Successful sports lawyers, it just so happens they are all women

Woman at desk
Tuesday, 29 July 2014
Sport and the legal profession have a lot in common; one shared characteristic is that they are generally male dominated industries, particularly at the senior levels.  This was a central point of a discussion I recently had with a friend and colleague Vijay Parbat, Head of Legal, UK Sport.
Our discussion stemmed from some of the initiatives organised by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, whose aim is to help Britain's women be more active, and that there was a distinct lack of emphasis encouraging women to move into the sports law sector.
At the time my opinion was that there were not many women sports lawyers, or at least I was not aware of that many women sports lawyers. Therefore it seemed that highlighting some of the successful women sports lawyers would be a positive initiative, with a view to providing some role models for aspiring women sports lawyer. This would inspire a new generation of women sports lawyers and help to breakdown some of the real and artificial barriers to becoming a sports lawyer.
Feeling I was on a path towards something positive I set about contacting my female friends and colleagues who were successful sports lawyers to see if they would be happy to answer some questions for an article titled “successful women sports lawyers”. However, after speaking to my contacts it quickly became apparent that my approach was inherently prejudice.
Although my intentions were admirable, it was quickly pointed out to me that there are a significant number of women sports lawyers, but notably there was a greater representation working within sport than in private practice. It was also highlighted to me that the majority of women sports lawyers did not see their gender as an issue affecting their career progression.
Reflecting on the answers and feedback I had received I decided that it would be beneficial to publish an article with the focus on sports lawyers who are great role models to all aspiring sports lawyers regardless of gender or background. Hence, the title of this piece “Successful Sports Lawyers, it just so happens they are all women”.
Therefore I humbly thank all the sports lawyers featured in this article for taking the time to answer my questions and sharing their experiences with me. I hope this article provides a useful point of reference for aspiring sports lawyers regardless of their gender, race, religion or background.
As always, your comments and feedback are welcomed as it is through the sharing of ideas, experiences and knowledge that we can all grow personally and professionally.  

Lara Hayward, Legal Counsel, UK Sport

What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
My love for sport. I’ve always been involved in sport - whether as a player, spectator or volunteer and it just made sense to aim to combine that with the day job. The law is much more interesting when you are looking at it in the context of sport! I had interests in both healthcare and sports law and pursued both as much as I was able to. I studied for an MA in Medical Ethics (specialising in ethics of anti-doping) and was lucky enough to get an internship at the Asser International Sports Law Centre in the Hague just after graduating. My career has stemmed from there.
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport? 
It’s a boring answer I know, but the greatest aspect of my job is the variety of work that I get to deal with. My current role at UK Sport means that the issues that cross my desk all relate to elite level Olympic/Paralympic sports. There can’t be many other jobs out there where you get to consider issues relating to triathlon one day and curling the next. In the office, we are surrounded by images of all the London 2012 medallists, and knowing that you have been involved in a tiny part of the process leading up to that success is such a good reason to come to work.
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer? 
  1. Be bold and talk to people who are doing what you want to do. Although I’m sure she won’t remember now, I emailed Sara Sutcliffe (previously Director of Legal at the British Olympic Association and now Chief Executive of English Table Tennis Association) way back in 2006, before I’d even started my training contract, to ask about her experiences and for some advice on getting into sports law. She sent back a very helpful and comprehensive email and it’s something I will always be grateful for. People are generally very willing to help those that show real enthusiasm for the sector. Plus it helps build your network, something that is invaluable within sport!
  2. When making job applications, highlight any sport skills and experience outside of law, as well as your legal experience. Getting into sports law is now so much more competitive, so you really need to think about what sets you apart! I am sure that my sports event experience and thorough knowledge of sport as a sector was as important to my current employer as my legal background.
  3. Look to gain as much practical experience as possible. Outside of my day to day work, I have been volunteering in sport for about ten years now - working at a lot of triathlon events (which I still do) and as a Non-Exec Director (NED) for the Paralympic NGB, GB Boccia. I got the NED role before I became a sports lawyer, and I’m sure that having experience in sport at a strategic level also bolstered my application.

