Updated: Jul 24
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 a 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 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 this interview, I was fortunate to speak with Patrick Murphy – Senior Legal Counsel of New York City FC. A graduate of the Wake Forest University School of Law, Patrick interned for both MLB and IMG during his time in law school, before serving as a Legal Coordinator within MLB for the first three years following his graduation. In 2017, he made the switch to New York City FC and just recently earned a promotion to Senior Legal Counsel in April of this year. The conversation I had with Patrick was informative, entertaining, and honest. It was an absolute honor to speak with him for this collaboration, as it felt like I was getting genuine advice from a friend who wanted me to succeed. The conversation represents Patrick’s individual views and opinions and does not purport to reflect the views or opinions of New York City FC or Major League Soccer. With that said, here is the interview with New York City FC Senior Legal Counsel, Patrick Murphy:
1. 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.
PM: Starting out, I went to Wake Forest School of Law for three years. While in law school, my first internship was with MLB and my second was with IMG, so I was lucky to get into the sports industry early. After graduation, MLB decided to bring me back to work in their properties department, and I was there for about 3 years. I had an unbelievable chance to get early experience working on things like licensing, sponsorship, event contracts, venue contracts, etc. After those 3 years, I saw the opening for a Junior Associate at NYCFC and applied. If I am being completely honest, I didn’t really have that big of a connection to soccer. I knew about the team having lived in the Tri-State area, but my initial exposure to the sport was with one of my best law school friends. He was a massive Arsenal fan and he’d appear at my apartment on Sunday mornings to pull me out of bed so he had someone to watch Arsenal matches with. Luckily, that exposure to the sport, along with the research I did concerning the club and City Football Group, was enough to allow me to speak intelligently about the organization during my interview. Nevertheless, as is true with the majority of these positions, my knowledge about soccer was secondary to my knowledge about the sports industry and my expected role within the company. As I have grown into the role, I have learned more about the sport and have loved every minute of it.
2. BG: What does a typical workday look like for you as Legal Counsel at New York City FC? Is your position more of a consultancy role, or do you primarily serve as the club’s representative in all pertinent legal matters?
PM: As I am sure you’ve heard from lawyers at other clubs, there really isn’t a typical day. And that’s what makes it great. With respect to the work I do, though, it’s predominantly contracts - service, partnership, and employment contracts filling the majority of the time. However, the part I love the most is the advisory aspect of my job. This position sits at the intersection of law and business, and depending on who you’re dealing with, you are either giving strict legal advice or using your education and unique perspective to improve the quality of a certain deal for your team. Using my experience and creativity to guide the team to better outcomes or accomplish something we’ve never done before is really what gets me excited to come to work in the morning.
3. 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?
PM: I’ll start with the boring one first before getting into the more interesting ones: communication. I’m not just talking about speaking with people, engagements, emails, etc. It’s also your contract drafting – being able to communicate yourself properly in a document and making sure you are concise and clear. This skill is absolutely critical to achieving success in this job. The next is being able to form meaningful relationships. You can be the best lawyer in the world, or the most precise, creative contract drafter, but without being able to form those relationships, it won’t matter. There is a minimum requisite level of competence that you need to be an in-house lawyer, with the level of that bar varying depending on the role you’re in. As soon as you are above the bar, your success as a lawyer will come from the relationships you form and, in turn, getting people to work with you. For instance, if no one includes me in developmental meetings, or if no one comes to me with questions about what departments are doing day-to-day, I can’t do my job. Without cultivating those business relationships, I won’t have the opportunity to use my legal skills – no matter how good of a lawyer I am. Additionally, your external relationships play an important role in your legal career. As you work in the sports industry longer, you realize that the world is very small – whether you’re talking about firms with sports practices or in-house counsel. One of the best things about MLS is that the lawyers at the other clubs are unbelievably collaborative. They helped me get through a hectic period in 2019 after my boss left, where I was responsible for running the legal department at 31 years old. The relationships I formed provided me with a resource that was invaluable during this time. The last skill would be problem-solving. This role as in-house counsel is both legal and business, and you kind of serve two masters at the same time. Everyone in the building has their own agenda to facilitate their department. Whether it’s ticketing, marketing, or partnerships, they want to further their departmental agendas, and they want to do it within the bounds of the law. You have to figure out a way to help them grow their departments and push things forward while also protecting the company. Understanding this intersection and how to navigate law and business at the same time to problem-solve is hugely important. In law school, a lot of times, the analysis stops once you arrive at the right answer. In our work, the right answer is usually only the first step. Once you have the right answer – especially if that answer is "no’"– you have to come up with a way to implement it. There still might be a way of reaching the desired outcome, but it may require going down an alternative path. It’s your job to find those paths for your departments. Creative problem solving gets easier as you become more seasoned on the job, as you develop a better understanding of league guidelines and applicable law and learn how to use them in unique and beneficial ways. There’s not always one way to solve a problem, and in this role, the more creative you can be, the more valuable you’ll become and the more the company will benefit.
