Top 10 - How to be a successful in-house sports lawyer

Blackboard with top 10 Traits
Thursday, 23 January 2014

Have you ever thought how great it would be to work as a lawyer in a sports business? Have you wondered what it would be like to work for your favourite team, league or governing body of sport?

Norman Wain, General Counsel, Chief of Business Affairs at USA Track & Field, is one of those lucky few lawyers working in sport. In this article, Norman, shares his thoughts on the top ten skills that aspiring in-house sports lawyers should demonstrate in order to be successful in sports business.

A career as an in-house sports lawyer can be quite challenging. In many ways it is a "dream job" – a position where one's personal passion and professional pursuits come together on a daily basis in a dynamic and constantly evolving work environment. A deeper dive, however, highlights that the best in-house sports lawyers are often, at their core, business-minded corporate generalists who call upon a very diverse and sophisticated set of skills.

Here is a general breakdown of the top 10 skills that, in my opinion, one will need to demonstrate as a successful in-house sports lawyer, and some thoughts on how to apply those skills to address many of the challenges that will likely be encountered along the way. While none of these concepts are all that original, this list can at least serve as a handy resource for those sitting, or aspiring to be, in a similar "hot seat".


1. Know your "business"

It will be difficult for you to advise your in-house, business-unit "clients" if you don't understand their realities and the challenges they face on a daily basis. It is extremely important for you to become an expert on all facets of your organization's business. It is one of the biggest advantages the in-house lawyer has over their outside peers - their unlimited access. By truly understanding the business, an in-house lawyer can become a more effective and insightful problem-solver and sought-out advisor.


2. Connect with people

By building these internal relationships with your colleagues, you become exponentially more valuable to the organization. There are many benefits to regular meetings and/or lunches with your co-workers where you really get to know them and show them that you are a team player who understands their daily trials and tribulations. These internal connections will enable you to enter key conversations within your organization much earlier in the process (where you can still impact the direction the organization will ultimately take on a particular issue). Often, no one invites "legal" to a meeting unless they feel compelled to do so, but with the equity built up from these business relationships, the possibilities for you to otherwise be engaged in these meetings increases, giving you the chance to learn about and proactively influence these new business initiatives while they are still developing.


3. Find the metrics that matter

CEO's and CFO's measure their overall success by such things as revenues and expenses. There are tangible and objective results they can use to measure success (ie- ticket sales, attendance figures, digital media values, memberships, etc). As the head of a "cost center" within your organization, there is a need to speak to leadership in their own "currency". Constantly measuring and defining the "value" of your legal department in terms they can easily understand and appreciate should be one of the core principles you bring to the position.


4. Utilize your network of resources

There is no way you can possibly know everything about everything. Being able to know where and how to get answers to pressing issues quickly and efficiently is so important. Typically, the "wheel" has already been invented, so it's just a matter of finding which of your colleagues in similar positions in other organizations (even those that have nothing to do with sports and/or entertainment) have ever dealt with the particular issue, and more importantly, can give you good, useful guidance on how to best address it. Just like a CEO touts the value of their rolodex, so should the organization's legal personnel.


5. Diversify your knowledge

Okay, so while you don't need to know everything, it really does help if you know a lot, and that you continue learning and evolving as you develop professionally. In this position, a diverse range of legal disciplines will come across your desk. From real estate to employment, from IP to immigration, from drug testing to governance, together with all sorts of agreements and litigation management, there really does need to be a strong foundation of general business/legal knowledge in these diverse areas of the law so that you are able to spot the issues and have an intelligent "gut" reaction as to how the analysis will ultimately turn out.


6. Remain flexible

The business world is very challenging. Being able to adapt to different demands and expectations (whether through leadership changes or otherwise) is extremely important. There is also so much pressure for everyone to perform and evolve on a daily basis. Given such a dynamic environment, there will be a constant need for openness to alternative solutions to risk mitigation and management. There are many ways to peel a banana, and sometimes, doing it the exact same way might not always create the ideal outcome.


7. Manage people and expectations

There is definitely a skill to managing people.  If you manage an entire department, or if you only have a few direct reports, it is important to set the right tone, create some clear goals and expectations, and then manage the results in accordance with those goals and expectations.  By engaging your team, and getting their “buy-in” on department objectives, they are more likely to have increased job satisfaction and performance.  It is also important to manage expectations (both internal and external).


8. Creativity - in everything!

More specifically, creativity in engaging with outside counsel, or innovation when it comes to cultivating the tools you will need to succeed (especially when you are dealing with limited resources). Finding new ways to relate to your co-workers or report to your superiors, and the creation of a "trust" where everyone is encouraged to think outside the box and truly explore creative and collaborative means towards accomplishing organizational success.


9. Brevity goes a long way

Focus on the issue and give a clear and concise response. Lawyers tend to over-analyze the issue, explain the possibilities, and show everyone that they have done their due diligence. However, this generally does not resonate with your non-lawyer colleagues. Mostly, they just want a yes/no, stop/go, right/left legal response to the issue they are facing on that particular day, and not some long-winded email carefully detailing all of the possible disclaimers.


10. Bring the passion – and bring it every single day

A healthy work ethic is a must. As mentioned above, these jobs are typically where one's personal passion and professional pursuits come together. The positions are limited and the competition for them is relatively fierce. Let your colleagues see that you truly care and want to see the organization succeed as much as they do. Inspire them! It is a privilege to work for these organizations, and they are typically led by very passionate and emotional leaders who like to surround themselves with intelligent and confident advisors.

I hope this article provides some useful guidance for aspiring in-house sports lawyers. If you are an experienced sports lawyer and have some advise you would like to share or if you are an aspiring sports lawyer and have questions please leave any questions and comments under this post.


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