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June 9, 2008 6:50 PM

Paul Tagliabue: Embrace Innovation--and the Client

Posted by Brian Baxter

Tagliabue_paul_080117_2 Lawyers must be cognizant of and embrace the technological and economic changes that will forever alter the profession. That was the message delivered by Covington & Burling senior counsel Paul Tagliabue this morning to a rapt audience of lawyers at the New York Marriott Marquis.

Tagliabue, best known for spending 17 years as commissioner of the National Football League, was the keynote speaker for The 20th Annual General Counsel Conference,* which kicked off today. Echoing Barack Obama's presidential campaign, the conference's slogan is "Are You Ready for Change?" And the 67-year-old Tagliabue, who in addition to his NFL tenure previously spent 20 years at Covington and three years as a nuclear weapons policy analyst at the Pentagon, knows a thing or two on the subject.

During his NFL tenure, league revenues grew from $900 million in 1989 to roughly $6.5 billion in 2006, when he retired. The league introduced four expansion teams and negotiated a historically lucrative television contract. But those changes didn't occur by sticking to the status quo, and that's something lawyers have to learn to accept.

"What I learned most during my legal career was from interacting with clients," says Tagliabue, recalling a meeting he had with legendary Dallas Cowboys president Tex Schramm shortly after joining Covington in 1969. Tagliabue had been tasked with developing a rule-of-reason antitrust defense to preserve the nascent NFL Draft, so he met with Schramm and future Hall of Fame Cowboys coach Tom Landry. During the meeting, Tagliabue grew weary of Schramm and Landry's nonlegal, football-centric arguments extolling the merits of the draft system. And he told them so.

Tagliabue says that at the end of the meeting, Schramm put his index finger "about three inches into my chest," and directed his attention to a quote from Teddy Roosevelt that Schramm had framed on his wall:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood...who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.

"You're new to this business and you'll never survive if you don't learn those words," Tagliabue recalls Schramm telling him. Tagliabue says he learned to appreciate the entrepreneurial aspects of the business side. Like most sports leagues, the NFL is unique in that it functions as a partnership of team owners who share revenues and distribute them accordingly--similar in many ways to a law firm.

Even after counseling the league for nearly 15 years, Tagliabue points to one seminal moment when ownership finally accepted him. The NFL was being sued by the United States Football League--a fledgling rival league that counted Donald Trump and A. Alfred Taubman among its owners--for antitrust violations in federal court in Manhattan. On the eve of trial, NFL owners were mulling a $600 million settlement that would have absorbed four USFL franchises into the league. One of the NFL's trial lawyers encouraged the league to settle. But Tagliabue says he stood up and argued passionately against it.

"I just had this understanding of the economics of pro sports and how we could attack the plaintiffs," Tagliabue says. "It wasn't only knowing the law, but knowing the client."

A jury later awarded the USFL, which had sought $1.69 billion in damages, $1. At a victory dinner to celebrate the verdict, Tagliabue remembers then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle grabbing him by the shoulder and telling him, "You understand the business and the people. Someday you might be commissioner."

Three years later, Tagliabue was. During the nineties, Tagliabue says he sought to move the NFL away from the status quo, where he thought it had slipped in the eighties. One of his mantras became, "If it ain't broke, fix it anyway," as the league became involved in financing stadium construction for the first time.

"Anything you're doing, you can always do it better," says Tagliabue, urging the lawyers in the audience to be forward thinking. While recognizing the benefits of technology, Tagliabue also says lawyers need to develop a high tolerance for conflict. "Wherever I was, be it the NFL or the Pentagon, I've found that the more conflict you have, the better," he says. "You want that free exchange of ideas from people that don't engage in groupthink."

*The event was organized by the events division of Incisive Media, the owner of AmericanLawyer.com.

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