To Thrive in a Legal Career in the Sports Industry, Excel at Law First
By Jill Priluck
Tales from the highly charged, day-to-day law practices of three of the sports industry's most esteemed attorneys riveted students who attended The Sports Law Career Panel. The hour-long panel discussion, hosted by the Entertainment, Arts & Sports Law Society at Columbia Law School and moderated by Sports Law Chair Adam Katz ’10, provided an inside look at the challenges that face lawyers who represent athletes, leagues, and large venues.
Among these attorneys, there was no dispute about how to excel. “The best way to be an effective sports lawyer is to be an effective labor lawyer, corporate lawyer, or tax lawyer, and then find your niche,” said panelist Jeffrey Pash, executive vice president and general counsel of the National Football League.
Panelist Jeffrey Kessler, a partner at Dewey & LeBoeuf, is a walking example. He began his career as an antitrust lawyer at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. At the time, the firm had just settled its first sports law case, and Kessler was assigned side projects involving the NBA Players Association. The first sports-related case Kessler litigated was North American Soccer League v. National Football League, which ruled that NFL owners couldn’t invest in other sports, including professional soccer. Kessler went on to litigate the landmark antitrust case that allowed for free agency in the National Football League.
One of Kessler’s most difficult tasks was telling Knicks forward Patrick Ewing he couldn’t play in game six of the 1997 playoffs because U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff denied an injunction to stop the suspension of four players. “It was like calling a close relative and saying someone died,” Kessler said.
The speakers agreed that the best path to a sports-related career is to undergo the rigorous training gained from practicing at a firm. Work harder than anyone else, they said. Approach tasks with intellectual rigor. Accept constructive criticism. Strengthen communications skills. Develop the trust and confidence of the partner who supervises you.
“That first memo? Treat it like it is the most important thing you are doing,” said panelist Lucinda Treat, executive vice president and general counsel of Madison Square Garden. “Do this with every assignment,” she added.
Sports-related law can be glamorous, but panelists reminded students that it is a service-oriented business that requires hard work, client attentiveness, and a willingness to answer questions. The goal is to inspire confidence and trust.
“I knew between 5:45 and 6:15 every Friday, [National Football League Commissioner] Paul Tagliabue was going to call. And I knew that between 8:30 am and noon on Saturday, he was going to call me in the office,” said Pash. “Nine times out of ten, I was there to answer the call.”
Think about the sports business broadly, said the speakers. “Coca Cola does as much sports business as any team,” said Treat, who added that students should not overlook the tournament business and minor league teams.
After landing in Shearman & Sterling’s M&A practice in New York, Treat was assigned to work on a deal with current Red Sox owner John Henry. When Henry bought the Florida Marlins, he asked Treat to be the team’s general counsel in Florida. She immediately took him up on the rare opportunity. But after just three years with the Marlins, Treat again found herself working on the sale of one baseball team, the Marlins, and the purchase of another, the Red Sox. She followed Henry to Fenway Park and eventually landed back in New York to be general counsel of Madison Square Garden. The lesson? Be open to different geographic areas, noted Treat.
“The more limited you are, the more you are hurting your opportunities,” she said. “I’ve moved up and down the East Coast and wouldn’t be here today if I wasn’t willing to do that.”
At the end of the panel, a student asked Treat about being a woman in the sports world. She noted that the climate has changed since she started at the Marlins ten years ago. At that time, there were only two female club counsels. By the time she left baseball, women held one-third of club counsel positions.
Treat offered this advice to all lawyers, no matter their gender. “Don’t try to be something you’re not,” she said. “Be who you are.”