University: Oxford University
Degree: Classics and English
Sports law involves the legal issues at play in the worlds of both amateur and professional sport. Although perhaps now a distinct area of law (‘lex sportiva’), it draws in particular on employment, contract, competition, commercial and intellectual property, public and tort law.
With an undergraduate degree in Classics and English and a PhD in early modern women’s writing, it’s fair to say that Katie Smith’s journey into law was a meandering one. “I always had law in mind as a potential career option,” she explains. “But I wasn’t in a rush to go straight into it!” As is the case with many non-law graduates, Katie’s academic background might not seem directly relevant to her legal career, but there are plenty of transferable skills she has been able to apply. These include her ability to research and analyse. As Katie describes, “PhDs are often predicated on a moment of inspiration, and being able to solve problems, both of which are very applicable to law.”
"Sports law touches on many different aspects of the law"
Katie’s specialism in sports litigation was honed during her training contract at Squire Patton Boggs, where she completed seats in both commercial litigation and sports litigation. The firm’s six-seat rotational training contract enabled her to experience various practice areas, before coming to the decision that it was the contentious areas of law that most appealed. But Katie is quick to clarify that sports law is by no means an isolated practice: “Sports law touches on many different aspects of the law, and skills that I learned in seats such as employment, and restructuring and insolvency still assist me.” For Katie, this is proof that aspiring and junior lawyers should be as flexible and open-minded as possible, even if you end up specialising at a relatively early stage as she did.
Litigation, arbitration and regulation
As a sports lawyer, Katie gets involved in a broad range of cases: “In a general sense, I work on contentious regulatory and commercial matters, with a focus on the sports industry. That gives you a wide experience of High Court litigation, as well as arbitration – both domestic and international, including the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which is in Switzerland.”
But it’s not just disputes, litigation and arbitration that Katie works on. “Because sports law is such a niche area, I have developed an expertise in sports regulation, so I often advise clients on regulatory aspects of sports law too. That means working with different teams and departments. For example, it could mean working on a banking or corporate matter with sports clients, or another matter that intersects with my regulatory knowledge.”
And who exactly are these sports clients? Katie explains: “My regulatory expertise can be applicable to all sports and we advise clients in various sports, whether that be clubs, athletes, brands or governing bodies (national or international).”
Project manager role
On a day-to-day basis, the job of a junior lawyer entails a lot of drafting. Katie describes her “project manager role”, which involves “working directly with clients to work out the problem, give advice, offer solutions, and find out further information where necessary.” There’s a strategic side to the job too, as well as the work that is undertaken with counsel and lawyers in different offices, jurisdictions and departments – “you’re really part of a bigger team.” In addition, Katie’s work includes negotiations, mediations and preparing for trials or arbitration hearings. What drives Katie in all these aspects? “Ultimately, I most enjoy helping the client to succeed or find a solution.”
If you’re wondering whether you’re likely to read about the cases Katie and her team work on in the national media, the answer is yes and no. “A lot of the cases I work on are reported in the media,” she confirms. “But arbitrations are by nature confidential processes, so many arbitration records won’t be published.” You can be certain, however, that the impact of sports litigation and regulation will be felt across the sports we follow and support around the world.
Katie mentions the rules around breakaway leagues, and the ringfencing of leagues, as a key issue in the practice area at the moment. While the highly publicised and short-lived European Super League in football springs to mind as an example of this, Katie adds that the Rugby Football Union has also recently announced new regulations to stop relegation in the premiership. Her team need to keep abreast of these changes as they continue to develop.
Another key issue is the financial sustainability of sport, a concern that has only been heightened by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’re seeing developments in financial regulations in sport with the aims of improving financial viability and levelling the playing field,” elucidates Katie. “For example, the salary cap regulations in Formula 1 and rugby, and the attempted enforcement by the English Football League of salary caps for League One and League Two that was scrapped after arbitration claims were issued. There will likely be further challenges down the line to such regulations based on competition law arguments, as well as employment and trade union law arguments.”
The future of litigation
In terms of litigation more generally, Katie discusses the opportunities the practice will soon face. The increase in technology is an inevitable topic of conversation. “E-filing is now the norm for litigation so often there is now no need to physically go to a court and file the documents by hand. Similarly, e-disclosure platforms are learning how to sift through documents, seeking to make disclosure processes less labour intensive.”
This all points towards a more connected and efficient working future for lawyers. If sports law sounds like an area of law you would like to delve into, Katie has some advice on the skills you should develop. “It is important to be organised and have an eye for detail from the start of your career. It will also help to have a proactive attitude – that means not waiting to see what the next task or stage of the dispute is but thinking ahead.”
There are plenty of opportunities for students to find out more about this niche practice. Katie suggests attending or volunteering at the sports law conferences that take place regularly. “These conferences and voluntary roles can provide a good insight into sports law so that you can test it out and see whether it’s something you’re interested in before you go into it. As a non-law student, these helped me to understand what I wanted to do.”
While you certainly don’t need to have a PhD to become a sports lawyer, Katie’s fascination and passion for the subject, especially sports regulation, has proven that once an academic, always an academic: “While sports law is an academic practice area in itself, I am also studying for a sports law course on the side. This really is my dream job!”