A Life In The Fast Lane: The New York Jets' General Counsel

Editor: Mr. Lee, would you tell us something about your professional experience?

Lee: After graduating from Fordham Law School in 1997, I did a clerkship on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Following my clerkship, I joined the litigation department of Proskauer Rose. Until 2005, I handled an array of litigation and other matters cutting across a number of the practice areas, including sports, intellectual property, entertainment, restrictive covenants and trade secrets, antitrust, artist representation, as well as general commercial matters involving various industries.

Editor: How did you come to sports law, which, until recently, has been something of an arcane specialty?

Lee: I've always been a sports fan. In terms of sports law experience, Proskauer has one of the deepest benches around, which is one of the things that attracted me to the firm. I became involved in a whole range of matters for Proskauer's sports clients, including the Jets.

Editor: Are there many firms with separate and distinct entertainment and sports law practices?

Lee: Sports law tends to span various disciplines. The legal needs of a professional franchise involve questions of labor and employment law, franchise acquisition, finance, tax, real estate and facility development, litigation, and even personal planning. Some firms specialize in certain of these areas, while others contribute lawyers from various departments to a sports law practice group. Proskauer falls into the latter category, which helped me to develop the skills and relationships that I need to do this job. The Jets have relationships with several firms as necessary for specific needs that come up, but there's a tremendous benefit to having a good relationship with that kind of one-stop-shopping legal firm. That's true in any business, of course, but particularly in the "arcane" world of sports law, as you put it. This is a major industry, but it's also a tightly networked group. These relationships are valuable to someone in my position.

Editor: What kinds of skill sets are called for here?

Lee: A sports lawyer is dealing with people who are in very demanding, high profile positions. It is essential to establish a high degree of confidence and trust in the relationship. Being a good and creative problem-solver is critical. You also need to be a good negotiator. And, of course, you must be knowledgeable about the laws and rules that come into play - that's also where interpersonal skills and relationships come into play. If I don't know the answer, I probably know someone who does. If there isn't an "answer," which there often is not, I'll gather the knowledge and information necessary to give the best advice possible to make a sound and informed decision.

Editor: How did you come to the Jets?

Lee: I had a chance to work with the Jets organization at Proskauer. Initially, my work was in the litigation area, but over time I handled a variety of matters for the Jets and came to know people in the organization. About a year ago, in connection with the effort to establish the New York Sports Convention Center in Manhattan, it became apparent to the Jets that a major legal undertaking such as this required internal coordination. The Jets brought me in-house to address the legal aspects of the transaction. At the beginning I retained my Proskauer affiliation, but in time it became clear that there was a substantial need here that extended beyond stadium development. I was a good fit for the Jets, and vice-versa, so the club created the General Counsel position and I filled it.

Editor: Please tell us about your responsibilities as general counsel for an NFL team.

Lee: I advise management, staff and ownership on the legal implications of a variety of transactions, undertakings, events and disputes, essentially on whatever is currently underway. The position is fluid, and it would be difficult to provide you with a job description, particularly as there was no general counsel or formal legal department prior to my arrival. I am a department of one, but some people in the front and back offices are also lawyers, and we work together to address legal issues that arise in their departments. This is a very substantial resource, because these colleagues know the business and the organization very well. It includes considerable talent in the areas of development, marketing and sales, and football operations which, in a very general sense, sums up the organization. I try to handle as much as possible myself, including drafting and dispute resolution, but there are many matters that require outside counsel. On those, I act as the client and coordinate the interaction between the business people and the lawyers. And, of course, as my wife knows, it is critical that I attend every game . . . .

Editor: What are the key issues that you face as the Jets' General Counsel?

Lee: One aspect that is somewhat unique is that the Jets share a market with the New York Giants. For many years now, the Jets have shared a stadium with the Giants, and that creates a number of unique operational issues as well as legal issues vis-à-vis our respective relationships with our current landlord. We are now going down the path of constructing a new stadium in New Jersey in a joint venture with the Giants, which will ameliorate many of these issues because neither team will be a tenant of the state anymore. But the joint stadium concept is unprecedented in the NFL. It's a billion dollar project, with many players involved, each with their own concerns and issues. The Jets and Giants organizations have a very good relationship, though, and that is obviously very important.

