New Zealand Law Society - How global sports law fixer sorted work and family

How global sports law fixer sorted work and family

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One of the first things international sports lawyer, wife and mother Maria Clarke did some years ago was to take the word juggle out of her vocabulary.

“I don’t juggle career and family, I integrate them,” says Maria, who recently accepted new international roles directing sports governance and integrity review and reform.

“One of the reasons I set up my business 18 years ago was because I wanted to integrate my family into what I love doing in sport and law, with my family’s love of sport.”

Maria Jane (Maria) Clarke
Entry to law
Graduated LLB (Hons) and Bachelor of Political Studies from Otago University in 1990. Admitted in 1991.
Maria Clarke Lawyers, Devonport, Auckland.
Speciality area
International sports law.
Maria Clarke
Maria Clarke

After accepting the daunting task of successfully redesigning and guiding a fundamental review of governance through the previously troubled International Athletics Federation (IAAF), she is now turning her attention to the International Paralympic Committee and World Sailing.

Her major international challenge came in 2015 when the new president of the IAAF, Lord Sebastian (Seb) Coe, record-breaking middle-distance runner and former British Conservative MP, asked her to lead an international working group for governance and integrity reform for the Federation.

“They had been through turmoil with the former president. The bombs all dropped in the first few weeks when Seb Coe got in, so there was corruption and bribery claims, Russian doping, issues around athletes who have differences of sex … a number of legal issues.

“Seb asked me to lead that international working group. I spent a year designing and redesigning the whole of international athletics. I rewrote their whole constitution, their rules and redesigned the whole structure of how they work. It was approved by nearly 200 member countries at the end of 2015.

“That took up quite a bit of my time and quite a bit of travel.

“There’s no doubt that sitting in the special congress with over 200 flags around the room and delegates from all around the world voting on the change, was a hugely satisfying moment. To achieve that with a 92% vote in favour was very rewarding.

“We all live in different parts of the world with different cultures and different ways of thinking. Someone said to me the west is not necessarily the best.

“A massive learning for me has been to be able to understand the different ways and to look through different people’s eyes.

“I had given up a lot of family time and work time to traipse round the world – which I don’t regret because I was very lucky - but to get that through was really rewarding. A lot of it was brand new and never tried it before.

“I particularly enjoyed not only the law aspects but also the political influencing, the politics, and influencing people how to vote. The changes were mainly structural. We set up a new integrity unit, which came into force in April 2016.

“Through that process I have met a lot of people in international sport, and also done quite a bit of work with other international sports federations, including international hockey (FIH), the Oceania Tennis Federation and Oceania Athletics.”

The independent expert  

As a result of her international work, Maria’s name became known to the international Paralympic Committee, where she was recently appointed vice-chair of its governance review working group.

“The IPC governance review has only just started and I was approached to make a proposal, and appointed in May. Basically, I’m the independent expert on that group. To do a similar exercise as we did with athletics but in a very different situation, with different needs and different requirements.”

In May she was approached by World Sailing, and now chairs their governance reform working group. “On the international stage good governance and strong independent integrity has become important to the survival of sports bodies.”

“Being a sports lawyer and being able to effect change at that level is very challenging and incredibly rewarding when it works. But it’s a high risk kind of role because if you get it wrong then reputationally it is worldwide, not just in New Zealand.

“But I feel passionately about how important it is. I have grown up in sport and I think it is a very powerful mechanism when it is used right. I hate to see all the issues that are facing sport and the downside of sport. Hopefully my little contribution can help make a bit of a difference.

“My work has been relatively well profiled internationally - not so much in New Zealand - and I have been asked to do forums and speak at conferences internationally, on the back of that work.

“It’s relatively new for international sports federations to go through these governance and integrity reforms but now there is real scrutiny on the Olympic committee (IOC) and everybody else.”

Law or PE

Maria went to Otago University thinking she could study physical education and law at the same time, but was not allowed to.

“I chose Otago University but the decision was complicated. I had no idea what I might do.

“My English teacher said I was good writer and good at arguing, so it might be useful to go to law school. I didn’t know anyone in our family who had done law and it was all very new to me.

“I did a few days at a local lawyer’s office and liked it. My brother and a lot of my friends had gone to Otago for physical education. I am from a sporty background so I enrolled for PE and Law, which is what took me to Otago.

“Otago Law School had a good reputation, but when I got there they would not let me do both. I got into PE but they wouldn’t let me also do law. Why would you do both, they asked? What’s PE got to do with law? I was told that if I convince them they might be related they could not possibly do both in the timetable. It might be different now. I chose law.”

She is married to Andrew Clarke, a secondary school teacher at Westlake Boys High School, specialising in geography. Sons Will (17) and Max (14) attend Takapuna Grammar, where Will is head boy.

A sport-mad family

Her elder brother is All Blacks manager Darren Shand. “Darren, who lives in Christchurch, and I have both ended up in sports positions that are a lot of fun and see each other in random parts of the world.

“Darren travels even more than me. The last time I saw him was in Monaco, he was in a hotel next to me. He texted me and said ‘where are you’, I said ‘I’m in Monaco’, he said ‘so am I’. We had an hour so we went and had a cup of tea in this seven-star glitzy Monaco hotel. It was surreal.

“My parents were teachers. Dad, who taught at intermediate schools mainly in the Napier area, grew up on a farm down the road from the English family in Dipton.

“Mum was a specialist music teacher at intermediate, mainly in Invercargill and Southland.

“My parents were very sporty themselves and through teaching coached a lot of sport. Mum also did a lot of shows and festivals. I grew up watching a lot of sport.

