Top 10 tips on how to become a sports lawyer 2.0Sean Cottrell
I spend a fair amount of time speaking, mentoring and coaching enthusiastic law students, athletes and professionals who are considering becoming a sports lawyers. In my experience there are some basic, but effective, steps that aspiring sports lawyers can take that will get their career off to a flying start. However, these steps can be easily overlooked. Therefore, I thought I would take the opportunity to share ten tips on how to start a career as a sports lawyer. This is an updated take on the original "Top 10 tips on how to become a sports lawyer" I wrote back in 2013.
The following advice comes from my personal experience having worked in the legal sector for over 20 years and having worked with hundreds, if not thousands, of lawyers from all parts of the world since launching LawInSport back in 2010 and LawInSport Recruitment in 2018. A lot of this work has consisted of helping sports lawyers to articulate the value they bring to sports clients and in turn, help them to build their profiles and their careers. I have also been fortunate enough to receive the benefit of advice from some of the most prominent and influential sports lawyers across the world that I have interviewed or worked with during this time.
Where possible I have included links to individuals that I consider to be good examples of how one can build a career as a sports lawyer, as well as related firms and chambers. This is by no means an exhaustive list and there are people and organisations equally worthy of mention that I have omitted in order to keep this article as succinct as possible.
Back in 2013 I wrote the following:
"Before outlining my top tips, I feel obliged to highlight something that in my experience, if misunderstood, can leave prospective sports lawyer feeling dismayed about their careers prospects. Any prospective sports lawyer should be made aware that 'sports law' is a highly competitive niche sector where employers can have their pick of candidates. There is a minority of sports lawyers that have a client base that consists solely of sports clients. The majority of sports lawyers only act for sports clients at best 50% of the time. In my experience this is not something that is readily discussed within the sports law community. I believe that by acknowledging this fundamental market characteristic, prospective sports lawyers will be able to pursue their career path with a healthy regard for the challenges that face them in the search of the dream career. "
Fast forward 6 years and I still think this statement rings true, although I would make the following observations. The sports market has grown as it has seen greater convergence with the entertainment sector driven in part by the greater availability to capture and broadcast sports coverage both on traditional (liner broadcast) cable & satellite and through digital streaming and on-demand (OTT - over the top) be it through a browser or mobile app.
With more to lose (money, reputation, prestige etc) the role of lawyers has become more important and has led to a growth in the number of private practice lawyers being instructed by sports clients, which has been offset to some degree by the growth of in-house legal teams at all levels within sports organisations. This mirrors trends that we have seen other sectors such as banking, pharmaceuticals, healthcare and construction. However, while the demand for lawyers in sport is growing, the work is being largely distributed between the firms with established sports practices and the boutique firms with the wider market seeing less of an uplift. Therefore, while there is a larger percentage of private practice lawyers working in sport the percentage time they spent working for sports clients is probably closer to 25%, when one excludes the firms with established practices and the boutique firms.
Established Sports Firms & Chambers
The large multinational firms (such as Dentons, Squire Patton Boggs, Bird & Bird, Freshfields, Covington & Burling, Hogan Lovells, DLA Piper, etc) are still taking the lion’s share of work on mergers and acquisitions and larger international where multi-jurisdictional expertise and a large workforce of lawyers and paralegals is required to complete the instruction efficiently. A similar situation can be said for litigation matters. The purists in "sports law" may argue this type of work is often related to "the law applied to sport" rather than "sports law". Regardless, these lawyers can influence the sports sector no matter how they or others define them.
Outside of the large multinationals and boutique firms, the national and regional firms with established client basis and expertise that have been in prime position to benefit from the growth in sports work. Many of these firms have a strong pedigree in intellectual property, media and technology teams such as Mills & Reeve, RPC, Arent Fox LLP, Wiggins, Loeb & Loeb, Harbottle & Lewis, Lewis Silkin, Charles Russell, Speechlys, Frankfurt Kurnit Klien & Selz, Al Tamimi & Co, Gateley, Kerman & Co, Mishcon De Reya, Farrer & Co, Penningtons Manches, Thomas Cooper.
