Melissa Altman is Counsel with AMB Group in Atlanta, GA and an Adjunct Professor of Sports and Advertising Law at Emory Law School. She authored The Little Book of Basketball Law.
Hello, Melissa. Thank you very much for joining us. First off, congrats on the new position with AMB Group (AMB is the holding company of Arthur Blank’s for-profit businesses including the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta United FC, PGA Tour Super Store, Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Montana Sky Ranch). How is the new gig going so far?
What types of projects are you working on?
Everything. When I teach, I tell my students that there really isn’t a sports law per se. It is just a bunch of other law applied to the sports industry . . . so today for instance, I had a meeting in the morning with outside employment lawyers, then came back and worked on a couple of sponsorship agreements, a vendor agreement, reviewed rules and collateral materials for a promotion, reviewed a services agreement for the football team, performed a trademark search, discussed event agreements, reviewed an agreement for art for the new stadium, reviewed another agreement to let the client know what approval rights they have, marked-up technology agreements . . . We recently signed our first Head Coach for Atlanta United FC! The work is all incredibly interesting and can really run the gamut . . . The mantra – we are all working for the team (teams in our case) holds true!
You have held a number of jobs in the sports law industry, including positions with Turner Sports and the Atlanta Spirit. What has been the key to landing these jobs and finding opportunities in this competitive industry?
I have been very fortunate and a lot has been the right place at the right time as well as incredible support. So here’s my story . . .
I am originally from Southern California – so after law school, I moved back and started off as a trademark lawyer at Knobbe, Martens, Olson & Bear in Newport Beach. I loved my firm in the OC but family events moved me back to Atlanta.
So I needed to start over . . . I reached out to my mentor at the Coca-Cola Company, where I had interned during law school. (Note to students – definitely take advantage of any internship opportunities your law schools offer!) She told me she heard that Turner was looking for someone to cover for a trademark lawyer who was going on maternity leave. So I jumped on that opportunity. While I was there, Turner sold the Atlanta Hawks, Atlanta Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena to Atlanta Spirit. (Turner at one point owned the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers.) So when my temp position was up, I joined the General Counsel at Atlanta Spirit to help him start up the legal department there. And that was my foray into sports law.
“I tell my students that there really isn’t a sports law per se. It is just a bunch of other law applied to the sports industry.”
While I was at the Spirit, I started a class at Emory Law School on Sports & Marketing Law. I would bring in practitioners to discuss what they do in the world of sports law based on what was relevant and in the news at the time. (It was actually those guest lecturers who hired me for contracting/consulting work when I eventually “attempted” to stay home with my kids.)
I left the Spirit after my second son was born to spend more time with my kids. However, I couldn’t leave the practice that I really loved, so I continued to teach and take on contract/consulting positions in sports and marketing law in Atlanta between school pick-ups/drop-offs and kids activities. I always knew that once my kids were in school full time, I’d go back to practice full time . . . So when AMB Group posted for the counsel position, I knew it was the perfect job – a combination of all my previous experiences and skills. Fortunately, they thought so too!
Tell us a little bit more about the book. Why did you decide to write it?
So the book came about because each year I would review different books for the class . . . always looking for the perfect one . . . So I came across “the little white book of baseball law.” I loved it! It took all of these cases that I had read and taught and put them in a short story format telling the story of each of the players – the plaintiffs and defendants. I thought it was a great way of teaching the important cases related to baseball (which really are the foundation of most other sports law cases) in an easy-to-relate to manner. So while I was reading it, I kept thinking of all of the equivalent basketball cases and looked to see if a book had been written on basketball law. When I couldn’t’ find one, I wrote to the publisher, the American Bar Association (ABA), and proposed to write it. I remember I was with my kids in the local library finishing story time when I got the call from the editor that my proposal had been accepted. I thought wow . . . I am going to write a book!
“You can still have your family and your dream job.”
“You can still have your family and your dream job.”
Even though your book has “Little” in the title it is still nearly 200 pages. I imagine the thought of sitting down and writing an entire book was daunting. How would you describe your writing process?
So I had all of these cases involving basketball in my head. I wrote a list of the top cases, a summary of each and what I thought we could learn from each moving forward. Then, I wrote the story of each case based on what I recalled. Then, for each one, I went through and pulled the entire history . . . the decisions, motions, complaints, any news articles about them . . . anything I could get my hands on, and started filling in the blanks . . . taking one at a time. For cases where there wasn’t much written, I reached out to the lawyers attached to them. As part of the research, I read general basketball books as well to place the cases in historical context. My favorites were Bill Simmon’s The Book of Basketball, Loose Balls by Terry Pluto (about the rise and fall of the American Basketball Association), The Breaks of the Game by David Halberstam, Dream Team by Jack McCallum and The Punch by John Feinstein. I think this process took about a year.
After I submitted the first draft, the next stage of the process was my favorite part. The editing. It took about 4-6 months. It was a super exciting day when I received the first draft back from the ABA. I could play with the words and just be creative. I remember coming up with a list of ideas that I wanted to support with movie quotes so would ask friends to help me think of a movie or movie line that talks about specific topics . . . Also, my brother played a huge role. He is a lawyer in his own right and went through line by line and helped me with citations, grammar, the procedural history and the logic of the cases. Sometimes when you write and think you know the cases so well, you don’t necessarily express them for others to understand, so my brother would read the chapters and tell me if something didn’t make sense.
I read that you started the Sports and Marketing Law Class at Emory Law School. How did you come up with that idea? What is your favorite part about the class?
Let’s see, I mentioned earlier that people had been really supportive of me during my entire career, so I thought of it as a way to give back and also to stay involved. When I was at Atlanta Spirit, I would get calls from Emory Law students interested in sports law, so we created an internship program there for them. Then, I realized there was a lot of interest so proposed to teach a class based on what I was practicing since Emory didn’t have one at the time. I am taking a break next semester but this would have been the 10th year of the class.
My favorite part is feeling like I am helping the students in some way by showing them the different career choices in sports law. I bring in speakers so the students can see how what they are studying translates to practice. During the Olympics, I brought in people who work on the Olympics; when Todd Gurley was suspended from UGA, I brought in his lawyer to discuss the NCAA infractions process; when Northwestern football players petitioned for unionization, I brought in an attorney who works with schools on Title IX to get his take on how unionization could affect Title IX. Hawks and Braves GC’s came to speak on what it means to be general counsel of a sports team. Lawyers from marketing companies in Atlanta spoke about what they look for in sponsorships or how social media law works in relation to their campaigns. Sports attorneys from Turner spoke on digital rights in sports. I try and bring in a wide variety of sports law practitioners to show the various areas of focus.
What sports law issue(s) are you are following closely? Why?
I just read a lot. I don’t necessarily follow one topic but try to stay on top of the news. I love reading Michael McCann’s articles for Sports Illustrated and the Sports Lawyers Blog. I follow the White Bronco on twitter as well!
What advice would you give someone looking to get into the practice of sports law?
The key is . . . you can still have your family and your dream job . . . so stay connected. Even if you take time off, stay relevant and up to date. Take part in internships during law school. Attend conferences and CLEs to meet people and continue to learn. I think what students and young practitioners are doing now with writing and tweeting is great. They become experts in the field and stay knowledgeable on current topics. Also, it shows creative thinking, enthusiasm for the subject, a willingness to learn new subjects and an ability to apply precedents to new areas. If you stay connected and up-to-date on the relevant law, when the right opportunity comes along, you will be prepared to jump right in. (love Zac Brown as well!)