“My brother was very naturally able at sport - one of those kids who was good at everything. I had to try hard to be good at sport and our parents were big on us trying everything out. I played netball and tennis for Hawke’s Bay.

“There was a lot of singing and music, including the violin and piano, in my childhood. I played in the school orchestra. I never really liked violin but I played it, and did ballet until 14. I was a busy kid.

“I only sing to the radio now, but love music, all kinds of music.

“I grew up on the side of a stage. From the earliest I remember sitting on the side of the stage watching my Mum directing shows. I grew up with music and sports in my bones. Always in all school productions in all sorts of random parts.

“My claim to fame was being Brigitta von Trapp in The Sound of Music when I was about 12 in Hastings, which was hard work and also a lot of fun. I don’t do any music now but go to theatre.

“I’ve been doing sports law almost my entire career and since 2014 made the decision to change my practice from having staff – I had about five lawyers – to going back on my own.

“I wanted to do some more international sports law, which I had started and was being asked to do.

“I know a lot of people do law then get out, but I have always loved doing law. One of the reasons I changed my practice from having a team to going back to just myself was because I wasn’t doing any law any more – I was managing people and getting work.

“I realised all the work I had been doing in New Zealand around sports governance, particularly with national bodies, had implications internationally. Not only did I do an OK job, I really enjoyed it.”

Everywhere and anywhere

Maria has also volunteered for a number of years on the International Olympic Committee’s marketing commission, its sports law commission and the legal committee of the association of national Olympic committees.

“One of the bonuses of doing this work is I get to go to world championships, Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games and have been able to take the family to those.

“If we have a holiday we go to somewhere in the Pacific. We are an outdoor adventurous family, have been double kayaking round Taupo and done just about all of the national walks and tramps. I love being outside.

“I have travelled a lot and the last three years have been pretty full on. In 2016 I did a six-week round the world trip with athletics - six continents in six weeks. Last year I had eight trips internationally and this year I’ve got 12.

“It includes Birmingham, Tokyo, Buenos Aires (twice), Bonn, London (three times), Monaco, Madrid, Singapore, and Florida.

“That’s probably the downside of this job in that I am away from my family, but when I am back home my practice is not now much New Zealand work. “Everyone’s asleep when I am here with my other work. I spend as much time as I can with family.

“I like reading but don’t read a lot because I spend so much time reading in my day job I don’t tend to read as much as I like. In the holidays I’ll get a book or two and digest them.

“Any spare time I have I’m keeping fit or with my family, so there’s not much time for TV or movies. The kids play lots of sport and I love watching sport. I grew up watching my brother play sport and used to do a bit of mountain bike riding when I was younger.

“I go to the gym to keep fit. Get up early and get it done. Both boys play cricket for North Harbour and Will just got into an Auckland development squad. In winter they both play hockey and rugby.

“Sport changes the conversation round the dinner table from teaching and education.

“I love sitting down and nutting out an opinion, assessing the various options and solutions. For me that’s quintessentially what I like doing. Thinking about strategies and implications for solutions. I have always had a strong sense of justice and social conscience and always enjoyed doing law.

“I love animals and have always had cats all my life – my current is a moggy called Poppy. I’m keen to get a dog but not until we get a few acres. I have a soft spot for animals and if I was not a lawyer I might have done something in the animal space but I wasn’t sciencey enough to be a vet.

“We have a Mitsubishi Outlander with a big boot and takes at least four cricket bags.”

The girl who could do everything

“Seb Coe would be a good dinner guest but I have had dinner with him so I would probably have Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern. Both women who have been courageous but in a down to earth way. Both have got on with getting on being women in leadership positions. I think they would have some cool stories to share.

“I like cooking but only when I have time. We would have a simple healthy dinner, a barbecue in summer. I love eating fresh fruit and veges. So something casual, easy and tasty. I am a sav blanc girl, having been brought up in Hawke’s Bay, and Andrew drinks a red.

“When I grew up there was that slogan ‘Girls can do Anything’. Then, as I got out of university, it became ‘Girls can do Everything’. I was in that era where we could do everything.

“I could be a lawyer, I could be a mother, I could be everything. I soon realised you can’t be everything.

“I think it has been powerful for me in my own business but to get to that point where this girl can do what she enjoys doing, rather than anything or everything. So listening to people like Helen and Jacinda, who have been through this same kind of change in women in leadership roles, would be really interesting.

“I was initially able to work from home, then moved my practice into Devonport. We have been able to avoid me travelling a lot in Auckland traffic. I’m five minutes from work, so was able to pop up to the kids’ school to go to all their various events.

“Andrew has a fixed schedule but he doesn’t have the long hours I sometimes have. Each week we work out who’s going to be where and who’s going to do what and it has always been a shared arrangement.

“Andrew took most of a year off for both kids when they were little and did things with them. We try to integrate it but sometimes it has been a real challenge, especially when I have been away.

“In some respects the kids have had to step up and work out how to do things, so they have probably learned more than some of their peers about the basics of making food and survival techniques, so it hasn’t been such a bad thing.

“I don’t think I would change my job. There is no magic pathway to get where I’ve got to.

“The skills and experiences I have had in sport have taught me a lot and I still have a lot of involvement in sport. I chair my son’s school cricket committee, I am with the kids a lot with their sport and I work in sport.

“I’ve been able to come through law to where sports law has been recognised as its own area of law with its own jurisprudence. When I started it wasn’t. There was no such thing as sports law when I started.

“I have been able to grow my own practice and at the same time sports law has been growing, so that’s been really great.

“I don’t feel I am part of the legal profession, I feel I am part of the sports sector.

“That’s not to say I don’t want to be seen to be part of the law profession – I do – but I am in sport every day. So for me I have the best of both worlds.”

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