Growth in Boutique Firms
Boutique sports law firms and sole practitioners (Onside Law, Keane Legal, Northridge, ESG Law (eSports boutique in USA), LEVEL Law, NK Law (India), Kellerhals Carrard (Switzerland), Lévy Kaufmann-Kohler (Switzerland), Law Firm of Ingles Laurel Calderon (Philippines), Field R (Japan), Altius (Belgium), Vandellos Sports Law (Spain) have seemly been on the increase. Having worked with and spoken to many of the established and new boutiques there are many reasons why they were started but a couple common reasons I have picked up on are:
greater flexibility in how to deliver services to their clients: in a boutique set-up lawyers are generally given greater flexibility to provide a case by case assessment of how to charge for and work on matters, which can be very appealing both for the lawyers and their clients;
greater control over work: be it having a closer connection with the clients, spending more time with family or perusing other interests, having a less people involved in the decision making process makes it easier to adjust for such things.
Disputes Specialists Have Benefited the Most
It would seem that of all the sports law firms and chambers the sports disputes specialists have certainly been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the growth in the sports sector. Whilst many may fit in the two categories above, I would argue that those (be it barrister, solicitor, etc) who have developed expertise and experience working the somewhat unique sports disputes area have benefited greatly from the overall growth in the sector. Mainly these are regulatory/disciplinary disputes such as on the field of play cases, integrity issues (doping, match-fixing), and now also a growing number of off-the-field cases centred around "bringing the sport into disrepute"1. Those who invested their time working on these matters since 2013 and before now see their expertise in high demand as the number of cases continues to grow year on year at entities ranging from The English Football Association, FIFA Dispute Resolution Chamber, Court of Arbitration for Sport and national dispute resolution bodies such as Sport Resolutions in Britain, Sport Dispute Resolution Centre of Canada (SDRCC ) or American Arbitration Association (AAA) in America. I do not see this trend changing as countries with less developed sports sectors look to professionalise their sports and in doing so look to bring in better governance and legal certainty to encourage governmental and commercial investment.
Firms include the likes of Global Sports Advocates, Morgan Sports Law, Kitching Sports Law, Sports Legis, Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A. Chambers include the likes of Blackstone Chambers, 4 New Square, Littleton Chambers, Outer Temple, 3PB, 11KBW, 2 Temple Gardens, Matrix Chambers, 39 Essex Chambers and 5RB.
Increasing demand for In-House Lawyers
Since 2013 we have seen a growth in the number of lawyers working within sports organisations whether it is top-level football clubs (Manchester United, Chelsea FC, Manchester City, Arsenal FC) international federations (FIFA, IOC, UEFA) national governing bodies (The English Football Association, Rugby Football Union, The British Horseracing Authority), sponsors, broadcasters, etc. As mentioned above, this is indicative is a natural evolution of a maturing sector as the organisations grow in terms of revenue and profits, they naturally look to bring in their own experts aligned with the organisations objectives. Also, with the number of scandals relating to issues such as match-fixing, doping and safeguarding issues there has been a significant investment in bringing in governance and integrity experts to deal with these issues.
Sports Law Education
Finally, there has also been significant growth in sports law education (and sports management education). This is to be expected as academic institutions look for new revenue streams that also help to fill a skill gap in the market. I believe this will only continue to grow. As I have been writing this FIFA have launched their own Football Law Diploma. However, it is important for potential sports lawyers to do a cost vs benefit analysis before investing in a course. This is something explored further below.
With this is mind here are my updated top tips for 2019:
1. FOCUS ON BEING A GOOD LAWYER
I have lost count of the number of private practice and in-house sports lawyers that have told me that becoming a good lawyer should be the number one priority for any aspiring sports lawyer. Your career will be dependent on your knowledge and application of the law. You do not necessarily need to be a specialist in sports law to advise in the sports sector or on sports related matters. But you do absolutely need to be a good technical lawyer in whichever legal field you choose to specialise in (be it commercial, IP, employment, litigation, regulation etc).
However, that said in a competitive market a good understanding of the sports sector is going to to be beneficial. Therefore, if you can gain experience in the sector whilst training that is certainly preferred. Check the following LawInSport podcasts ( SoundCloud and iTunes ) for a few examples from solicitors, barristers and in-house counsel:
Network as much and as often as you can. Sports law is a niche sector and it is important to make sure that you are known (and for the right reasons!). I recommend to an aspiring sports lawyer that they join their national and regional Sports Law Association. Organisations such as the British Association for Sport & Law , Sports Lawyers Association (in the US) and Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association regularly host seminars, conferences and networking events. LawInSport also tries to help aspiring sports lawyers be it through our student membership or support for attending events our conferences such as Football Law (May) and Annual Conference (Sept) as well as networking evenings and webinars. These events provide an invaluable opportunity to build relationships with some of the most influential people in the sector and meet other aspiring sports lawyers that you can share experiences with. Sports law associations also provide discounts for students, and some for junior lawyers, and of course members.
