Rugby Football head of legal: Part of the union

Being head of legal at the Rugby Football Union is hardly a recipe for a relaxing life, but Karena Vleck says her job is so much fun that even the bad times are good

Karena Vleck
Rugby Football Union

Position: Head of lLegal
Company: Rugby Football Union
Industry: Sport
Reporting to: CEO Ian Ritchie
Company Turnover: £130m
Employees: 500
Legal capability: Four
Total legal spend: £350,000

Main external law firms: Bates Wells & Braithwaite, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Bird & Bird, Blandy & Blandy, Browne Jacobson, Charles Russell, Farrer & Co, Field Fisher Waterhouse, Kerman & Co, Keystone Law, Olswang, Onside Law, Slaughter and May, Wragge & Co

The 2011 Rugby World Cup was dismal for England. Mediocre performances culminating in a quarter-final exit to France were compounded by misbehaviour off the pitch, with boozy nights out making headlines the team would rather forget.

Adding to the upset, reports into the meltdown by the Rugby Football Union’s (RFU) operations director Rob Andrew, the Rugby Players’ Association (RPA) and the Aviva Premiership were all leaked, revealing dysfunction within the team.

Trying times

Consequently, the period after the tournament was frenetic for RFU legal head Karena Vleck, who is also responsible for disciplinary matters and led the investigation.

“We ended up having to deal with the fallout from both [the misbehaviour and leaks surrounding the investigations],” says Vleck. “It probably meant we had a higher profile than we’d have wanted.”

Vleck, who clearly knows a thing or two about understatement, began her career at that most reserved of firms, Farrer & Co, where she trained and made partner in 1998.

She headed the firm’s sports group and cut her teeth in rugby terms working on the Arlidge report, a five-month inquiry in 2003 by Anthony Arlidge QC into whether Rotherham RUFC accepted payments from other clubs not to take up its promotion slot (according to the report, Rotherham did not).

When previous head of the RFU John Hall left to join the Football Association in 2004, Vleck was headhunted to become in-house lawyer and company secretary. She has since risen to become legal and governance head, and also sits on the executive board.

“I’d done 14 years in private practice and wanted a new challenge,” says Vleck. “I came from a rugby family, helped set up the women’s rugby team at Cambridge and played in the first-ever varsity match there.

“I look after all aspects of the organisation from a legal point of view but I’m also on the executive board, so I help run the business, too.”

She is also involved with the RFU’s property strategy, which includes looking at buying plots close to Twickenham stadium (where Vleck is based) and considering whether there should be a dedicated training ground for the England team.

As a result of her broad mandate, Vleck delegates most purely legal issues to her three-person team, which comprises lawyers hand-picked from Slaughter and May, Forsters and Harbottle & Lewis.

One pressing issue facing the legal team is the Supreme Court case against secondary ticketing website Viagogo, which the RFU is arguing should reveal details of customers so it can pursue those that breach ticketing terms.

And, as if the fallout from the World Cup was not enough to occupy Vleck’s time, the issue of the RFU’s governance has been bubbling under too.

The impetus for change came after the publication of a report, commissioned by the RFU Council, by chief disciplinary officer Judge Jeff Blackett that looked into the sacking of former chief executive John Steele and described the organisation’s structure as ’broken’.

Blackett’s damning report spurred the RFU into asking Slaughters’ Nigel Boardman to examine the union’s structure, with the corporate partner’s list of sweeping reforms published in November.

“We wanted to be proactive and take a look at ourselves,” says Vleck. “A lot of issues that have gone on in the past six or so months related to the RFU board and the council. We needed to look at the key principles and the relationship between the board and the council.

“What Slaughters recommended was that the executive committee should do the work supervised by the board, with the Council having an oversight role – I think most people would agree with this.”

Vleck adds that Slaughters said the proliferation of sub-councils meant they ended up having more than a supervisory role. “The devil will be in the detail,” she adds.

Back on form

It will be some time before the precise nature of the restructure is known, with the steering committee making proposals to the council.

For the England team itself, however, rehabilitation has been quicker. Less than six months after the World Cup, England had turned it around: the team was almost unrecognisable at the Six Nations, looking disciplined and reinvigorated, and snatching ­second place to a triumphantly resurgent Welsh side.

Not that a poor England performance would have knocked Vleck off her stride. Although clearly passionate about the team, her role as head of legal near the heart of the organisation is rewarding, and one many lawyers would envy.

“Notwithstanding the fact that it’s had its share of troubles, it’s a great place to work and I feel hugely privileged,” says Vleck. “Even when it’s going badly it’s enormous fun.”

Simon Cliff, general counsel, Manchester City FC

From the Burns report of 2005 to the 2011 Parliamentary report on football governance, the beautiful game is under scrutiny as never before. Minister of Sport Hugh Robertson MP has described corporate governance in football as “noticeably worse than in any other sport”.

I think this is unfair, but as the highest-profile and richest sport in the UK, football should be judged to the highest values and should aim to set the standards of governance across sport.

It is good to see from Slaughter and May’s report that the RFU endeavours to be governed “to PLC standards”. Football is heading in a similar direction, as last year’s appointment of two independent directors to the FA’s board shows. More recently, the FA, Premier League and Football League proposed far-reaching changes to the game’s governance, such as greater independence for the FA’s regulatory function, the aim being to improve decision-making, independence and transparency. This is to be welcomed.

The sport and leisure industry now constitutes 13 per cent of UK GDP and while self-regulation of sport is rightly a cherished principle in this country, such a large economic activity can only retain legitimacy by running itself in line with best practice.

Simon Cliff is writing in a personal capacity

Scott Pugh, principal in-house solicitor, Sport England

Working for the body that funds grassroots sport in the lead-up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games is no walk in the park – it’s a full-on sprint most of the time. In addition to managing a small team of lawyers, I oversee the procurement, complaints, board secretariat and information governance functions. I also provide legal advice, although management is probably the largest part of my role.

The legal work is varied, ranging from drafting contracts for services and funding agreements to providing advice on IP issues, public procurement regulations, data protection and corporate governance. It is a privilege to be playing an important role in so many high-profile projects that are feeding into the lasting legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Public sector austerity measures have meant that administrative support to the team is very limited. Despite these challenges we’ve been able to implement a legal case management system and are making good progress towards a paperless legal practice. Not being part of Government Legal Service, we have benefitted professionally from our membership in the Non-Departmental Public Bodies Lawyers Group and our close working relationship with our panel firms – Field Fisher Waterhouse and Nabarro.