Sports lawyers come from all manner of disciplines, but have one thing in common: they tend to agree that there is no such thing as sports law really. While there are some bits of law that are unique to sport – such as disciplinary procedures and anti-doping codes – professional athletes and clubs need all kinds of legal advice. In that sense, almost any solicitor or barrister, of what - ever specialisation, can become a sports lawyer if they manage to accumulate clients in that sector.
“It’s an area of law that has a finger in every pie,” says Sam Minshall of Lewis Silkin, which represents the likes of Fulham FC and Northampton Saints. “I’m an employment lawyer first and foremost, but I deal with the overlap between sports and employment work. For example, if a manager is leaving a club, I can advise the club on the settlement agreement leading to their departure.”
Calling yourself a sports lawyer is savvy marketing. “People describe themselves in a way that makes their service more compelling to potential customers,” explains Adam Morallee, founding partner at Brandsmiths. Showcasing the type of client you work for, it turns out, is much more relevant to the non-lawyer than the branch of law you specialise in.
“Clients are attracted, not to people who know the law, but to people who know the industry,” Morallee says. “If you’re trying to get a client in the soft drinks industry and you tell them you act for Coca-Cola or Pepsi, they’ll think you know what you’re doing. They don’t want to know that you’re an expert in the law relating to cans.”
An intellectual property (IP) specialist by training, Morallee gained early exposure to sports work at what is now K&L Gates when advising boxing promoter Frank Warren, but went on to practise pure IP at Mishcon de Reya for several years. He found himself drawn back to sporting work, helping to set up a dedicated group at Mishcon. Now he runs his own boutique sports and IP outfit, advising football clubs, boxers and Formula One teams. Morallee says that a passion for sport can help young lawyers in the race for a job in this area, but in the long run it comes in runner-up to knowledge of the law.
“Being passionate about the subject area is a brilliant start,” Morallee says. “If you want to get into football law, for exam- ple, it’s a smart idea to be very knowledge - able about football. But ultimately that doesn’t get the job done. What you need to be first and foremost is a really good lawyer. That’s where I think a lot of people fall down: they’re a 7 out of 10 lawyer who knows 10 out of 10 about football.”
Firms like Brandsmiths that focus only on sporting clients are rare, but the multi-disciplinary nature of this game means that you can perfectly well go off and qualify as a particular type of lawyer -- like employment specialist Minshall -- and then try applying your legal skills in the industry.
Minshall is an avid fan of his native Swansea City, but now lives and works in Oxford, where Lewis Silkin has one of its five offices. Of legal life outside London, he says: “I love it but can see the argument both ways. Some people are attracted to working in central London, where the largest concentration of law firms is, but the benefit of working for a firm that has offices outside of London is that you still get great quality work with- out compromising on where you live and so on.” Instead of spending Saturday mornings in the office, you’ll find him turning out at right back for Oxford University Press football team.
It’s easy to see why those with both the legal credentials and subject matter interest love what they do. Morallee’s work now includes advising foreign tycoons on buying English football clubs and taking defamation cases for the likes of Mo Farah and Roberto Carlos. “Mo was accused of being a drug cheat. Roberto Carlos was accused of injecting his thighs to make them bigger. We sued everybody and we won.” Your cousin who works in corporate might make more money, but they’re not going to hold the Christmas dinner table’s attention with tales of how the deal went down.
“Sport is a unique and exciting area to work in,” Minshall confirms. “Being the first to know something that is not in the public domain lends a sexiness to it that sets it apart from more routine work.” And you can have your cake and eat it, in the sense that working hours in sports groups rarely follow the pattern of the Magic Circle grind.
“At Lewis Silkin there is an appreciation for work/life balance that you don’t necessarily get at some London firms,” Minshall says. “The sporting calendar tends to dictate the peaks and troughs of work. For example, in the transfer window you’ll see a buzz of activity. Our immigration team often has last minute deals that need to be pushed through quickly.” Normally, he’s out the door by 6 or 7pm. That may sound late by student standards, but it’s good going for a big law firm -- so if you don’t fancy every working day going into extra time in the City, sports law could be a sensible goal.
You don’t get a cut of your clients’ wages or gate receipts, sadly, but there’s nothing to worry about in terms of remuneration. You’re unlikely to come across a destitute client in the world of professional sport.
High profile sports lawyers
Mike Morgan, anti-doping expert; Mary Guest, British Association for Law in Sport director and former head of legal at the FA; John Mehrzad of Littleton Chambers, “probably the go-to barrister for sports litigation”.
Key elements of the job
Classic lawyer’s answer: it depends, in this case on your core practice area. Employment lawyers might help with contract and termination negotiations, IP lawyers with merchandising and image rights. Corporate lawyers can handle the buying and selling of clubs. The closest to the turf you might get is defending an athlete against a doping charge or other regulatory offence before a specialised tribunal, which is more like criminal law than anything else.
How to get a foot in the door
Target work placements and vacation schemes at firms like Lewis Silkin that have sports departments. There are a few niche firms like Brandsmiths, Northridge and Onside Law that do little other than sport. Highlight any personal experience of sport, particularly at a competitive level: while not necessary to do the job, it may give you an edge. Alex Kelham, head of the Sports Business Group at Lewis Silkin, represented Great Britain in swimming. Keep an eye on specialist publications for insights: Law in Sport comes highly recommended
This article was first published in our Verdict magazine - Read Careers Special, the issue #4 of Verdict magazine.