Being a department of one is also something of a challenge. This is a new position in the organization, and I'm still defining my role to a certain extent. I am very fortunate to be working with an incredibly bright and talented group of colleagues, however, and I've made many new and close friends here. Overall, it's a wonderful learning experience. It is a challenge, to be sure, but one that I welcome.

Editor: How about other professional sports? Are there things that, say, a baseball or basketball general counsel might be concerned with that you do not see in your role with an NFL team?

Lee: I have spent much of the past year working on the Westside stadium project, and only since being named general counsel have I really had a chance to fully focus on the wider range of issues confronting the business. I have just begun to meet my peers from other NFL organizations and other professional sports franchises. While there are common legal issues across professional sports, each league does have its own rules. The various leagues were organized at different times, and they have evolved along parallel but somewhat different paths. The NFL has very specific rules with respect to franchises, labor relations and the control of intellectual property, to name just a few areas, and these rules may be quite different from what you might find at the NBA or Major League Baseball.

Editor: Please tell us about your relationship with outside counsel. What criteria do you use in retaining law firms to support you in your work?

Lee: The NFL legal office is an incredibly valuable resource, consisting of very bright lawyers who offer assistance on a variety of issues. I use relationships, recommendations, my own research, and my own knowledge of the industry in deciding how to utilize outside counsel. One of the great things about having been with a firm like Proskauer is that I have immediate access to lawyers with experience in just about every legal discipline and knowledge about virtually any issue. Otherwise, I typically will ask them for referrals to others they have worked with and can recommend highly. In addition to Proskauer, we've also worked with Boies Schiller & Flexner; Crosby & Higgins; Drinker Biddle & Reath; Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson; Greenberg Traurig; Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman; Porzio Bromberg & Newman, and others - all excellent firms that serve particular needs of ours. Some of these relationships existed when I got here and some we've formed more recently for specific reasons.

Editor: What about the legal tools - I am thinking about legal research and the like - that are necessary to your work?

Lee: As a relatively recent law graduate, I have the skills to do my own research online - when I have time for it. I can access case law, regulatory and statutory material and articles with relative ease. The internet and online research tools like Westlaw and Lexis have always been important tools for me. As a department of one at the Jets organization, I rely primarily on the Internet and Westlaw. My own background, of course, is in litigation. A dispute over a collection of, say, $100,000 does not require retention of outside counsel. I can do that myself, particularly with the help of tools like Westlaw.

Editor: What do you see as the major issues for the future? For the Jets and for professional football?

Lee: A very important issue on the horizon for the NFL is the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires in a couple of years. The existing CBA has worked well, and I believe the NFL has learned a great deal from it. The CBA currently governs many aspects of league operations and agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA about that governance in the future is obviously desirable.

For the Jets, the construction of a new stadium facility is tops on the agenda. In the world of professional sports there are few things that matter more than a state of the art facility. We're planning to bring to the New York metropolitan area a new, first-class, state-of-the-art football stadium that we believe will set a new standard for NFL facilities and create the most dynamic and satisfying sports fan experience in the world. Competitive facilities are essential to favorable economics in this business because they allow you to cater to the market - fans and sponsors - in ways that enhance the sporting event, create revenue, and contribute to the economy of the surrounding area. Construction of a the new stadium is a top priority, and it is going to be something really special.

Editor: Is there anything you would like to add?

Lee: My advice to associates at law firms is to disregard the myth that in-house lawyers work less than their law firm counterparts. It is certainly a relief to be free of the billable-hour mentality, but corporate counsel is subject to an entire range of pressures that you do not find in the firm setting (including worrying about billable hours, although as an expense rather than a measure of productivity). On the other hand, being in the corporate counsel world is an professional experience that is second to none. The breadth of issues that I deal with now is extraordinary, and I am learning new things on an ongoing basis.

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