Legal advisers can be a football club’s best signings

Transfer spending by English football clubs this summer has exceeded £500m, according to recent analysis by Deloitte. This figure confirms the ever-increasing value and complexity of football transactions.

So it is no surprise that the involvement of solicitors and barristers in the business of professional football shows no sign of abating.

This has been further propelled by The Football Association’s (FA) revised Football Agents Regulations, which came into force on 1 September 2007. These revised regulations make a number of significant changes that will affect future transfers and that are designed to govern better the activities of agents. While they deal principally with areas such as dual representation and payments to agents, they also see the introduction of new rules relating to the work of lawyers.

Under the old regulations lawyers were considered to be “exempt individuals” unregulated by the FA. The new regulations, however, set out three different categories in which solicitors and barristers may find themselves practising, depending upon the nature of the advice and assistance they are providing to their football clients, from advising on the form of contracts to negotiating the commercial terms.

As such, lawyers can now either provide “permitted legal advice”, be an “exempt solicitor”, or be a “registered lawyer”.

The greater complexity at the domestic and international levels has led to football transactions becoming increasingly technical, and club officials and agents are turning to specialist legal advisers on a more regular basis.

This trend was highlighted in the recent transfers of Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano into and out of West Ham United FC, where the issue of third-party ownership of footballers appeared in the English game.

The FA and Premier League rules on such matters were not developed, the upshot being protracted legal battles involving a number of clubs and the third-party companies.

The clubs at the centre of these cases will no doubt have incurred substantial legal fees, but these will pale into insignificance when compared with the value of retaining Premier League status.

There has also been a continued trend towards the resolution of football disputes within football-specific forums. Lawyers are therefore required to have knowledge of the various dispute resolution procedures that exist; this is particularly the case at an international level for disputes between clubs, players and agents belonging to different national associations.

Disputes may, for example, be heard before the Fifa Dispute Resolution Chamber or the Fifa Players’ Status Committee. There may also be appeals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Switzerland.

The appeal in current high-profile case against defender Andrew Webster is pending before the CAS. This case, which concerns the first player to terminate unilaterally his playing contract outside the so-called ‘protected period’, when he left Heart of Midlothian FC and moved to Wigan Athletic FC in the summer of 2006, has attracted significant interest across European football.

Lawyers are also finding themselves specialising in other niche areas, such as dealing with immigration and work permit issues, doping, disciplinary cases and the whole sponsorship and merchandising sectors.

One particular area of considerable recent growth has been ‘reputation management’. This expansion stems from the intense media interest in professional football in today’s society, where the reputations of clubs, players and agents come under scrutiny, as demonstrated by the BBC’s high-profile Panorama programme into alleged corruption in the game.

This shows that football clients are not only in need of regulatory advice on rule compliance, but also strategic advice on their relationships with the press.

The involvement of lawyers in niche areas in professional football will no doubt continue given not only recent regulatory developments, but also the ever-increasing amounts of money circulating within the game.

In light of the wide variety of work that lawyers may undertake, they are advised to consider the new Agents Regulations to determine which particular category their practice falls into to ensure due compliance not only with Law Society and Bar Council regulations, but also with the ‘football laws’.