The ties between the solicitors’ profession and sport are long and deep, predating the influx of money that has finally made sport a practice area taken seriously by the largest law firms.

It was a solicitor, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, who had the idea to form an organisation that became the Football Association in 1863. He was its first secretary and also drafted the first laws of the game.

More recently, solicitors Sir Bert Millichip and Keith Wiseman were FA chairmen; Millichip’s son, Peter, is a specialist sports law solicitor and a consultant at Cheltenham firm Wiggin, as is non-lawyer former FA executive director David Davies.

Another notable trailblazer was Harold Hardman. He won an Olympic gold medal for the UK’s football team in 1908, played for Everton in two FA Cup finals, and as chairman of Manchester United steered the club into European competition against Football League opposition in 1956, all while in practice. The league has also had its share of solicitors in charge, such as former president Sir Gordon McKeag and former chief executive David Burns.

But it is not just about football. To name but a few: Brian Moore, the former England rugby hooker and current BBC commentator, combined a legal and sporting career during the game’s amateur days. After winning the London marathon in 1989, Veronique Marot, now a sole practitioner in Leeds, held the British record for 13 years before Paula Radcliffe took up the event. Johnny Searle, who won rowing gold at the 1992 Olympics, is head of legal and business affairs at Viasat Broadcasting. Cricketer Mike Smith, who played one test for England, is an assistant at west country firm Bevan Brittan. Nic Coward, who back in 1994 was the FA’s first in-house lawyer, is chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority.

Nevertheless, it was only in the 1990s that sport started to win recognition as a practice area in its own right, amid a somewhat esoteric argument that still continues today over whether there is such a thing as sports law, or whether it is simply regular law as it applies to sport. The champion of sports law was barrister Edward Grayson, who died last year aged 83, and in whose name the British Association for Sport and Law – which he founded in 1992 – is to create an annual lecture.

Unique specialismFor Nick Bitel, partner at London firm Max Bitel Greene and chief executive of the London Marathon, the establishment of the Court of Arbitration for Sport has put the argument to bed – a distinct strand of sports law does exist. Robert Datnow, one-time legal director of the British Olympic Association, adds that anti-doping and sports discipline are specialisms unique to the field.

Despite efforts to make a special case for sport, particularly at a European level, it has had to bend to the general law, arguably for the worse in some circumstances. Andy Korman, a partner at niche London sports law firm Couchman Harrington, gives the example of sportsmen trying to protect their name through registering it as a trademark. One of the hurdles is whether the name is sufficiently distinctive, which was a problem for Mark Hughes, now the manager of Manchester City.

Meanwhile, the involvement of the European Commission’s competition directorate in the Premier League’s TV deals means there must be at least two broadcasters with rights to show live games – but as they are not showing the same games, is that real competition? ‘It has made my sports viewing twice as expensive,’ says Korman, who has to subscribe to both Sky and Setanta if he wants to watch his beloved Everton.

The recently announced Premier League TV deal for 2010-2013 shows that sport, if not quite recession-proof, is ‘more recession-resistant than a lot of other sectors’, says Bitel. Peter McCormick, senior partner at Harrogate firm McCormicks and senior external legal adviser to the Premier League, describes the deal – under which broadcasters have paid nearly £1.8bn, 5% more than last time – as ‘a miracle’ given the economic climate.

It is evidence, says Korman, that ‘people are always going to be doing deals’ in sport – come what may, there will be football played this Saturday. As further proof, he can point to his work for pensions and life assurance company Aegon on its recent £25m sponsorship deal with the Lawn Tennis Association.

Contracting marketTrevor Watkins, a sports partner at regional firm Clarke Willmott, sees the market potentially contracting. While the premium events and brands should not have too many problems, he says, ‘it’s more unlikely you’ll get the chairman of a company saying that he’s going to sponsor his local team’. On the other hand, the feedback he is getting from high-net-worth individuals already involved in sport is that ‘this is the best opportunity in 25 years for buying and developing business’.

Watkins is surely unique among lawyers for having once been named sports personality of the year. He won the award, handed out by BBC South, for leading the fan consortium that saved his team AFC Bournemouth from extinction back in 1997. ‘Roger Black came second,’ he recalls.

His involvement was a life-changing event – at the time he was an insurance solicitor in the Lloyd’s office of Hammonds, and was forced to choose between his City career and moving back to the south coast to become chairman of the club. He plumped for the latter, spending five years at the helm. He has not looked back.

Commercial benefitsThe scope of sports work is broad. Watkins lists his main areas as commercial rights, intellectual property (IP), stadium development and corporate finance. He says: ‘I’m mainly giving strategic business advice to clients, and the only reason I can do that is through the knowledge built up through my involvement at Bournemouth.’