4. BG: As a law student, did you know that you wanted to work in the sports industry? If so, how did you prepare yourself to accomplish this goal whilst in school? If not, what led you to decide to work in sports and, more specifically, for an MLS club?
PM: I knew by the middle of my first year of law school that I wanted to work in the sports industry. I grew up playing sports and have been a huge sports fan my entire life. I saw some internships with professional sports teams and leagues and realized that, if I am going to be a lawyer, that is the only path I see my career taking. I started applying to every sports-related internship I could find. I was also lucky enough to go to Wake Forest School of Law, where I was mentored by Timothy Davis, who co-authored one of the leading books on Sports Law. As well as learning valuable information from Tim, I tried to network myself and gain valuable connections in the industry while I was still in school. Basically, I tried to do whatever I could to get my foot in the door and take advantage of whatever opportunities came out of it.
5. 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?
PM: To the first question, start building your network now. Talk to anyone who will listen. Most people can’t offer you a job, but they can give you thirty minutes. They can tell you about their role or department, and maybe you can turn that into another call. After some time doing this, perhaps the connections you build could lead to a concrete job opportunity. Just starting a dialogue with your future colleagues to create some conversation is crucial to establish the relationships that you will need to succeed in the industry. Also, don’t let your ego get in the way of being a good lawyer. There’s a tangible difference between being confident in your abilities and being arrogant. A critical part of being confident in your abilities is knowing what you don’t know. As an in-house counsel, you’re a generalist – you’ll know a little about a lot of things – but you probably won’t be an expert in any of them. As you progress in your career, you become more confident in handling more issues on your own, but it’s incredibly important to know when you can rely on your experience and when you need to consult outside counsel and resources to help solve a problem. If you have contacts who you can call for guidance or advice, use them. You’re wasting an opportunity to do the best work possible if you let your ego get in the way of asking for help when it’s needed. To the second question, figure out what your passion is and pursue that above anything else. When I realized I wanted to work in sports, I only applied for sports positions, and I didn’t let initial rejections or speedbumps discourage me. Ultimately, no matter how many times you hear '"no," it only takes one "yes" to end up in the place you want to be. I knew all I needed was one opportunity to break into the industry and I would rather have spent my time chasing something I genuinely wanted than settling for something safe. The bottom line is this: you will do your best work and be the best version of yourself if you are passionate about what you’re doing, so don’t let anything stop you in your pursuit of that passion.
A special thank you to Patrick Murphy for his contributions to this article. He can be found on LinkedIn at Patrick Murphy.
Bryce Goodwyn is a rising 2L at Regent University School of Law and assistant editor of the Legal Analysis section at Conduct Detrimental. He is a member of the Regent University Law Review and ADR Board, and he also serves as the East Region Chair of the recently-formed National Sports Legal and Business Society. He can be found on Twitter @BryceGoodwyn and on LinkedIn as Bryce Goodwyn.