Forget about sports law glamour—it’s sweat and grit
This is a reprint of my recent Chicago Daily Law Bulletin column:
Six years ago next month, I began building a new law firm, the Moorhead Law Group. I had resigned from the partnership of my prior firm. I believed that my career was going in one direction, and the firm wanted it to go in another.
Depending on perspective, that move could have been called bold, or risky, or just plain foolish. I believed in it, though. I thought — and sometimes prayed — that the new firm’s clients would believe in it as well. They did, and now, six years later, my law firm and I are still here because of it.
My practice historically was commercial real estate. I primarily focused on representing tenants in retail, office and industrial leases with some land use and zoning. At the new firm, though, I was labor and management (and quickly learned IT, accounting, marketing, secretary and all-around gofer as well). As management, I decided to add two new practice areas beyond just commercial real estate and leasing.
One area was conservation law, a mix of conservation easements, land trusts and tax work, an interesting and different area of typical real estate work.
The second area was sports law.
I worked for the Motorola professional cycling team from 1994 to 1996. The Motorola team was based in the United States but raced primarily in Europe, including at the Tour de France. The team was the No. 1-ranked team in the world for part of those years. It was an exciting place to be. I was the team’s communication manager. I helped the team’s 22 sponsors to activate their sponsorships through marketing, promotions and guest relations at the races.
The job was fantastic. As a recent college graduate, the job was an eye-opening education about sports, business and the world. Whether it was sitting at a dinner table with six languages being spoken or being on a conference call with participants all around the world, the job was far from the textbooks and exams of college.
I left the team in 1996 to attend law school. Blood doping was strangling cycling, a plague of self-interest about which I had been completely unaware for most my time with the team. The sport was changing, and the Motorola team, always claiming to be clean, could not compete against the doped European squads.
I kept in touch with people from cycling during the years. I liked them personally and always admired what they were doing in the sport. I always wished for an opportunity to work in cycling again if the doping problems went away.
Fast forward 16 years … When I launched the Moorhead Law Group, adding a sports law practice seemed a natural fit. In my thinking, the firm’s revenue would come from the commercial real estate work, and the sports law area would grow naturally, without the pressure to make money. I did not know how it would play out, but sports law sounded cool and interesting. I knew I would regret it if I did not act on the opportunity.
Now, with almost six years of experience, here are a few observations, in case anyone else wants to start a sports law practice:
Sports law is a legal pig with lipstick
As soon as I launched the Moorhead Law Group’s website, I began getting resumes from 2L’s and 3L’s, all eager to dedicate their careers to sports law. It is a highly popular area of law. But, when you scrape off the cool veneer of sports law, the reality is that it is just ordinary legal work — contracts, tax, IP and litigation among others — wrapped up in a sports context.
Regardless of whether I am handling a sports law matter or a real estate matter, I almost always am sitting at my desk, reviewing an agreement and negotiating provisions in that contract. No sport law client has ever asked me to go for a bike ride or to join them on a ski trip. Sports law work is legal work, and legal work usually is done at a desk, plain and simple.
Sports law means different things to different people
People can talk about “sports law” like it is a single area of the law. Sports law, however, can be entirely different things to different people. A lawyer experienced with the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act may be utterly worthless in advising a client about the National Hockey League collective bargaining agreement.
I often take sports law conferences with a grain of salt. Many of the topics and people at the conference are irrelevant to my practice. A flashy brochure for the next big sport conference looks slick and cool, but if the topics and people are not related to my work, the conference can be an expensive waste of time.
Sports law is a who-you-know business
You might be the smartest lawyer in the city. Or have the best grades. You might have the most knowledge of the arcane rules and laws in a sport. Unless you have a personal relationship with somebody inside the sport, however, it is virtually impossible to break into sports law in that sport.
Internships and entry-level jobs can give valuable introductions to contacts inside the sports, if you can work for free or low wages. On-campus law school interviews don't often offer sports law jobs, though. Most firms just do not have a sports law practice. You have to build your relationships first and then wait until the right opportunity comes your way.
The clients can be incredibly frustrating
I worked with professional cyclists for two years while with the Motorola team and now work with Olympic-level athletes, including through the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Athlete Ombudsman. Working with an Olympic or professional athletes is a unique experience. These people are at the very top of their athletic fields. They are like thoroughbreds in what they do, incredibly talented, gifted, focused and determined.
However, just as that talent runs deep, their abilities in other areas of life can run remarkably short. An athlete that is the best in the world at his or her sport can have unbelievably terrible judgment in day-to-day life.
In commercial real estate, I work with smart and talented investors and company executives. Sports law often requires taking a big step back from that to work with people of much less life and business experience.
The lawyer is only on the sidelines, always
I talk with a lot of people with an interest in sports law. The sequence of the conversation usually is this: a) they ask what I do, b) they tell me what sports they’re interested in, c) they touch on one league-wide issue in that sport, and d) they start talking about the actual competition, including the games, players and rankings.
Any lawyer who spends time and money to get into sports law should understand that “sports law” means almost always being in the office working. You will never be in the game, you will not be an active participant in the sport. More often than not, the athletes will just consider you someone that they can dial when they need a problem solved
Drafting agreements and toiling alone under the florescent glow of the office light will be your event. Knowing that, some attorneys may just want to stick with their current practices and then play, watch and talk about their sport of choice after work.