For many attorneys and law students aspiring to utilize their legal degrees to work in the sports industry, an in-house position with a professional organization is considered the peak of an arduous climb to the top of the sports law world. Oftentimes, legal positions in some of the mainstream sports in America, namely football, basketball, and baseball, are typically those that are sought after by the sports enthusiasts in the legal world. Nevertheless, due to the exponential growth of its popularity and the constant expansion of its professional leagues, the path toward in-house positions in American soccer has never appeared more open for those aspiring to work within the beautiful game. As an incoming law student who ultimately hopes to attain an in-house counsel position within professional soccer, I wanted to learn from those who are currently in positions toward which I and several others passionate about the intersection of soccer and the law aspire. Accordingly, I have decided to start a process that I wanted to document by way of Conduct Detrimental to share with all who are interested – an interview with a member of the legal counsel at every MLS club.
From these interviews, I hope to be able to provide insight into the nature of legal counsel positions in professional soccer. And at the end of this process, I hope that we will all be more knowledgeable on what it requires to successfully convert our greatest passions into a dream occupation.
For my first interview, I was fortunate to speak with Joe Kennedy – General Counsel of Nashville Soccer Club. A graduate of Duke University and Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, Kennedy worked in both private practice and in-house for an NBA franchise before transitioning to the MLS. His words were incredibly insightful, and it was a pleasure to learn from him. Without further ado, here is the interview with Nashville Soccer Club General Counsel, Joe Kennedy:
BG: Tell us a bit about your story – what led your interest in working in-house within soccer to develop and the career steps you took that eventually placed you in your current position.
JK: I graduated law school in 2009 and went to work at a law firm in DC doing healthcare regulatory work. After about three years, I lateraled to a firm in Atlanta doing transactional work in healthcare. After about two years in my firm in Atlanta, I got a call from Scott Wilkinson, CLO of the Atlanta Hawks, who asked if I wanted to interview for a junior lawyer position that just opened up in his department. At that point, I was ready to leave the law firm life and was very lucky to end up getting the job. I was there for about six years before I got a chance to come here to Nashville and have enjoyed every moment of it. As far as interest in sports, I have always been a sports fan since I was a kid. I played every sport I could growing up and was eventually lucky enough to play lacrosse at Duke University. After that experience, I had a pretty good idea that I’d eventually like to work in the sports world at some point in my career.
BG: What does a typical workday look like for you as General Counsel at Nashville SC? Is your position more of a consultancy role, or do you primarily serve as the club’s representative in all pertinent legal matters?
JK: The fun part of my job is that there is no typical day. Because I get to oversee all of the club’s legal issues; I have the opportunity to get exposure to different types of matters with all different departments. I get to work with a lot of great people from each area of the business, including sponsorships, marketing, ticketing, soccer ops, etc. Each one of these departments has their own challenges and faces different types of legal matters. This makes each day unique.
BG: I noticed that you also served as Vice President and Assistant General Counsel for the Atlanta Hawks. What are the differences that you’ve found between the role of General Counsel of an NBA and MLS franchise?
JK: The general business of an MLS team and NBA are pretty much the same: ticket revenue, sponsorship revenue, event revenue and media revenue. That being said, the main difference I’ve noticed is in coming to a new expansion team vs. an established one. Nashville SC played its first MLS game about a week before COVID shut everything down. I arrived a bit over a year after that and so in many ways, we were starting a team from scratch even when I arrived. That process is much different not only because you’re doing everything for the first time, but you’re also participating in a startup environment. So we had to complete the tasks of building a team (stadium construction, community outreach, ticket sales, etc.) while also implementing internal processes to make sure we were operating efficiently. You can contrast that experience to an established business like the Atlanta Hawks where you may be engaging in new business ventures but you have an existing infrastructure in which to do it. For me, that’s been the biggest difference.
BG: If you could list 3 of the most important skills necessary to work as in-house counsel for an MLS club and provide a brief explanation for their importance, which skills would you choose?
JK: Business-focus: the biggest difference between a law firm job and an in-house job is that you have to have a business focus in addition to a legal focus. I like to think of myself as a businessperson who has a legal background. It doesn’t help my company if I dig into minute details of a contract for three weeks and hold up a transaction for highly unlikely events. However, it does help if I can identify the likely risks and mitigate those quickly so we can see the upside of a deal as soon as possible.
Generalist: most MLS clubs are small to mid-sized businesses. Because of this, lawyers for the clubs have to tackle all kinds of matters such as intellectual property, litigation, contracts, MLS rules, etc. In order to be successful, you have to be able to know each one of these areas enough to adequately protect the company.
Relationship builder: this is somewhat abstract, but an in-house lawyer is an employee of the company who practices law. To do that effectively, I think the lawyer needs to have a personality fit with the company and the club. It’s important that the people around the general counsel trust her or him enough to come to that person with highly sensitive matters. For that to happen, I think it’s important that other employees have a great relationship with the lawyer. It’s also crucial that the lawyer establish external relationships with sponsors, other teams, the league, player agents, etc.
BG: How did you prepare yourself for a career in the sports industry whilst in law school?
JK: I think there’s more sports and entertainment offerings in law schools now than when I was in school. Of course, it helps to take sports law classes and get internships if you can. However, I’d suggest taking as many different classes as you can and getting as much exposure to various areas of law as possible. It’s also important to have a transactional background so getting law firm exposure to any type of business transactions is helpful.
BG: What is the one critical piece of advice that you could offer from your experience to law students aspiring to work in-house not only in soccer but in sports as a whole? Additionally, what is one piece of advice that you could offer about the industry to law students that you wish you were given when you were in law school?
JK: I think that when law students first get into the practice of law, there is a period of a few years where they have to learn the actual skills of the legal profession. For example, a litigator has to learn how to draft pleadings, where to stand in the courtroom, etc. For those, unfortunately, you just have to put in a bunch of time and effort.
But, what’s been interesting to me is the process of growing after those few years of learning the trade. I find that as I get older, there is more of a demand for leadership skills, empathy and establishing relationships. One of the exciting aspects of this for me has been the process of trying to improve myself outside the office. Therefore, I make sure I take time away from work to travel, experience new things, meet new people with different backgrounds, read books, exercise and take on new hobbies. I find there’s always new things I can learn and other ways I can get better as a lawyer and human being. So, all that being said, my advice to law students in general would be to work hard but also make sure to develop yourself as a person and be curious about the world outside the law. It’s easy to get caught up in the track of trying to make partner, make more money, get more prestige, but I’ve found that those things can be draining if you don’t devote energy to other areas of your life. To quote one of my favorites, Ted Lasso: “Be curious. Not judgmental.”
Special thanks to Joe Kennedy for taking the time to participate in this interview. He can be found on LinkedIn at Joe Kennedy.
Bryce Goodwyn is a 1L at Regent University School of Law. He is a member of the Honors Program and works as a Dean’s Fellow during his 1L year completing research and administrative work. He also formed part of the recently established National Sports Legal and Business Society as the East Region Chair. He can be found on Twitter @BryceGoodwyn and on LinkedIn as Bryce Goodwyn.