Louise Millington-Roberts, Partner, Hill Dickinson

What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
I gravitated towards sport through my strong interest in commercial and IP law and a love of events – generally. The innovative, commercial, and fast paced environment of sports law has made me want to remain as a specialist lawyer in this field.
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
Without doubt the most memorable, and published case of my career to date, which concluded with a landmark ruling in the Supreme Court, was the RFU v Viagogo case. The judgment is noted for also restating Norwich Pharmacal principles and the assessment of proportionality when applying for a Norwich Pharmacal Order. It was of particular interest to me as I have specialised in the niche area of ticketing and event management throughout my career, and this case concerned the resale of tickets on the secondary ticket market and the privacy of the resellers versus the motives of the RFU.
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
Don’t be put off by the male dominated environment, make your voice heard, be commercially aware by also having an interest in business and an understanding of the way in which sports organisations and individuals operate. As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook would say, ‘Lean In’.

Mary Guest, Head of Legal – Commercial, The Football Association

What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
After studying law at university and completing my LPC, I trained and qualified at Clifford Chance. I qualified into the CMT team, and did a good mix of interesting work, however after a period of time – whilst I still enjoyed being a lawyer – I started to get itchy feet. I had begun to contemplate a change when a colleague handed me a copy of The Lawyer with a role at The FA advertised in it. I didn’t have to think twice! My big passion has always been sport, primarily football. I have played and watched sport all of my life, and the opportunity to work in that field every day wasn’t something I could resist.
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
I scored the winning goal in the university varsity match, if that counts? In terms of professionally, I have been lucky enough to be involved in a wide range of really fantastic work at The FA. A number of The FA Group’s sponsorship deals, particularly the move to Nike and the recent Wembley Stadium sponsorship deal with EE, were fantastic deals to work on, and the broadcast tenders and agreements (both domestically and internationally) have been great experiences. However one of the best things about working in a sports governing body is the vast variety of work: I have been heavily involved in the creation, launch and expansion of the FA WSL over the last few years, which is one of the foundations of the development of women’s football in England in recent times. Sitting in a packed Wembley Stadium watching the GB women’s team beat Brazil at the Olympics 18 months after the launch of the league was a very special moment.  
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
  1. [This answer is to the original question for advice specifically for aspiring women sports lawyers] Don’t focus on the fact that you are a woman, and certainly don’t let that put you off – Whilst inevitably there are sometimes occasions where being female is relevant, in my experience they are few and far between. There will of course be the quips about women not knowing anything about football, but the fact that I am a woman has never been relevant in my role. That said, there are now groups and networking opportunities specifically for women in football and women in sport, and these offer great opportunities that I would definitely recommend are taken up.
  2. Attend networking opportunities and get to know people – The world of sports law is still quite a small one, and so the more people you can get to know in the field the better. There are lots of networking opportunities in sport, in sports law and for women in sport: try and get to as many events as possible and get to know as many people as possible – these people can become your colleagues, mentors and friends. 
  3. Show your interest in sport – Most people who want to become sports lawyers are genuinely interested in sport. Whilst this isn’t a prerequisite, if this is the case then make sure you demonstrate it. Often people looking to move into sporting roles are coming from roles where their experience is not totally relevant. Demonstrating a genuine passion for sport will help somebody reading your CV understand why you want to move and why they should consider you. Whether this is through attending relevant legal courses, coaching a youth team, playing, watching or in some other way, it will help your CV stand out.

