One of the busiest and most high-profile lawyers in the game is Manchester United's Maurice Watkins. A partner in Manchester firm James Chapman & Co, Watkins became solicitor for the Reds 19 years ago, bringing his commercial and professional indemnity know-how. A hectic season has seen him handle the court and disciplinary hearings for Eric Cantona's 'kung fu' kick on a Crystal Palace supporter, a string of merchandising deals, and some of the biggest transfers in English soccer, including the £7 million purchase of striker Andy Cole.
His previous triumphs include floating Manchester United, and he now sits on the board of both club and plc. Watkins also advises the FA, is on the Premier League legal working party and chairs the British Association for Sport and the Law. A lifelong United supporter, he clearly revels in the job of club lawyer. “The one thing it enables you to do is something completely different from the normal run of work.”
Raj Parker, Freshfields litigation partner and Chelsea supporter, is building a reputation by representing the FA. He eased into the soccer brief over a 10-year period, during which he represented the body during the inquiries after the Hillsborough disaster and the disciplinary hearings into “irregular payments” at Tottenham Hotspur involving ex-Arsenal manager George Graham. Parker said: “It is fascinating. I played a bit and I enjoy it, so in terms of learning about an industry that you practice in, it has been interesting for me.”
Denton Hall partner Adrian Barr-Smith is another key player. Barr-Smith, a Chelsea fan, heads one of the most widely-respected sports groups, whose clients include the FA Premier League. He was a media finance lawyer who moved into sport after handling Guinness' sponsorship of Queens Park Rangers. “The extraordinary thing about football is that people are incredibly loyal to their legal and professional advisers. You don't get that in other sectors.”
Two colourful figures are Mel Stein and Nick Trainer, best-known for their representation of Paul Gascoigne and Terry Venables, respectively.
Stein, a commercial partner at Finers, has just overseen Gascoigne's transfer from Lazio to Glasgow Rangers. He became a sports lawyer when former England winger Chris Waddle gave him instructions. Gascoigne did likewise after Stein watched them play for his own favourite team Newcastle United. “He came up to me in the bar and said 'You're Waddle's lawyer aren't you? Will you be mine?'” Of the job, he said: “Sometimes it is not like work at all, at other times it is much harder as the responsibilities are enormous. Sometimes, your clients need protecting from themselves as much as from the outside world.”
Trainer, a partner at John Bowden, Trainer & Co, maintained an interest in sport after being forced out of a professional running career by illness.
He worked initially on general law for an entertainments law firm. “I was interested in doing sport because I like it, and I just got a breakthrough from people I knew. I find the people very interesting. They are very entertaining.”
He works almost exclusively on football-related clients, which, in addition to Venables, include Chelsea and England midfielder Dennis Wise and Blackburn Rovers captain Tim Sherwood.
Two well-known club and governing body lawyers are Trevor Nicholls and Keith Wiseman. Nicholls, a partner in Norwich firm Greenland Houchen, represents Norwich City. Although admitting to being “brought up with the other-shaped ball”, he said football work is “totally absorbing. Everything else, in comparison is slightly mundane”. Nicholls sits on the Premier League working party with Watkins and Wiseman, vice-chair and solicitor at Southampton. Wiseman became involved in football through his firm, Woodford & Ackroyd, which has historical links with the club.
Richard Alderson, commercial partner in Birmingham firm Edge & Ellison is recognised for work with governing bodies including the Football League and Aston Villa.
Among sports lawyers who began in media is Justin Walkey, partner at Bird & Bird and head of sports law, who is acting for the FA on next year's European Championships.
Peter Crystal heads the sports group at Memery Crystal, a practice which has acted for Wembley Stadium in the FA Cup sponsorship deal and Aston Villa on catering contracts.
Nick Bitel, partner in the sports and entertainment department of Max Bitel Greene, is vice-chair of Wigan Athletic. His clients included ex-Arsenal manager George Graham and Tottenham player Gary Mabbutt.