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’s been able to apply. These include her ability to research and analyse. Katie explains: “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 (UK) LLP, 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 that Katie works on. “Because sports law is such a niche area, I’ve developed an expertise in sports regulation and governance. I often advise clients on financial fair play rules and salary caps, player/athlete contracts, agent representation agreements and football transfers. I also provide my expertise on the sports regulatory aspects of acquisitions, insolvency processes, and cross-border financing transactions. That means working with different teams and departments.”
And who exactly are the sports clients Katie works with? She explains: “My regulatory expertise is applicable to all sports and we advise clients in various sports and across a range of stakeholders, whether that be governing bodies (national and international), leagues, clubs, players/ athletes, agents, and brands.”
Project manager role
On a day-to-day basis, the job of a junior lawyer entails analysing, drafting, researching and problem solving. Katie describes her project manager role, which involves “working directly with clients to work out the problem, giving advice, offering solutions and finding out further information where necessary”. There’s a strategic side to the job too, as well as the work that’s 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 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.
Key developments in sports law
Katie highlights the recent publication of the FIFA Football Agent Regulations, which include a new licensing requirement and a cap on the commission a football agent can receive, as a key issue in the practice area now. In fact, she regularly finds herself advising agents and clubs on the impact of these regulations.
Another key development Katie finds herself involved with is the growing area of women’s sport: “With the increased visibility and popularity of women’s sports, there are growing commercial possibilities. It’s exciting to be advising women’s sports clients at such a unique moment when important decisions are being made in relation to the development and professionalism of different sports.” Katie adds that she’s the co-chair of the firm’s women’s sport group, making it a key focus area for both her and her colleagues.
These developments make this area an exciting and dynamic practice area for any aspiring lawyer. If sports law sounds like an area of law you’d like to delve into, Katie has some advice on the skills you should develop. “It’s important to be organised and have an eye for detail from the start of your career. It’ll 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 area. For example, 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: “Sports law is an academic practice area in itself and I’m fortunate to have a career where I’m constantly learning. I’ve had the opportunity to study for a Sports Law Diploma and I’ve even co-authored a chapter in Nick De Marco KC’s book Football and the Law (2nd edition). This really is my dream job!”