Sara Sutcliffe, Chief Executive Officer, Table Tennis England

  • Non Executive Director at GB Taekwondo
  • BEF Appeal Stewards Panel and BEF Equine Anti-Doping and Controlled Medication Hearing Body Panel at British Equestrian Federation
  • Non Executive Director at British Gymnastics
  • Director at British Association for Sport and Law
What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
Back in 2001 there weren't really 'Sports lawyers' but there was a handful of lawyers working within the sports industry. I was at that cross roads where I was considering a move from private practice to in-house but I was waiting for the right opportunity. I had been captivated by the Sydney 2000 Olympics and the success of Team GB (after the dismal results of Atlanta 1996). I happened to see an advertisement for an in-house lawyer at the British Olympic Association and the rest is history. The opportunity to combine my career as a lawyer with a passion for sport and in particularly the ethos of the Olympic Movement was too good to be true. 
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
Professionally as a lawyer, working on behalf of Alain Baxter when he was stripped of his bronze medal at the Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games 2002. Although we were not successful ultimately, working closely with Counsel and experts we really challenged the rationale to the Anti-Doping Rules at the time which did ultimately lead to change.  The Tribunal did also admit that its hands were tied due to strict liability but exonerated the athlete of any intention to enhance performance. 
Outside of purely legal realms, my role as Legal Director at the BOA saw me accredited as Team GB Counsel at 4 Olympic Games, marching into the Opening Ceremonies as part of the team. And I was present in Singapore in 2005 as part of the London 2012 bid delegation. Looking around the Olympic Park the day before the Opening Ceremony of London 2012 was humbling, to think what had been achieved in just 7 years from the pipe dream I had been part of from 2001 at the BOA. These were indescribably proud moments that I got to experience as part of my 'job'. 
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
If you enjoy sport, then being a sports lawyer is a fantastic job whether you are male or female. If you like the idea of an in-house role be prepared to step out of the purely legal aspects of your job - issues of governance, integrity, stakeholder management, media engagement, policy making, commercial partnerships and many more all value non-legal input that a lawyer is well placed to give. Embrace the sport, know your way round the wider aspects of your sport - do not think of your job as Monday to Friday because sport certainly isn't. Sport is fundamentally about people. Roll your sleeves up and enjoy your involvement in such an empowering industry, do not expect to be sat behind a desk all the time. 

Nikki Dryden, Associate, Fragomen, Del Rey, Bernsen & Loewy

What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
I took sports law in law school and was a disappointed at the focus on pro-US sports. I wanted to be a different kind of sports lawyer, who is interested in international sports and the human rights connected to sports. I had to really find this community on my own as law school did not provide a good network for this niche. I found Play The Game (PTG), an international conference on sports corruption and presented my research. From there, I was able to make connections which helped me publish an article, publish an e-book, and contribute to several other books. 
Specializing in sports and human rights means my work is less about winning cases, and more about winning the publicity battle. I use the law to publicly shame international and national sports organizations to support athletes’ rights specifically and human rights generally.
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
My greatest moment was being the spokesperson for Human Rights Watch's campaign against the IOC to pressure Saudi Arabia to end discrimination against women in sport. The result was that two women competed in London 2012 for Saudi and the campaign received worldwide media and political attention to the plight of women more generally in Saudi. 
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
Network, network, network! The first PTG conference I went to back in 2006 I had to spend about $3000 of my own money to fly to Europe and attend the conference, but it ended up being the most important networking event of my career. I made lasting relationships with important key players in sports law that still drive my career today. 

Genevieve Gordon, Principal, Tactic Counsel

What inspired me to become a sports lawyer?
I have always had a keen interest in sport and since a serious rugby injury in 2000 I sort of got thrown into the governance and legalities of consent issues that really opened my eyes to legal issues in sport. Completing an LLM in sport cemented my interest. 
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
It would have to be a toss up between working on the WBCQ sponsorship agreements for MLB and helping current clients that really don’t have access to the knowledge of high profile athletes but face all the same exposure issues and educating them better to look after their assets.
What advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
  1. Be careful when using social media. 
  2. Do interesting research that is valuable to the sporting world at large. My dissertation was on equine risk which hadn’t been done before so I became known for having a specialism outside of the ordinary.

