Welsh Rugby Union legal head Rhodri Lewis is hard at work getting the union’s legal function up to scratch – and loving every minute of it.
People often claim to be in their dream job, but if you are a rugby-mad Welsh lawyer then you might want to look away now. Your dream job has been taken by Rhodri Lewis, the man who was last month appointed head of legal affairs at the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU).
The job includes an all-important place on the WRU executive committee. If rugby is the religion of Wales, then the committee is its synod; as well as being responsible for major commercial decisions, the board oversees the sport’s strategy from grass-roots to international level.
Competition for the role was fierce, but few would doubt that Lewis was the right man. He trained at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where he became an associate in 2002, and cut his teeth working alongside former corporate head Tim Jones (now the firm’s London managing partner) advising London 2012 on establishing the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games.
His work soon caught the eye of football governing body Uefa, which called to see if he was interested in joining. “I thought about if for a couple of seconds and said yes,” he recalls. Several interviews later and he was packing his bags and heading for Uefa’s headquarters in Nyon, outside Geneva.
It was not without a little hesitancy that he left behind his fledgling career at the magic circle firm.
“There was a moment where I thought, ’oh my God, what have I done?’” admits Lewis.
The feeling did not last long. During his time at Uefa he worked onsite at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and at the 2008 European Cup in Austria and Switzerland, as well as managing stadia for Uefa Champions League matches, gaining a solid grounding in media law, sponsorship agreements and commercial contracts.
Lewis was appointed legal counsel in 2008, but left the organisation a year later to join the FA as senior solicitor, where he was essentially number two to group legal director Alistair Maclean.
Shortly after he arrived, however, the WRU began its hunt to replace highly respected former legal chief Mike Jefferies, who died of cancer in September 2009.
“I had a great time at the FA and got to do some excellent work,” he says. “Ally’s a great guy to work with.
“I wasn’t planning to leave the FA, but when then the WRU job came up it was very hard to turn down. The role wasn’t just about legal work, there was also a place on the executive board, and that meant having a say on strategy.”
Lewis is a rugby man through and through, playing amateur rugby for local side Dinas Powys and later becoming vice-captain of the Law Society rugby team when he worked in the City. During his time in Switzerland he was jokingly referred to by colleagues as ’Le Rugby Man’.
While Uefa prepared him for the legal and commercial challenges of the WRU, his spell at the FA prepared him for life in the media glare.
“Not only are you reading about issues on the back page, but on the front page too,” he says. “I often found myself reading about things in the paper that I’d been discussing only a few hours before.”
It was perfect preparation for the goldfish bowl that is Welsh rugby, where media scrutiny on the performance of the national team is equal to that dished out to footballer Wayne Rooney and his teammates.
“You really have to be careful about your daily work because you’re constantly in the media spotlight, particularly in Wales, where rugby’s the number one sport,” he explains. “That means the union’s often the number one target. No matter what path we take someone will criticise us, so you just have to get your head down and get on with it.”
The WRU was without a legal head for almost a year, which means Lewis is now making his way through a backlog of work, although much of his time has been spent preparing for the union’s upcoming AGM on 10 October. He is also hammering out sponsorship agreements and media and broadcasting issues relating to the Autumn International, the Six Nations and the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Despite its £56m turnover Lewis is the organisation’s only lawyer.
He plans to ease the burden by establishing a formal panel within the next few months. Strong historical ties mean the WRU has traditionally used Welsh firm Hugh James for outsourced work, but Lewis intends to look beyond the border in a bid to drive down costs.
While he admits it will be hard work to establish the panel while balancing his commercial and legal responsibilities, it is clear that there is nowhere he would rather be.
“I feel I’m very lucky,” he states.
“I was in the right place at the right time.”
Name: Rhodri Lewis
Organisation: Welsh Rugby Union
Position: Head of legal affairs
Reporting to: Group chief executive Roger Lewis
Total legal capability:One
Total legal spend:£1m-plus
Main external law firm:Hugh James