death lawsuits for me to defend and far less money for my law firm to receive in revenue. But that didn't matter to me, because I'd rather there'd be fewer fatalities, fewer injuries, fewer broken families, fewer catastrophes, then for me to make more money. And we haven't eliminated the fatalities, but we've greatly reduced them. 

[00:38:23] John Reed: David, I have to ask. What's next for you? Where will your next expedition take you and what new adventures are on your radar?

[00:38:30] David Concannon: At the moment, My next adventure is to handle an easement dispute in Idaho. And then perhaps Shackleton's, finding the Endurance in Antarctica. I've been asked to go on an expedition to do that. I've been asked to do that three times, and I said no three times for various reasons. But this time, I'm hopeful that we can pull that off. But I would like to get back into private space in a more meaningful way. The finding things underwater stuff is interesting, but it's like now tending to repeat myself. Believe it or not, there's a project about the human-elephant conflict in Northern India and the foothills of the Himalayas that we'd like to do. And that's on the filmmaking side. So that's under discussion and that'll happen. And just raising awareness and storytelling, and it'd be nice to do something different for a change. 

[00:39:26] John Reed: We will be watching, I'm sure. 

[00:39:28] No doubt our community of listeners will want to learn more about you and your exploits. Where can they go to find out more? 

[00:39:35] David Concannon: Davidconcannon.com is the law firm website. Explorerconsulting.com is the Explorer Consulting website. I have to confess, I haven't really updated them as much as I should. Honestly the Facebook pages for both Explorer Consulting and Concannon & Charles, we update those almost daily. 

[00:39:54] John Reed: We will be sure to put that information on our website. 

[00:39:57] David Concannon, you have truly honored me with your time and your conversation today. It has been an immense privilege for me, and I can't thank you enough. 

[00:40:06] David Concannon: Well, John, thanks for what you do. And, you know, lawyers. Our job isn't easy, and it's nice to have an outlet. And it's nice to listen to people that have done things that are outside the box. So, I really appreciate the invitation to come on and I really appreciate what you're doing. So, thank you.

[00:40:22] You're very kind. And we'll have you back to talk easements sometime. 

[00:40:27] David Concannon: Oh, goodie. 

[00:40:29] John Reed: Thanks again, David. I appreciate it.

[00:40:31] David Concannon: Have a great day. 

[00:40:33] John Reed: And thanks to all of you for listening and maybe falling into your own National Geographic coma. If this is the first time you've tuned into Sticky Lawyers, I hope you'll download other episodes wherever you get your podcasts. You can also visit stickylawyers.com, where you can view episode transcripts, see additional information about our guests, and recommend a standout attorney who might be a future guest.

[00:40:56] Producing Sticky Lawyers is a labor of love that everyone at Rain BDM is excited and proud to do. You can help us spread that love by telling your friends, family, and colleagues about the podcast and maybe giving us a rating and review on our website or on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or elsewhere. We would greatly appreciate it.

[00:41:17] Until next time, I'm John Reed, and you've been listening to Sticky Lawyers.

David Concannon

David Concannon is an expert in legal issues affecting exploration. Besides his law firm, he also founded Explorer Consulting, through which he advises clients on “the business of exploration,” including organizing and financing expeditions, producing documentaries for film and television, legal issues, and monetizing intellectual property rights. He has served as general counsel to several organizations, including the Explorers Club and the X-Prize Foundation, and has led numerous expeditions, including those to explore the Titanic and to find and recover the Apollo F-1 rocket engines that launched men to the moon.