Additionally, academic institutions and law firms also hold seminars, breakfast talks and conferences throughout the year that are either free or low cost.
Having given a number of lectures and personal coaching to law students, sports law post graduates, junior lawyers and athletes, one common theme that is brought up is actually how to network effectively with people. Networking is often referred to as a “soft-skill”. This phrase is simultaneously misleading and helpful. “Soft” implies that it’s not a core (i.e. legal) skill, yet this belies its importance: if you want to develop your career, you must think of it as a core skill in your arsenal. “Skill” is more helpful, as it correctly describes "networking" as something you must practice and learn in order to improve. As sports enthusiasts, I’m sure we can all relate to this. There are many techniques and materials available online for improving your networking skills, but here are the things I always remind myself of before going into any new environment:
Remember that no one is paying attention to you, most people are thinking more about themselves then they are of you. If you are new to the sector you have the opportunity to bring your enthusiasm and positive energy to any event.
Most people at events are more than happy to talk to and meet new people, it is often one of the reasons they are there.
Being new to the sector means you can bring a fresh perspective on the topics of a conference just asking questions. However, do not ask too many questions as people often go to events to have some relaxed networking time and don't necessarily want to be your personal life coach. As a rule of thumb be curious, polite and genuine and you will spark up interesting conversations.
If you are on your own and don't know anyone at the event, don't worry. If you explain to people you are on your own and would you mind if you were to join their group or conversation most people will be happy to indulge you as they have also been in that situation before themselves. However, if two people are facing each other having an intense conversation then it is probably best not to interrupt them as they may be having a private conversation.
If you have heard someone speak and enjoy, agree or even disagree with what they said, I would encourage you to tell them; and, if you have any questions, either ask them there or ask if you could contact them in the future.
If you walk in a room and don't know what to do, go and grab a drink of some kind. I used to go through the process of getting a hot drink (or glass of wine for evening events ;) ) at every event I would attend as a way to give me more time to compose myself and deal with my anxiety about being in a room full of people, strangers, who I often held in high regard. This was a great way to stop questioning why I was actually there in the first place, after all what do I have to offer as a relative novice in sports law?! Later I realised most people just want to meet people who have a genuine interest in the topic or sector (which is especially true of sports). However, I still use the technique to bring me into the present moment.
If you don't have a business card remember that you can always connect with anyone you meet on LinkedIn or just ask for their card or email address.
If you have a question at an event don't be scared to ask; there is a good chance other people want to know the same thing as you do. The worst thing that can happen is you ask question that is answered quickly or dismissed and then everyone will forget about it and move onto the next question or topic being discussed. For background it took me a good few years to build up the courage to ask questions at conferences as I was always worried how I would be judged. Eventually I just had to bite the bullet and put my hand up, calm my breathing, take a breath and ask my question. It then took about two years before I had overcome the anxiety around this. I am glad to say that have since gone on to chair, speak at and run international conference. The main point is that no one is going to do it for you, so now or later you will have to deal with being uncomfortable if you ultimately want be more involved in meaningful discussions and at the same time build your profile.
3. BUILD RELATIONSHIPS, NOT CONTACTS
One of my colleagues once told me: "networking is about building relationships, not contacts." I couldn't agree with them more. When you meet a new contact find out what they are interested in, what their opinions are on current sports law issues and their background. Don't try to meet everyone at an event you attend, as you will end up having a lot of meaningless conversations and few, if any, lasting relationships. Also, make the effort to stay in contact with the people you meet.
Given the emphasis on number of contacts/relationships/connections/followers the above truer today than at any other time. With social networks increasing the number of "contacts" that any one person can have, there has been an emphasis placed on volume rather than quality of relationships. In my experience speaking to world leaders in law, business and sport, one thing they all have in common is how they cultivate and prioritise meaningful relationships. I suggest aspiring sports lawyers who place emphasis on this will be rewarded as it may be something that will make you stand out in a crowd. A good benefit of this is you also get time to spend with people you enjoy working and socialising with, which I think most people would agree has to be a good thing.
Also, if you are trying to build relationships it is worthwhile telling people if you appreciate their work. You may be surprised how many people never receive feedback on articles they have written, videos they have created, lectures and talks they have given.
4. ASK FOR ADVICE AND ASSISTANCE
Some sports lawyers that I know that have been successful at building a sports law career from scratch did something that some people can find very difficult: they asked for advice. It is beneficial to find out what others have done well at, and what they would change if they could do it all again. This background information will prove useful when you are looking for an internship, training contract or job opportunity. When you do ask for assistance, be mindful that the person you have approached probably receives a lot of these types of requests, so make sure your request is made at the right time and in the appropriate manner and is not generic.
