Premiership player

Slaughter and May partner Nigel Boardman is one of the best-known M&A dealmakers in the City. So why turn into a sports lawyer? By Husnara Begum

Nigel Boardman’s client list boasts no fewer than eight FTSE100 companies, including the likes of Marks & Spencer and Standard Chartered Bank. Among this enviable list is arguably his favourite client – Arsenal Football Club.

Boardman’s passion for football has seen him substitute the Takeover Code for the FA Premier League handbook. Arguably, his highest-profile client over the past year has been Arsenal.

Boardman stood down as head of corporate at Slaughter and May in April 2004 because, as he told The Lawyer at the time, “eight years of counting paperclips is enough – they all look the same after a while”. Since then, Boardman, who claims to be a lifelong Arsenal fan, has had more time to expand his repertoire into the sports law arena. He is now seen by many as Arsenal’s de facto general counsel.

Arsenal appointed Slaughters to undertake all of its legal work (except for immigration) after years of the firm advising the club on corporate issues and financing. Last month, Boardman and associates Habibunnisha Patel and Ian Lynam, advised the club on a number of signings during the course of the recent football transfer window, which closed on 31 January. They included the English youth international Theo Walcott for an initial fee of £5m, which has the potential to rise to £12m, depending on the number of the midfielder’s performances on the field.

Arsenal, which is currently trailing North London rival Tottenham Hotspur FC in the top half of the FA Premier League, is pinning much of its hopes on Walcott. But despite being the most expensive 16-year-old player ever, the former Southampton FC midfielder has yet to make an appearance for his new club’s first team. “[Arsenal manager] Arsene [Wenger] is a very good judge of young talent. I’m very comfortable that he knows what he’s doing,” says Boardman loyally.

Legal work arising out of most player transfers is not exactly rocket science – it is documented with standard form contracts. But Lynam argues that no two transfers are the same. For instance, the Walcott signing was complicated by the fact that the youth player is still a minor, meaning there were 90 signatures required at the signing of the contracts.

Boardman claims that he is not acting for Arsenal simply because of his love of football. For Slaughters, Arsenal is no different from any of its other listed clients, he says. As such, the firm charges Arsenal the full rate for its services – including lower-margin work such as player transfers. Boardman’s rate would be more than £700 per hour. In stark contrast, the typical hourly charge-out rate for a niche sports practice is £175. One sports law specialist says he finds this state of affairs astonishing. “How can Arsenal’s board justify paying magic circle rates?” he asks. Another sports lawyer says: “As an Arsenal fan, I don’t mind the club using Slaughters for complex finance work, but I don’t think it’s necessary to use a Rolls-Royce to get to the corner shop.”

Contrary to market rumours, Slaughters does not receive any perks such as free season tickets in return for its advice. Indeed, the firm has not even secured an executive box in the club’s new multimillion-pound Emirates stadium. The much-sought-after executive boxes are on sale for £65,000 or more per season.

Unlike most other law firms operating in the sports sector, Slaughters does not have a dedicated sports practice. Instead, the group, which is headed up by IP partner Robert Sumroy, is made up of a multidisciplinary team of lawyers from its commercial, IP, corporate, finance, litigation, competition, tax and property departments.

Its client list includes Ladbrokes, The Tote, Toyota Motorsport and Ford Motor Company. However, there are glaring omissions from its client base. Where are the other sports clubs, governing bodies, event organisers and, indeed, professional athletes?
“The list of clients we have isn’t enormous. But we’re not claiming that we have an enormous sports practice. It is, however, a very good practice,” argues Boardman.

Boardman claims that Slaughters’ relationship with Arsenal can prevent its sports practice from acting for other football clubs and some sports governing bodies. “There are conflict issues in acting for too many football clubs. If all you do is provide a basic service, you can act for as many as you like,” explains Boardman.

However, there are conflicts and there are conflicts. Many Arsenal fans would claim that Boardman’s work for Tottenham is controversial. Boardman managed to pick up Tottenham as a new client last summer when he was brought in to advise it on its dispute with Chelsea FC regarding the team’s alleged illegal approach to Tottenham’s director of football Frank Arnesen. That dispute resulted in Tottenham settling the issue with Chelsea rather than making a complaint to the FA Premier League.

At the time, the news of Boardman’s decision to act for Tottenham on the ‘tapping up’ dispute with Chelsea astounded lawyers and football fans alike. Nevertheless, Boardman insists that there was no conflict of interest in Slaughters acting for both Arsenal and Tottenham. He argues that Arsenal has taken a very pragmatic approach to conflicts.

But one sports law specialist, who remains sceptical of Slaughters’ sports practice, argues: “If Slaughters is prepared to act for Arsenal and Tottenham, then I can’t see why it can’t act for other football clubs as well.”

The source also claims that, although Slaughters may be conflicted from acting for footballing governing bodies, there are plenty of other sporting organisations that it can still advise. “Slaughters’ current client list is principally made up of corporates with some interest in sports,” argues the source.

Boardman’s reputation is definitely an asset to Slaughters’ sports practice. But his reputation alone is not going to be enough to catapult the group into the premier league of sports advisers. In any case, Slaughters would probably prefer him to stick to the day job. n