Global ambition, local impact: practising sports law in Norwich

Meet Dan Chapman, head of employment and sports law at Leathes Prior in Norwich. Dan speaks about his experience working in sports law, the global opportunities now open to regional firms, and the importance of solicitors being part of the communities they work in.
Dan Chapman stands in front of Norwich Cathedral. Dan is a white man with short, blonde, wavy hair. He wears a dark navy suit, white shirt and silver tie.
Photograph: The Law Society

The term sports lawyer” is often misunderstood. I’m not sure it really exists. A good sports lawyer may be an intellectual property lawyer, a litigator or a commercial lawyer. In my case, as an employment lawyer, there’s a huge amount of crossover.

A lot of what I do is a niche type of employment law. I act for football clubs and footballers, advising and negotiating player contracts. I act for motor racing teams and racing drivers, negotiating and drafting driving contracts. Though bespoke, those are still employment contracts. Similarly, many sporting disputes end up in tribunals, which are close to employment tribunals. I’ve found myself having quite an advantage with my background in employment law.

Working in sports law is fun, but it’s hard work. A football club might need to sack its manager on a Saturday night: then, you’re dealing with upset people, turmoil, stress and fan opposition. I've been in family dinners on Boxing Day or on holiday when a difficult situation develops that I need to deal with. It’s not always easy. Equally, the opportunity to be a small part in bigger things is rewarding. You have to take the rough with the smooth.

As an employment solicitor, we’re often helping people in difficult situations. I once dealt with a non-league, community football club on the verge of going into administration. My colleagues and I were able to help with the restructure, deal with creditors, negotiate solutions and save the club.

The first game after it happened, the fans were singing our name. And that’s when I realised the impact you can have as a solicitor. Whether it's sport, employment law, family or property law: you're changing people’s lives.

Before you specialise, you need to learn your day job. Law students often ask me how to become a sports lawyer. I’m not sure it’s realistic to qualify and suddenly work in sports law. You need to be a good employment lawyer, litigator or commercial lawyer, then use your passion and interest to branch out into a niche sector. It would be the same for the music industry or aviation. It's about being a generalist who can hold your own in most areas of law.

When I set out to work in the sports sector, clients would assume I was in London. I almost felt a need to justify being based in Norwich and reassure the client that I was the right person for the job. Luckily, sport is a very small world. Once you’ve done a good job for one or two clients, nobody even asks where your office is.

The opportunities for solicitors in regional firms are now huge. The entire world is a potential client. If you give great advice and a great service, then you will find clients recommending you and the location is no longer a factor – even more so post-pandemic with online meetings.

It’s important you don’t lose track of your community and local client base. There are and will always be clients that like to come into our offices and like the fact that their lawyers are nearby. There’s no doubt that in Norwich, and other smaller cities, there are opportunities to get close to your clients and become a trusted adviser on all things legal and commercial.

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