If you haven’t ready it, I would recommend reading "Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success" by Adam. One thing that stands out is those that are clear on what they want and went to ask for it tend to be more successful. In order to do this effectively you will need to do some self-reflection to understand what you are trying to achieve in life to help you identify whether or not now is the right time to ask for assistance. For example of what not to do, when I started out I was so happy when any established sports lawyers or business leaders would meet with me I often forgot to think about what I would hope to achieve from meeting them. When they would then proceed to ask me "how can I help you" I would have no response, which was far from ideal. I now suggest to aspiring sports lawyers to be prepared for this type of question as when people are time poor, they want to be effective with their time and so they want to know whether or not they are in a position to help.
If you are looking for further advice or mentoring see the LawInSport Academy Mentoring Scheme .
5. SEND PERSONALISED FORMAL EMAILS/LETTERS
First impressions count and this applies equally to the first time you meet someone in person, on the phone or over email. Therefore, do not send generic emails or be informal in your first email to a new contact. Put simply, it looks lazy. If you send a generic email you are at risk of losing the confidence and respect of the recipient. Worse still, you risk causing offense that can leave you with a lot of work to do to restore confidence and gain their respect.
This applies in email, text, social media and messaging apps such as (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snap, WhatsApp). Whilst these apps can be a blessing they can a curse. The ability for people to connect more readily is literally a miracle, however the impulse nature of communication platforms has both increased the opportunity to reach people but also created an expectation that people just connect without much reason or explanation. Therefore, even more than before I would encourage those wishing to progress in sports law, or any sector for that matter, to start off more formally (particularly when contacting someone new) and take the time to explain why you would like to connect with them. It will increase your response rate as well as leading to more interesting and valuable discussions.
6. GAIN EXPERIENCE & EDUCATION
The most obvious way to gain experience is to secure an internship or work experience through vacation schemes directly through firms and sports organisations; the availability of such scheme varies greatly by country and type of organisation. However, there are alternatives such as doing pro-bono work for athletes, clubs, governing bodies or representative associations. Volunteering with your local or regional sports law association to help them organise events, contributing to their publications, for example, can also provide great experience and give you greater understanding of the sector.
If you do get the opportunity to gain experience, particularly with internships, work experience and voluntary roles, no matter the length or type of experience, do the best possible job that you can. It seems obvious, but I have heard accounts of people complaining about the type of experience, typically about the type of work, they are getting and being in complete ignorance of the fact that the only thing that will increase their chances of getting better experience is doing a great job. Worst case scenario would be that you don't get the experience you desire, but you will walk away, in the majority of cases, with your reputation enhanced and hopefully a good reference to mark down on your CV and therefore an increased chance of success in your next pursuit. If you receive no recognition, then put it down to experience and use it as a learning experience and go into any future opportunity with your eyes wide open.
A great example of how to make the most of an opportunity can be found in Maacah Scott, Staff Counsel at Arizona Diamondbacks who took full advantage of her internship and essentially created a job opening for herself by constantly trying to add value to the legal team and her company.
There is also an huge growth in sports law and sports business related diplomas and courses available to students and professionals (see some of them here) both in person and online. As part of these courses many offer some work experience or internships as well as providing access to Alumni networks, all of which can be very useful. However, it is for each person to access the cost vs benefit relationship for undertaking a course, many of represent a significant investment for individuals and businesses (depending on who is funding the course entry fee). Therefore, before enrolling be clear if your objective is an educational or vocational or both, as each course varies in its approach. Understanding this will ensure you can gain the maximum value from enrolling on a course.
7. SHARE YOUR VIEWS
I encourage aspiring sports lawyers to write, not just for LawInSport, but for other well-respected publications, whether it is with a traditional journal or a digital publisher. This can bolster your creditability; however, you should be aware that it is not always possible to get your work published, as it may not be a suitable topic, of good enough quality or in the right form to be published. I recommend aspiring sports lawyers start their own blogs to develop their writing skills, and also identify their specific areas of interest, be it legal or sports specific.
Writing is a great way to improve knowledge through research and analysis. Once you have started publishing your own work you can use this as a way to increase your network by asking experts for their opinion on your work. This will help develop relationships and refine your arguments and understanding before you submit your work to a high profile publisher with a large readership. Two examples of people who have done this successfully in two different ways are Daniel Geey & Kevin Carpenter:
Daniel Geey , Partner at Sheridans ( @FootballLaw ) created a large following through writing his blogs about football related legal matters. Daniel writes his own blog ( www.danielgeey.com ) and writes articles both independently and with colleagues across the sector for a number of publications. He has published a category leading book titled Done Deal which has sold over 6000 copies at the time of this article.
