Goons, Indy Race Cars and the Chicago Blackhawks: The Changing World of Sports Law And The Founding of The Sports Lawyers Association
Education, professional integrity and networking. These three pillars of the Sports Lawyers Association (SLA) were first expressed at SLA’s first meeting in the early 1970’s in Florida. Ten lawyers attended. Five vanished after the meeting never to be heard from again. The remaining five became the first SLA Board of Directors chaired by SLA Founder Lloyd Shefsky.
Shefsky was a 30-something securities and tax lawyer that through a series of fortuitous events ended up representing an Indy race car driver and two Chicago Blackhawk hockey players. Times were different then in the sports law industry. Some sports teams hired goons to prevent agents from coming near the clubhouse; teams and agents lied to each other and agents routinely stole each other’s clients. Bribery was not unheard of.
Shefsky thought sports lawyers could do better and his timing was perfect. The sports industry exploded in the late 1970’s – 1980’s with revenues and salaries skyrocketing. The need for competent, honest sports lawyers blossomed in this environment.
Here’s what Shefsky has to say about these positive changes in the sports lawyers’ profession and the role SLA has played -- the only place to get a direct education in sports law -- to help transform the industry.
Let’s jump right in. With your experience in sports law and background in mentoring lawyers what would you say is the most critical skill a lawyer needs to be successful in sports law?
I had a t-shirt made and now I use it as a slide in my speeches that I give all over the country. It's got two words on it.The first word is “listen”. The second word is “silent”. I note that they happen to have the same letters and I don't think it's a coincidence. I came into the field, not just not knowing sports law, but not knowing hockey or race cars or anything. I was quite willing to admit what I didn't know and quite eager to learn.
The night before I was to meet with my Chicago Blackhawk clients, I had to admit that I had never been to a hockey game! So I grabbed one of the associates in the law firm, a young guy who had been to a hockey game or two, and took him to dinner and said, "Teach me." And literally on a tablecloth with a felt tip pen, he drew the blue lines and everything and taught me the game.
This story illustrates an important related point. We lawyers need to get over this concept that every hour has to be billed. You've got to start thinking about the self-education component, which is the professional part of being a lawyer. That's your investment in yourself.
In your sports law career you never represented teams. You always represented players. Why?
You can enjoy dealing with the people who run big organizations just as much as you can working with the athletes. What I really enjoyed in sports law was working directly with my clients who were athletes. They don't have experience, knowledge, or the education-base in the business world. So more than any corporation or large organization ever would, the athlete is really relying on you.
You have to explain things to them differently because basic terms may not be understood, let alone concepts. Second, you have to get them up to par to make real decisions. If they're not knowledgeable enough to make that decision, they might make the wrong decision. So you become their teacher as well as their lawyer or consultant.
But what I really loved was direct contact with a client. Whether you're their consigliere or you're something else in the practice, if you've got a client who believes in you and you're willing to make sure that belief is well placed, you're going to have an exciting time practicing.
The three principals you established at the founding of SLA - education, professional integrity and networking – have stood the test of time. What do you expect to see in the next 10 years for the sports law industry?
The field of sports has become, not just big business but huge business. With people and teams today making millions, there's opportunity for huge change and a real opportunity for the SLA to be part of or lead that change. One of the big changes going on right now in the world that has a direct impact on the sports law industry is the notion of multi-disciplines. Twenty-five years ago when I started teaching at the Kellogg School of Management, I used to tell students, "Figure out how, whether you can do it yourself or with someone else, to bring two disciplines or more to the table together and you'll have a leg up on your competition."
Today, I would tell them, “Get two disciplines together or else you won't have a leg in the game.” It's no longer an advantage. It's an entry ticket. And that's true in sports and sports law too. I explore this subject in my latest book,
"Visionaries Are Made Not Born."
Former presidents of SLA in the past were practicing lawyers and that's it. Now we have new presidents who worked for corporations, worked for media or worked for ancillary industries relating to sports law. So the ability to move SLA further afield, whether it's peripherally or forward into the future, is enhanced by having that variety of backgrounds, perspectives, talents and skills in the mix. I know SLA will continue to play an active leadership role in shaping this future by leveraging the talent and experience of its multi-disciplined membership.
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