Maureen Weston, Law Professor at Pepperdine University

What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
I am a life-long sports advocate as a participant, fan and later involved in governance through college sports and writing on legal issues in sports.
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
A highlight of my involvement in sports law has been the opportunity to coordinate the first-ever public hearing of an international sporting athlete’s alleged doping violation.  Sport arbitrations are typically private.  However, the U.S. Amateur Sports Act authorizes athletes to see a public hearing of eligibility determinations.  It’s just never been done until invoked by 14-day public arbitration between then Tour de France champion, Floyd Landis and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) took place at Pepperdine School of Law.  This arbitration was conducted before a three-member arbitration panel, stream-cast live over the internet and observed first-hand by over sixty media outlets from around the world as well as the public.  My students were involved in working with the lawyers and arbitrators, as well as observing the process.  Many of the lawyers, arbitrators, and press involved in the case have since returned to Pepperdine for conferences on sports arbitration and doping and the culture of sport.   This experience also inspired me to write a number of scholarly articles examining legal issues in the international sports arbitration process.   
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
  1. Love and know your sport;
  2. Develop your skills and area of expertise; and
  3. Get involved with the sport and sports law community and enjoy the ride.

Nicole Jahanshahi, Senior Associate, RPC

What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
The predictable (but very true) answer is that I love sports.  My psychology degree dissertation was on sports competition. Upon becoming a lawyer I was looking for a way of acting for sports clients in "everyday lawyer life" when I discovered my route into sports law.  A prominent moment for me in becoming a sports law specialist was competing for Great Britain in Dressage and meeting the World Class equestrian directors and others who make such events happen.  At that time I was enjoying working for clients in the sports industry but meeting individuals within these organisations really inspired me to develop our practice further.  I'm lucky that at RPC the partners have always supported my activities and ambitions.  What I love about sports work is that it's fast paced, technical and commercial. Sports clients are passionate and want to win.
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
My favourite case so far has been a sports licensing dispute for the famous Lonsdale brand which settled the summer before last. Described by the Court of Appeal as "complex" and "hard fought" this case was referenced in the latest edition of McGregor on Damages.  It was a multi-million pound, multi-jurisdictional dispute with complex trade mark, licensing, contract and European law issues.  I learnt a lot about the history of boxing! More recently, last month I advised in relation to a 5 year kit supply and sponsorship deal with a League One Football Club.  That was a particular favourite because of the vast commercial considerations and that we really felt we'd done our job well when we brought a difficult matter to a close with content parties who maintained a future commercial relationship.
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
  1. Get out there – there are many events, often free and in the evenings so it won't interfere with your "day job". Join your national sports law association and Register to newsletters, blogs and groups. Whether your firm has a sports practice or not, meet people, learn and take that knowledge back with you and work it into your existing practice.  It's a small world and you will be noticed.  
  2. Organic growth – steady and long term. Look at the opportunities around you and build on those. Become an expert and deliver quality work.
  3. Have a plan – partners will be prepared to back you in developing a sports law practice if you present a well thought out strategy and a plan for implementing it. 

Cliodhna Guy, Legal Manager, International Boxing Association (AIBA)

What inspired you to become a sports lawyer?
I had a background in sport as my parents had been involved in athletics to an international level. I had observed my father's involvement as European and International Athletics Council Member and had always been interested in the operational side of athletics and sports generally. My involvement in anti-doping as a Doping Control Officer also gave me a window in to a huge variety of sports as well as the technical aspects of anti-doping. 
I always wanted to get involved in sports in some way but it was only during my apprenticeship I realised that there were solicitors who practised sports law and that sporting bodies had in house legal counsel. As I approached qualification I decided I wanted to combine my interest in the operation/business area of sport with my qualification as a solicitor. Unfortunately I qualified at a really bad time for the legal market generally so those firms with sports law practices were not looking to hire either in Ireland or the UK. I stayed in private practice after qualification but I also became involved with the Paralympics Ireland in a honorary position as legal advisor which helped me get a better understanding of what issues NGB's faced. In early 2010 I was offered a position with the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) as Disciplinary Officer which later expanded to Legal Manager. I stayed with the FAI for just under 4 years and then moved to a role as Legal Manager with the International Boxing Association (AIBA).
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
There have been a number of small cases which would not trouble the world generally but I have been delighted when we got the right decision. While the big cases can be great for every one of those there can be 100 small cases that are dealt with through a governing body's disciplinary or dispute resolutions processes that do not make the news but take a huge amount of time and effort to resolve and can have an impact on the sport. That said I am very proud of a match integrity case I dealt with in 2013 in the FAI. It was a complicated case and took considerable time and effort from all the staff involved but in the end I feel we got the right result and the case was managed very well. 
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring sports lawyer?
  1. Know your sport and the business - sports governing bodies are not just commercial organisations and there are a number of aspects that have to be considered in any matter not just the commercial interests. You have to get to know your organisation extremely well and pay attention to the all parts of the organisation to understand how it all should work. Be prepared to sit down with other staff and understand the programmes they are working on because otherwise you will not be able to deal with the issues. Also ask the questions - remember if you are dealing with people who are not legally qualified they don't always understand the information you need. Its often the random, throw away question that suddenly provides a lot of information you were not aware of and impacts on your advice. 
  2. If you want get into sport get involved. Volunteer to work with clubs, small organisations. You get experience and contacts and they are often delighted for the expertise and assistance you can provide. 
  3. Accept you cannot be an expert in all areas that you will deal with if you are working for a sports body. You will become a jack-of-all-trades in many senses so you need to recognise that admitting you don't know everything and need to ask advice or check something is not a weakness. 

