University: University of Bristol
Undergraduate degree: History
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.
“Depending on who you ask, sports law is either a thing or not a thing,” Simon Grossobel says wryly, but goes on to make a convincing case for the former proposition. This is unsurprising, given his specialism in sports litigation; arguing convincingly is all in a day’s work: “It’s a vibrant area of law: in some cases there are disputes just like any other area, for example, contractual or agency disputes, but there are also industry-specific elements such as the applicable regulations. Jurisdictional considerations are also always important – whether to bring claims in the English High Court, domestic sports arbitral tribunals, the Court of Arbitration for Sport – CAS – or other courts; that’s always a battleground. There are so many complex elements to sports disputes and a lot of ‘hard law’ is involved, which was a strong pull for me. It’s a very academic area of law.”
Although he considered the Bar at one stage due to these academic inclinations, Simon points to a key differentiator of sports work at a law firm: “You are in the driving seat when it comes to the strategy and you have a greater opportunity to do the advocacy work yourself.” This is due in large part to the nature of sports disputes work, with many matters going before national or international governing bodies and specialist tribunals, prime among the latter, the Switzerland-based CAS. “With CAS cases we can draft parts of the pleadings ourselves, rather than bring counsel in to do it – subject to the need to bring in specialist Swiss law or other non-English law counsel – as we would for more general disputes. It’s one of the parts of the job that I like most.”
All about the people
Ultimately though, Simon was drawn to the solicitor’s life by virtue of the wide-ranging nature of the role and the opportunity to work with teams of people. “A lot of what we do isn’t necessarily dispute-related. For example, it can involve giving advice on regulations, which might entail combing through the EFL [English Football League] Handbook or the FA [Football Association] Regulations. The Regulations are the purest form of sports law, albeit they have private contractual force rather than being ‘law’ in the strict sense of the word.” He relishes “working with other people and bouncing off them”, having previously taught English at a London secondary school for three years after graduating from uni. Running a classroom, as it turns out, instils a host of invaluable and readily transferrable interpersonal skills. “Managing personalities, people and expectations – all of these are really helpful when entering the legal sector, as you have to manage both client and colleague expectations.” At the same time, teaching, like lawyering, involves “a large degree of autonomy – you have to learn to work hard on your own”.
“You are in the driving seat when it comes to the strategy and you have a greater opportunity to do the advocacy work yourself"
Despite rising to the position of deputy head of the English department, Simon always knew he wanted to enter the legal profession, so left to join a West End practice as a paralegal, before landing a training contract at Squire Patton Boggs. He was keen to take on more disputes work, having developed a taste for it while paralegalling, but didn’t really know much about sports law. Finding it an alluring prospect, he expressed interest, was able to get some experience under his belt and “immediately loved it” – not only for the aforementioned variety of work and academic challenge, but also because of the “great people” on the sports team, whom he describes as “very supportive”. Indeed, aware of his taste for advocacy, they offered him a place on an in-house advocacy training course, standing him in good stead to fulfil his longer-term goal of becoming a solicitor-advocate.
Athletes against the system
Turning to hot topics in the field, Simon nods to the underlying tension between sports governing bodies and athletes, and the jurisdictional tussles that often result. “There have been a lot of key cases recently, both here and at European level – even up to the European Court of Human Rights – dealing with the extent to which governing bodies can force athletes to consent to arbitration. The governing bodies naturally don’t want national courts to interfere in the way sport is governed. There is some method to this, because consistency of decisions is vital for a level playing field, especially in the global context. Take doping, for example: how would it work in practice for international sport if you’re allowed to have up to X amount of a substance according to a German court, but Y amount according to the English court?” A key element of these disputes, which is not new, is the challenge to the nature of CAS itself. “The challenges often focus on how CAS is set up and designed – it has lots of critics, in that it’s staffed and funded by people sympathetic to governing bodies, who are thus overrepresented to the detriment of the athletes. Although it’s not perfect, CAS is still necessary though. You need a body to adjudicate at a supranational level to create a level playing field across sports.” According to Simon, it was significant that the European Court of Human Rights confirmed the CAS’ independence and impartiality last year, but that doesn’t mean that these challenges are over. He adds that it’s worth noting that the CAS is moving to a new building where hearings can be heard in public – this is a self-preservation measure to try and head any Article 6 challenges off at the pass.
Getting your hands dirty
When asked for advice to aspiring lawyers in general and those wanting to specialise in the sports sector in particular, Simon is pure practicality: first, when starting your training contract, “be prepared to get your hands dirty with the more menial things like document management. Even later in your career, this doesn’t go away, because the admin is incredibly important in litigation – even if perhaps not the most fun part”. Second, “read, read, read! There is so much in the field that you can easily read online, like CAS judgments. Reading those can give you a really good basic understanding of the uniqueness of sports law”. Another insightful – if somewhat unexpected – pointer for wannabe English sports lawyers is to have a look at Swiss law. “It’s very important because so many sports governing bodies, and the CAS, are based in Switzerland, with CAS decisions appealable to the Swiss courts. If you look at the CAS Rules applicable to appeals, the starting point for governing law is the “applicable regulations” – nine times out of 10 that leaves you with Swiss law. As an English lawyer, you won’t be expected or able to practise Swiss law, but understanding the basics of it is a great way to get a leg up.” International intrigue, pre-eminent clients, headline-grabbing cases and a steady flow of intellectual and strategic challenges to tackle – what more could an ambitious lawyer want?