I spend a fair amount of time speaking with enthusiastic law students and young professionals that want to become sports lawyers. 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.
The following advice comes from my personal experience having worked in the legal sector for 16 years, 4 of which has been spent working with sports lawyers to help 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 sport lawyer. This is by no means an exhaustive list and there are people that are equally worthy of mention that I have omitted in order to keep this blog succinct as possible.
Before outlining my top tips, I feel obliged to highlight something that in my experience, if misunderstood, can leave prospective sports lawyers 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 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 there career path with a healthy regard for the challenges that face them in the search of the dream career. With this is mind here are my top tips:
1. Be a good lawyer
I have lost count of the number of private practice and in-house sports lawyers that have told me that being 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 become a sports lawyer. But you do need to be a good lawyer in whatever field you choose (i.e. commercial, litigation, regulation etc) to become sports lawyer.
Adrian Barr-Smith, Chair of the British Association for Sport & Law and a consultant at Dentons told me in an interview about his career how he was first and foremost an intellectual property (IP) lawyer. Due to his IP expertise he worked on shirt sponsorship deals and broadcasting deals in football in England. His career in sports went on from there.
Network as much and as often as you can. Sports Law is a niche sector and it is important that sure you are known in the sector (for the right reasons!). I recommend to an aspiring sports lawyer that they join their national and regional Sports Law Association. These organisations, such as the British Association for Sport & Law, Sports Lawyers Association and Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association, host seminars, conferences and networking events. The events run 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.
Sports law associations also provide discounts for student, and some for junior lawyers, and of course members.
Academic institutions and law firms also hold seminars, breakfast talks and conferences throughout the year that are either free or low cost.
Andy Gray, Head of Sport at BHW Solicitors, talks about this at length in a podcast on this topic (listen from 10 mins).
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.
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.
One of LawInSport's bloggers, Adam Lovatt (@Lovatt_Adam), did this successfully. He started his legal career as a property lawyer in Scotland with little, if any, knowledge of sports law. He loved sport and decided to enroll on a distance learning legal masters degree course in London that covered intellectual property and sport. At the same he approached as many sports lawyers as he could, took on board their advice and built his network. Adam is now a lawyer at IMG, a global sports, fashion and media business.
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.
6. Gain experience
The most obvious way to gain experience is to secure an internship. However, there are alternatives such 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.
Andrew Nixon (@andrewnixon100/@sheridanssport), a partner a Sheridans, a sports and entertainment firm, has continued to act for not for profit governing bodies and associations and smaller sports throughout his career.
It means he is contributing to the development of sport, and it has also helped him gain a better understanding of internal workings of sports bodies and sports governance. This experience proved invaluable and has led to non-executive directorships within sport
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 identify their area 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 (@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.
Kevin Carpenter (@KevSportsLaw) Kevin started writing articles & blogs for LawInSport back 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 is now a sports lawyer for Hill Dickinson and his clients include government agencies, National Governing Bodies, teams and players. Kevin has been invited to and presented lectures to organisations including FIFA, Interpol, the Sports Lawyers Association and the Scottish Football Association.
8. Use social media
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 and LinkedIn. 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.
Here are some good examples of practicing sports lawyers who use social media effectively:
- Michael McCann @McCannSportsLaw
- Kevin Carpenter @KevSportsLaw
- Daniel Geey @FootballLaw
- Darren Heitner @DarrenHeitner founder of the Sports Agents Blog
- Ian Lynam @ianlynam
- Claire Zovko @clairezovko & Laura Jeffords @laurajeffords founders @SportsLawChat
- Alicia Jesspos @RulingSports
- Glenn Wong @WongSportsLaw
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.
10. Be persistent and work 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, physically and mentally challenging, but if you can make the sacrifice the rewards will be there in the end.
My co-founder of LawInSport, Alfonso Valero, is a prime example of this. He came to UK from Spain with very few contacts in the market and built a small sports law practice at a regional law firm. He worked hard, studied the sports law in the evenings, networked and a few years later started lecturing on the 'sports law' module on the Postgraduate Certificate in Sport Management at Birkbeck Sports Business Centre. At the same time he was working with me to help build LawInSport. After many years of hard work Alfonso secured his dream job as a Senior Lecturer, teaching law and sports law, at Nottingham Trent University.
I hope this blog 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.