Alex Kelham, Head of Sport, Lewis Silkin

What inspired you to become a Sports Lawyer?
Sport has always been my passion – I dedicated all my teenage years to swimming hours and hours in the pool, and although it was incredibly hard work it was also incredibly rewarding. I ended up studying law almost by chance when my swimming career was cut short by a car crash and I decided I better have a proper career. At that stage I had not thought specifically about Sports Law but as soon as I started applying for training contracts, I quickly decided that I'd apply to firms with a strong reputation in Sports Law: it just seemed to be a natural fit. I am a firm believer that if you are passionate about and can connect to the subject matter, you are going to find the relevant area of law more interesting. It certainly has proved that way for me. I count myself very lucky to have a job that I really enjoy and I like that I'm working in a sector which is so much more than an 'industry'.
What is your greatest moment, case you have been involved with in sport?
As a trainee I was seconded to the British Olympic Association for nine months in the run-up to the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. During that period the BOA were putting together their bid for the London 2012 Games and I got involved in the preparations. In particular I helped advise on the‎ special legislation (dealing with ambush marketing and ticket touting etc) which the London bid promised to enact if it won. My contribution was only small, but when I was in Trafalgar Square on 6 July 2005 and heard Jacques Rogge announce “London” as the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games I was ecstatic. I knew London had put together a great bid and had more confidence than most that we were in with a good chance, but there was still that element of surprise in beating New York, Madrid, Moscow and Paris, that literally made me jump for joy. At that stage I had no idea that I would be spending the next seven years of my life helping to organise the Games. During my time as a Senior Lawyer at LOCOG there were hundreds of great moments from the opening ceremony in Beijing, seeing the Olympic Park come out of the ground, being cheered by thousands along the torch relay route, and of course watching a spectacular Games, but my favourite moment is still the bid announcement. In legal terms, although it does not compare with these more emotional moments, one highlight was getting our special legislation passed through Parliament, a process which included me having to brief a group of peers alongside Lord Sebastian Coe.
What are the three pieces of advice you would give to any aspiring Sports Lawyer? 
  1. Know and love sport. If you do not, you will struggle to understand the complexities and nuances of the industry and you are less likely to build a rapport with those you are working with. People working in sport are generally very passionate about it and want to be able to have banter about who won what game/race/bout at the weekend. I don't believe you need an encyclopaedic knowledge of all sports but if you have no real interest, you will soon get found out.
  2. Work hard to make opportunities for yourself - be proactive; and when opportunities do present themselves make the most of them – work hard, impress and network, network, network!
  3. If you are a lawyer that loves participating in sport as well as advising on it, do not let your legal career get in the way. I believe that keeping active and being competitive is something which complements your legal skills. I exercise most mornings and know that I am more efficient on the days I exercise than the days I don't. You shouldn't have to stop your sport for a legal career - and if you do it will only make you miserable if you're a sportsperson at heart.

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