The law firm Gibson Sheat has a long history in the Wellington region, with its origins dating back to the early 1900s.
Today it has three offices, in Wellington, Lower Hutt and Masterton, with lawyers covering a wide area of practice with expertise in all aspects of business, litigation, personal legal services, property and rural legal issues.
And with some sports codes going professional over the last 20 years or so, sports law is an area they have had an ever-growing interest in.
Nigel Stirling is one of its 13 partners, having joined Gibson Sheat in 1984 as a commercial solicitor.
His passion though is sports law, an area that he has grown and developed further over many years.
“I was actively involved in a lot of sport and I was often the first port of call for people who needed legal advice including from team-mates, whether it was for buying a house, needing a will, someone getting into trouble or issues with the sports clubs’ constitutional agreement,” he says.
Mr Stirling says it became apparent there was an opportunity to create a sports law area of practice.
“By the early to mid-1990s, sport was changing. Rugby was moving towards professionalism and I decided to immerse myself in that sector to see whether I could combine my career with my love of sport.”
Mr Stirling says being involved in sports clubs enabled him to build a client base.
“That gave me exposure to all these different areas of law. I became chairman of my local rugby club, which helped me understand how the administration of sport works. I volunteered to be involved in Sport Wellington where I was a trustee for 11 years. I was also fortunate to get on the board of directors for Wellington Rugby in 1996 at a time when professionalism was in its early days,” he says.
The practicalities of sports law
It’s about assisting people and organisations who are engaged in that sector.
“We cover the whole range of commercial and other contracts, specific to this sector. It might be stadium agreements, sponsorship, intellectual property protection, engagement of athletes, disciplinary work, and we’ve had a number of cases where we’ve represented organisations in front of the Sports Tribunal,” he says.
Mr Stirling says he has also acted for the Wellington Phoenix football team, assisting with all of the work around the visit by West Ham United and Newcastle United to New Zealand in 2014. Other legal work specific to sport includes the development of an anti-match fixing and anti-sports betting policy for adoption by all of the national sports organisations.
“That’s a battlefield for sport at the moment with regard to integrity. Safeguarding the huge benefit of sport long-term is what that’s all about, so doing work in that area is very satisfying,” he says.
On the surface, many people might see sports law as a dream job, particularly if you believe the adage ‘choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life’.
“It is fun but it does have challenges because often the client base is not able to pay a commercial rate for legal services. Some can and do, but a lot of our work is sharing our knowledge and experience for the benefit of sport at discounted rates or often on a pro bono basis,” Mr Stirling says.
Bread and butter work
He says there is a limited number of high-end clients in New Zealand and a lot of the contract work they do is essentially their ‘bread and butter’ sports law.
“There’s rugby, cricket, basketball, football and a few other sports that are professional but it’s not a large number so the volume of work to go around is limited, which is why a lot of the work we do is for regional and national sports organisations, clubs and with a lot of the work around constitutions and rules,” he says.
It was his love of sports that led Lawyer Richard Gordon to practising sports law. He has been employed by Gibson Sheat for about 18 months.
Mr Gordon, who is 27, also referees rugby so he has that practical experience on the sports field.
“I played rugby up until first XV level but, unfortunately, I broke my shoulder quite badly and looked for other ways to stay in the game. Refereeing has given me the chance to go to some great places refereeing both Premier and Heartland level for New Zealand,” he says.
Sowing the future sports law seeds
While Mr Gordon was studying law at Victoria University, he was also working part-time for Wellington Rugby as their judicial administrator.
“That involved looking after all the naughty boys when they were sent off during club rugby games. Once I finished my studies I moved into a full-time role with the Hurricanes, looking after sponsors and agreements by using my legal skills,” he says.
He was also aware of Gibson Sheat and the firm’s sports law practice and had his eye on it.
“It was a case of waiting until an opportunity came up. One of the philosophies we follow here is that we try to find a practical solution to issues, so coming from a sports background provided me with some helpful tools in how to work with clients,” he says.
Mr Gordon says being a professional referee gives him a good understanding of what the players are trying to achieve on the field aside from winning.
“So instead of just blowing the whistle and penalising a player, I try to see where the player is coming from in their decision that led to breaking the rules. That’s been a really transferable skill because as a lawyer I have to look at things from the client’s perspective and be less rigid in my thinking.”
As Mr Stirling points out, if a professional player is sent off the field, Richard knows exactly what process the rugby player will have to go through, including the natural justice that will be brought into the forum after a disciplinary process.
“He can anticipate all of the stages ahead for a player and that’s a huge advantage to have in your skill set,” he says.
Richard Gordon says if it hadn’t been for sports law, he may have simply finished his law degree and worked in a different profession.
“Potentially I might have used my degree in the sports sector somewhere and not have taken up a legal role. It’s (sports law) not everything I do here but it was the main factor that attracted me into entering the legal profession,” he says.
He says sports law takes up about half of his working week and the clients range from Sport New Zealand, Wellington Phoenix to new clients such as New Zealand Polocrosse.
“That is lacrosse on horseback. So it’s a wide ranging field of clients from the smallest to the biggest and the more commons sports codes to the lesser known. Because we are sports people first, we know what the needs are for people in both the professional environment and the community environment and can put those legal structures in place for them.”
The path to sports lawyering
“Richard, and it’s been my experience too, has put a lot into sports law on a voluntary basis and opportunities have arisen because of this,” says Nigel Stirling.
As a law firm partner and employer, Mr Stirling says he gets a steady flow of young law graduates wanting to start out in practising sports law.
“For anybody wanting to get involved in sports law, that’s the message. Get involved, assist your community sports clubs in some fashion, understand how sport works and see what comes from it,” he says.
He says it helps build people skills, something that will be needed in abundance as a sports lawyer.
“You get to deal with real life practical situations and are forced to find a solution for them which is exactly what we as lawyers do. So if a person can bring some of that experience, I’d look at it as beneficial and favourably in any job application I might receive. It’s just not a case of deciding that you want to be in sports law and a role will just appear. It doesn’t work that way,” Mr Stirling says.
He says he and the other law firm partners look for a range of skills in potential employees, not just their legal ability.
Mr Stirling doesn’t think the future will hold outrageous growth for sports law, despite professional sport being a multi-million dollar business.
“It’ll be measured but professionalism is here to stay. Not only do we have paid athletes but we have paid administrators and it’s great to see also that at the government end they’re investing in sport because of the health and social benefits it brings to communities.”