Korman explains that sports clients are seeking that ‘broader adviser approach... They don’t phone up asking for an IP lawyer. They just want a lawyer. The actual law isn’t particularly difficult – it’s more about adapting it to the circumstances’.

Korman specialises in sponsorship, merchandising and licensing, and like a lot of sports lawyers has had to develop a good grasp of IP law to do his job properly. ‘IP is the cornerstone of it,’ he says.

The name of Manchester-based niche sports and media firm IPS Law actually stands for Intellectual Property in Sport, explains partner Chris Farnell, the solicitor who brought together the FA and Fabio Capello when the former was looking for a new England manager. IPS mainly handles football work and clients include World Footballer of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. Farnell explains how complicated issues of sponsorship and endorsement can be for such a high-profile player – Farnell maintains a wallchart of the various sponsors in different territories around the world to ensure that nothing goes wrong.

Korman and Datnow highlight the particular challenges of broadcast rights and new media. Datnow, a consultant lawyer at virtual law firm Keystone Law and himself active in sports such as yachting, says unbundling these rights – with technology such as IPTV (TV delivered over broadband) coming onstream – leads to some long and complicated agreements. And as well as multiple media, there are also multiple rights – football matches, for example, can be sold as live, live-delayed, catch-up and highlights.

This means the work is ‘fantastically niche’, says Korman. He has seen agreements in the past drafted by less experienced lawyers where they have accidentally given away rights through ignorance. He says he is ‘actually more comfortable’ when he has the likes of DLA Piper or Bird & Bird on the other side, because they know what they are doing and he does not have to start the negotiations ‘on page one’.

Bitel adds: ‘Many sports sponsorship contracts have terms you’d never see in any other commercial contract, such as preventing a sponsor from terminating the contract.’

Size isn’t everythingWhat this also reflects is the way sports law has developed. In the mid-1990s, there were firms that had a bicycle manufacturer as a client which claimed to have sports practices. And even the firms which did have better claims to credibility often did not dedicate many fee-earners to it – they put together groups of lawyers from various disciplines who would work for a sporting client as and when needed. Though some big firms still take this approach, there are now far more dedicated teams and practices.

This has made it easier to identify the cadre of top firms and individuals in the field. There is a mix of large City law firms – such as Bird & Bird and DLA Piper (led by the very well-known Mark Gay) – as well as niche practices like Couchman Harrington, Max Bitel Greene, Onside Law and regional firms.

Bitel says he saw a niche after acting for most of Arsenal’s 1971 double-winning team, although his first sports law client was the London Marathon in 1984. He has acted for the likes of the All England Club and the European end of the Ryder Cup for a long time. ‘Sports clients tend to be very loyal,’ he says.

Korman has had experience of both big and small firms – first at Townleys, the original sports law firm, which then merged into Hammonds, and now at Couchman Harrington. He says the firm views itself less as a law firm and more ‘as part of the sports industry, and the service we offer is law’.

This is clearly a field well suited to niche practices, given the size of many deals and the demand of clients for strong personal relationships with their lawyers – ‘sporting clients like dealing with one individual,’ says McCormick. However, Korman admits it can sometimes be a challenge to persuade in-house lawyers to give a small firm a go. ‘No in-house lawyer ever got sacked for instructing Slaughter and May,’ he observes.

Regional play-offsArguably the best-known practice, certainly outside the capital, is Brabners Chaffe Street in Manchester, principally because of Maurice Watkins, recently dubbed ‘the Kissinger of the soccer world’ by the Manchester Evening News.

Watkins made his name as Manchester United’s solicitor and also as a long-standing director of the club. His involvement dates back to 1976, when the partner at his firm who had been United’s solicitor died unexpectedly. His first task was to handle the dismissal of manager Tommy Docherty.

He has since been at the heart of United’s many legal battles – whether acting for Eric Cantona after his infamous kung-fu kick or Rio Ferdinand over his missed drugs test – and over time developed for his firm (first James Chapman & Co and then Brabners, which took on the team in 2006) a very broad practice across a range of sports. Watkins is also chairman of the Greyhound Board of Great Britain and a non-executive director of the Rugby Football League.

The team was busy during the recent football transfer window – advising, among others, Major League Soccer and LA Galaxy on the loan of David Beckham to AC Milan, and for Manchester City. It is also acting for West Ham in defending the case brought by Sheffield United over the Carlos Tevez affair. Sheffield United is advised by City firm Denton Wilde Sapte, whose sports team is led by Adrian Barr-Smith, a senior member of the sports lawyer fraternity.

In conversation, Watkins says that the work continues to grow, with the 2012 Olympics bringing in work on various sponsorship and other commercial agreements (City giant Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer was last month appointed the official legal services provider to the games). Interestingly, he sees ‘a global reach for sports lawyers in this country’. He explains: ‘Quite a lot of countries are looking at the Premier League model and how it sells its audiovisual rights. There are opportunities for lawyers in this country to spread their wings.’

