If you want to get involved in the world’s biggest sport as a lawyer, you’ve got to be on the ball. The sports team at Walker Morris run us through the (hat) tricks of their trade...
Nikolai Viedge, March 2020
You don’t need a pundit to tell you that football is big business. Footballers are bona-fide rockstars, often earning astronomical wages while sporting tattoos and haircuts that us ordinary folk could never pull off. The money involved at the top of the Premier League often involves huge sums of money – Manchester United alone is valued at £3.15 billion. The UK, birthplace of the beautiful game, remains at the forefront of the global scene. Statistics released by Deloitte revealed that nine English Premier League outfits are among the top 20 clubs by revenue worldwide; they’re also brands which represent prized commodities with huge global audiences to be sought, bought and sold by ultra-high-net-worth individuals and consortiums. Football club owners can become household names and are seen on billions of screens in their role as king (it’s almost never queen, sadly) of the castle.
As with any heavily regulated industry, there is also need for a lot of legal advice. Consider this: if a club wants a new player, manager, training ground, sponsor or owner, they’ll need a lawyer to put together the relevant contracts and negotiate the terms. Hiring, firing (sorry, “mutually-consented departure”), retention… all need lawyers. If a club is organising sponsorship at the ground – lawyer. If a beer company wants to sell at that ground – lawyer. Buying or selling a club – lawyer! They’re like the ball itself: never really spoken about (unless it’s the infamous Jabulani ball of the 2010 World Cup), but without which the game cannot begin.
If you’re looking at English football law, there’s only one Walker Morris. The Leeds-based firm acts for 10 of the 20 Premier League teams and a host of clubs in lower divisions. To find out more about football and the law we spoke to Liz Coley, a senior associate at Walker Morris who has built a top-flight legal career. “We’ve worked on in excess of 40 M&A transactions for Premier League clubs; we’re currently acting on three club sales and one purchase in the Premier League alone.” Walker Morris works on other sports too, “but football is our main area."
Coley works in sports regulatory law, where “a lot of the work involves signing and transferring players and dealing with players' agents.” As part of an industry-leading law firm the work is very different to acting for one club “where you’ve only got one person who you need to answer to. When you’re an external lawyer you’re acting for multiple clubs at the same time, all with the same deadline.” So, what was transfer-deadline day like? “One of our clients actually wanted me to come and work at the club on the day [transfer deadline day], but I said no – ‘I’m happy to help, but I can’t sit on site with you.’ we have to focus on delivering all our clients' needs.”
For Coley, a Woking fan, a love of football was a key driver behind her decision to pursue a career in sports law. “My background is working in professional football, which I did for almost 20 years. Most sports lawyers qualify as a lawyer and then go into sport; I did a sports science degree and worked for the FA. I started there in 1995, then went to work for four professional clubs.” It was in 2008, when one of those (Southampton) changed hands and the new ownership wanted a fresh start with fresh faces, that Coley was put on the transfer list. “I had completed my MA in international sports law and my former boss (who had a US law degree) asked why I hadn’t considered becoming a lawyer. It wasn’t something I'd ever considered – at my school we didn’t even speak about doing A levels. Having been made redundant from Southampton FC I started my GDL part-time.” After almost 20 years of experience in the professional football world, Coley was anxious that she would stick out at law school like a rugby ball at Old Trafford. “At 34 I thought I would be the oldest student there – but I wasn’t, which was a relief. I was 39 when I qualified having studied my LPC part-time too. I got there eventually; it was a long route!”
High-profile matters fly into Walker Morris more often than Cristiano Ronaldo scores penalties. One stand-out matter for Coley was Crystal Palace v Tony Pulis: at the start of the 2014/2015 season, Pulis left Palace shortly after receiving a £2 million bonus for helping keep the club in the Premier League the previous season. Palace had paid the bonus two weeks before it was due after a discussion with Pulis in which he said he was committed to the club, but he announced his departure just two days after receiving the £2 million. Crystal Palace were aggrieved by what they perceived as disingenuity by Pulis, took him into arbitration and were ultimately successful, forcing him to pay the club £3.7 million in damages.
“I learned so much from being there as a junior lawyer and you cannot underestimate how much you learn from being in the presences of someone like Ian Mill QC, for that period of time.”
A highlight of this case – and indeed this whole area of law – was working closely with the barristers. Coley recalls: “I was an NQ at Walker Morris when I started working alongside a colleague on the Pulis case and being fully involved for the 11-day manager’s arbitration tribunal was an amazing experience. I learned so much from being there as a junior lawyer and you cannot underestimate how much you learn from being in the presences of someone like Ian Mill QC, for that period of time.” Coley was especially impressed by “the immense capacity of their minds. It demonstrated to me the need for lawyers to have a complete grasp on thousands of pages of information.”
“That case as a whole was one of the most interesting pieces of work I’ve been involved in,” says Coley. “We spent 18 months working with the club before it got to the hearing – supporting them as they prepared, working closely with counsel and so on. It was the biggest case I'd been involved with at that time, was very complex and ultimately a successful outcome for our client.” Coley goes on to say that she “loved the intensity of the case. So much was moving every day, we’d do a full day at the tribunal and then have to go back and prep for the next day based on what had happened.” She acknowledges that it “was hard work over a sustained period of time” – like top-flight players, football lawyers need to put in hours behind the scenes to get the results they (and the clients) want to achieve.
Having achieved promotion to the Premier League (i.e. qualifying and working as a football lawyer at Walker Morris), Coley is keen to stress the realities of the job. “It’s not just about attending football matches; we work unsociable hours and if you aren’t prepared to do that you shouldn’t go into sports law.” Coley points out that “it can be challenging, particularly during busy times like the football transfer deadline when you’ve got lots of clubs who all want something done at the same time.”
If the thought of giving up your Saturday doesn’t send you running for the hills, read on to find out how to get your foot in the football law door. Coley has several tips – perhaps the most important is to know the world of football like the back of a goalie’s glove. “If I’ve got a trainee and I don’t have to explain the absolute football basics, like tapping up [illegally approaching a player from another club to try to persuade them to join your own, FYI], then they're already part-way there,” says Coley. “I’m always delighted if they’ve got a genuine interest in the topics that I’m sending them off to research and when they already understand the basics, so I don’t have to spoon-feed them.”
It’s also important to have a healthy respect for, while dealing sensibly with, famous figures in the football world – in other words, don’t get starstruck if you’re suddenly working on a project and your favourite manager is involved. “Having worked in the industry for such a long time, I was used to walking into a boardroom on a match day and talking to chairmen and directors, so I think it was probably easier for me working with senior people in clubs than it is for other NQs,” Coley notes.“It helps if you are comfortable in this type of environment. For me it was run of the mill – they’re just normal people in high-profile roles.”
We’d add that while football law might be big business, there aren’t a huge number of jobs in the sector and demand far outweighs supply. Walker Morris might be in the football law Premier League, but not every trainee will get to see it. The few boutique sports law firms which do handle only sports law are small in headcount and don’t all offer training contracts. One could argue that becoming a football lawyer is even harder than making it as a pro footballer – but a uniquely exciting career awaits those who do make it.
Despite the long hours and technical complexities involved with football law, Coley couldn’t be happier with her chosen career. For Coley, who “likes deadlines,” the “variation of what comes in” to her work docket coupled with the “pressure” of the job has made it an exciting and worthwhile commitment. “It’s never dull – football is an industry you can work in for years and never know it all.”
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Coley concludes. “I’m a football fan who’s gone from standing on the terrace as a supporter to working for clubs and watching from a Directors’ Box on a match day and working in an industry that I love.”