Kevin Carpenter ( @KevSportsLaw ) Kevin started writing articles & blogs for LawInSport in 2011 when he was a trainee lawyer with very little experience in the sector. At the same time as writing his own blog he wrote detailed legal articles for a selection of well-respected publishers. Kevin has now established his own consultancy Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions and works as a consultant for Genius Sport. His clients include government agencies, National Governing Bodies, teams and player, including Council of Europe, FIFA and Interpol.
Daniel Wallach ( @WALLACHLEGAL ) has been commentating on and analysing the US Sport Betting market for many years, well before it was popular issues in US sport as it is today. He did a fantastic job to raise his profile, build relationships and is now a go to person on US sports betting matters. Due to this success he recently set-up his own practice, Wallach Legal and is the co-founder for the University of New Hampshire (UNH Law), Sports Wagering & Integrity Program.
The one caveat I would add is when starting to write about issue in sports be aware of the limitation of your own knowledge and the information and that which is publicly available. This will increase your accuracy and therefore your credibility and in turn the value of the article. It also will prevent you from prevent you from writing something that may be ill-informed and may harm you in your chosen career development. That is not to say don't have an opinion (you should); but rather, be mindful that whatever you publish or say is now likely to be on permanent record and prevent you acting for a client in the future. In the worst case scenario the opinion may be used against you in a case, depending on the type of work you are looking to undertake. However, it is a personal preference, so it is up to you to judge how best to approach this. I would recommend asking the following question before publishin are article:
"what do I hope to achieve from writing or commenting on this issue?";
"is it to inform people, change people opinion or something else?", then I would ask;
"Is what I am currently planning the best way to achieve this? Do I require any further information to achieve this objective?".
If you ask these questions you will hopefully find the right balance for you.
I would encourage you to reference your sources in a formal academic style using footnotes or endnotes to show you are well read around the topic you are writing on. Sadly, there has been a worrying development in the legal and academic sectors where there is such haste to get out information to raise profile to win business (or show impact in the case of academia) that there has been a significant diminishment in the amount of articles that are being published and shared without reference to any sources. This behaviour is something to be addressed in a separate article, but for the purpose of career development it creates goodwill and demonstrates your ability to refer to and condense multiple sources of information. It also gives you an opportunity to connect with the people you are referencing.
8. LEARN TO USE SOCIAL MEDIA EFFECTIVELY
Social media is a great way to connect, follow and create a dialog with fellow sports law enthusiasts from all over the world. If used effectively you can stay on top of all the latest issues and developments while showcasing your knowledge of the law and sport.
I recommend that you start building your professional profile as early as possible on platforms like Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram. It provides a great way to stay in contact with people you will meet throughout your career and keep updated with their progress.
A word of caution: future employers will be monitoring candidate's social media profiles so ensure you think carefully about what you choose to share and update.
9. BE PATIENT
When you are starting out in your career it can feel like you need to do everything right this second. The reality is that time is on your side and you have plenty of it to build your network, experience and knowledge. There are very few law firms with sports practices and even fewer that only act for sports clients. Therefore, for the majority you will not get to do much sports work until post qualification. At the same time, you won't have to manage clients or be under pressure to bring in business. So, use your time wisely, be patient, learn your trade and build your profile to create more opportunities once qualified as a lawyer. Slow and steady wins the race,
10. BE PERSISTENT AND ENJOY WORKING HARD
One characteristic that successful sports lawyers share with successful athletes, is that the ones who are successful are often the ones that work the hardest, are consistent and don't give up. To continue the sport analogy, building your sports law career can be akin to training for your chosen sport; it can be lonely, mentally, emotionally and sometimes even physically challenging, but if you can make the sacrifice the rewards will be there in the end. However, but like sport don’t forget also need to train smart; focus effort with the right coaching is important to ensure you don’t drift of course and loose site of your overall goal. The good news it is down to you to shape your future.
I sincerely hope this article provides some useful guidance for aspiring 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.
I would also like to thank the class of ISDE Madrid Sports Law program and all the people I have been speaking to over the last few weeks asking for career advice for inspiration and motivation to finally update this article.
If you are looking for jobs in sport do get in contact with us at LawInSport Recruitment and/or check out the LawInSport Jobs Board for current vacancies. Likewise, if you are a recruiter looking for the best talent in the market please do get in contact as we will be able to assist you.
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