The success of Brabners also shows how it is by no means just London firms that have fingers in the matchday pie. As well as IPS Law, Manchester also has George Davies – best known for its work for the Professional Footballers Association – and Hill Dickinson (Chris Farnell’s former firm). Across the Pennines is McCormicks and Walker Morris, whose team is led by Chris Caisley, former chairman of rugby league club Bradford Bulls. The sports unit at fellow Yorkshire firm Last Cawthra Feather is augmented by former footballers John Hendrie and Brian Deane as consultants. Cardiff firm Dolmans has even given its team separate branding, operating as a sports management agency under the name ‘definitive’.

At Clarke Willmott, Trevor Watkins says his team is already seeing some spin-off from England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup – it is advising on a new stadium for Bristol that could be one of the host grounds.

Local heroesAs both Trevor and Maurice Watkins demonstrate, one way into sports law can be through a local club. Many lawyers over the years have been club directors – top US lawyer Bruce Buck is probably the best known now as chairman of Chelsea, while Irwin Mitchell partner Howard Culley is a former chairman of Sheffield Wednesday. Others have taken executive positions, such as Scott Duxbury, originally head of legal and now chief executive at West Ham.

Peter McCormick, who started out as a criminal law specialist, jammed his foot in the door at Leeds United in 1989 when he sensed football was a potential source of work. First as legal adviser and then as a director – standing down in 1998, a year into the ill-fated regime of Peter Ridsdale – the connection has enabled him to build a practice and a considerable personal profile.

He has fared somewhat better than the club he still advises. While Leeds have slumped into the third tier of English football, McCormick remains involved with the Premier League, chairing its newly revived legal advisory group (of which Maurice Watkins is also a member). Other work includes motor racing – in 2007 McCormicks advised McLaren on signing up 14-year-old Oliver Roland, dubbed the next Lewis Hamilton – as well as rugby and Jockey Club disciplinary matters. ‘It’s been one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to us,’ he says.

As Bitel notes, ‘most sports lawyers are not the greatest sportsmen themselves’ (and the vast majority are men), though there are several exceptions. City firm Ashurst has had a policy of employing sportspeople, and its sports team boasts an Olympic rowing gold medallist, two former professional rugby players (one of whom was an England international), a Paralympic swimmer, a Paralympic sledge hockey player and a squash international.

Chris Farnell was a youth player at Blackburn Rovers before a knee injury put paid to his fledgling career, but he had kept up his education and when he qualified he found former teammates asking him for advice. ‘It does require specialist knowledge,’ he says. ‘There are hundreds of lawyers who can do my job, but not who know how the industry works.’

As another example, the Manchester office of Davies Arnold Cooper recently recruited trainee legal executive Andy Bailey, a former professional rugby league player, to help build its sports practice. Bailey previously worked with Leeds-based sports specialist Richard Cramer, and last year they won a major Court of Appeal ruling that a rugby club was responsible for the injury caused by one of its players who punched an opponent during a match.

Agent of changeBut if you can’t be sportsman, perhaps being an agent is the next best thing. Dozens of solicitors have registered with the FA as agents, although solicitors who work within a Solicitors Regulation Authority-regulated practice, such as Roy Keane’s well-known solicitor Michael Kennedy, are exempt from the registration requirement other agents face. There has always been a split between those lawyers who believe sportspeople like having a lawyer-agent, particularly when charging by the hour rather than a percentage, and those who prefer to stick to doing the legal work for agents.

Probably the longest standing solicitor-agent is London sole practitioner Mel Goldberg, who also runs Power Goldberg Sports Management and is chairman of the Amateur Swimming Association. He traces his involvement back to a trip to watch the 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where he met many well-known figures in the game at his hotel, one of whom was Sir Bobby Robson. ‘It’s all about connections and who you know,’ he explains, saying that he can call the likes of Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger ‘and he’ll take my call’. He adds: ‘If you are successful, it’s very profitable, but a lot of people are trying to do it.’

In fact, a lot of people are trying to get into sports law. Korman says his firm gets ‘loads of applications, particularly these days’. And for any sports fan, it is not hard to see why – if nothing else, tickets should not be hard to come by. ‘It’s better than a proper job,’ admits Korman. Nick Bitel agrees: ‘When I’m standing on the 18th green at the Ryder Cup, it doesn’t seem such a bad life.’

Neil Rose is a freelance journalist

  • Mel Goldberg can currently be seen each Saturday lunchtime on BBC2, playing the Sir Alan Sugar role in Superagents, an Apprentice-type series shown as part of the BBC Switch strand for teenagers. Six young ‘wannabe’ sports agents are tested with a variety of challenges involving famous sportspeople to win a placement at Goldberg’s agency.