Examining the path to the general counsel’s office
What does it take to become a general counsel in sports?
Using club websites and media guides, we created a database of all the general counsels in the four major North American professional sports leagues. We then gathered personal and professional data about each general counsel by reviewing information from those club websites and media guides, LinkedIn pages, state bar records, and reputable news outlets.
More specifically, we gathered data on general counsels’ age, race/ethnicity, gender, law school, industries worked in, years of legal experience, size of law firms previously worked at, experience at a firm with a large sports law practice, experience at a league office, and experience as an associate counsel. We then had attorneys for MLB, NFL and NBA clubs review our data.
|An analysis of general counsels in the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL revealed interesting themes.
Ultimately, our analysis did not reveal any essential characteristic or qualification on the path to becoming a general counsel. Nevertheless, we did find several interesting pieces of information. Specifically:
1. Prestige matters. Fifty-two general counsels (49.5 percent) attended a law school currently ranked in the top 25, and 75 of them (66.4 percent) previously worked at a law firm of at least 101 attorneys.
2. Prior experience at a league office or at a major sports law firm helps, but is not essential. Only 17 general counsels (15.0 percent) previously worked at a law firm with a substantial sports law practice, and only 10 (8.8 percent) previously worked at a league office.
3. The racial and gender diversity of current general counsels is lacking when compared with national attorney demographic data. Only 21 (18.6 percent) general counsels are female and only 16 (14.1 percent) are non-white.
Before providing more specific data, it is important to explain our criteria for a general counsel. We were interested only in those attorneys that are employed by the club (or the entity that owns the club) — not an outside law firm. While the 113 individuals discussed in the article often have a variety of titles, usually but not always including general counsel, for our purposes we meant for the term “general counsel” to include any individual that is the highest-ranking attorney at a club, and who on a regular basis provides legal advice to the club. We found that nine clubs (Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals, Oklahoma City Thunder, Calgary Flames, Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues) do not have a general counsel; these clubs instead rely primarily on outside counsel.
There are only two general counsels under the age of 30 and only nine were hired before the age of 30. The largest age bracket was that of 40-49, representing 34.5 percent of general counsels. Yet, the age distribution is fairly consistent among the other age brackets: 30-39 (19.5 percent); 50-59 (24.8 percent); and, over 60 (19.5 percent).
The general counsels of professional sports clubs are overwhelmingly white (85.8 percent). Ten general counsels are black/African-American (8.8 percent), four are Asian (3.5 percent) and two are Hispanic/Latino (1.8 percent). These statistics also track those of attorneys and in-house counsel generally. For example, by analyzing data from the U.S. Census, the American Bar Association found that in 2010, 88 percent of attorneys were white, 5 percent were black, 4 percent were Hispanic and 3 percent were Asian. Similarly, the Association of Corporate Counsel’s 2015 census reported that 7 percent of in-house counsels were Asian, 5 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black. Simple arithmetic tells us then that 84 percent of in-house counsels are white.
The vast majority of general counsels of men’s professional sports clubs are men (81.4 percent). Additionally, the gender disparity among sports general counsels is greater than that of attorneys generally, and significantly greater when compared with other in-house counsels. According to the American Bar Association, in 2016, 64 percent of American attorneys were male and 36 percent were female. Moreover, the Association of Corporate Counsel’s 2015 census reported that 50.5 percent of in-house counsels were male and 49.5 percent were female.
■ Law school
Law schools ranked in the top 10 made up the highest proportion of law schools attended by general counsels (27.6 percent). Nevertheless, the distribution between the different tiers of law schools is fairly equal. While 52 general counsels attended a law school in the top 25 (49.5 percent), 37 general counsels attended a law school ranked 51 or lower (35.2 percent). The law schools with the most alumni working as general counsels are: Harvard (8); University of Pennsylvania (5); Duke (4); Stanford (4); Rutgers (4); Columbia (3); Duquesne (3); Georgetown (3); Marquette (3); University of Southern California (3); University of Virginia (3); and Washington University in St. Louis (3).
General counsels in sports are most likely to be:
■ Prior legal experience
A large majority of general counsels (88.5 percent) previously worked in a private law practice. Nevertheless, general counsels are not among the most experienced attorneys — 80.5 percent of all general counsels had 20 years or less of legal experience prior to becoming general counsel. In fact, the most common experience range of general counsels is that of 10 years or less (44.2 percent).
We also found that it was important to have worked at a large law firm — 75 general counsels (66.4 percent) previously worked at a law firm of at least 101 attorneys. In contrast, only 18 general counsels (14.5 percent) ever worked at a law firm of less than 26 employees.
In terms of sports law experience, 15.0 percent of general counsels previously worked at a firm with an established sports practice. Specifically, the following management-side sports law firms produced general counsels: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld (1 general counsel); Covington & Burling (1); Foley & Lardner (1); Kirkland & Ellis (2); Latham & Watkins (4); Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison (1); Proskauer Rose (6); and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom (1).
Similarly, while only 8.8 percent (10/113) of general counsels spent at least some time working in a league office, seven out of 30 NFL general counsels (23.3 percent) did.
Last, we found that only 16.8 percent (19/113) of general counsels previously worked as an associate counsel. This statistic might be attributed to the fact that the associate counsel position is one of more recent usage.
We examined a variety of different experiences and qualifications that we hypothesized might match the experiences of general counsels. Generally speaking, our research has not elucidated any one or two clear paths to becoming a general counsel. Nevertheless, we think our analysis has reaffirmed the three themes mentioned at the outset: (1) Prestige matters; (2) Prior experience at a league office or at a major sports law firm helps, but is not essential; and, (3) The racial and gender diversity of current general counsels needs improving. Ultimately, we hope that this article sheds light on an important role in the sports industry, and provides guidance for those who seek to aspire to such heights.
Glenn Wong is executive director of the sports law and business program, and a distinguished professor of practice (sports law), at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. Christopher Deubert is the senior law and ethics associate for the Football Players Health Study at Harvard University.