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January 8, 2010 4:58 PM

Game Off: Downturn Hitting Lawyers Where They Work and Play

Posted by Drew Combs

The recession's impact on the legal trade isn't confined to fee structures and compensation models. Lawyers' sports leagues across the country are suffering too, as cost-conscious firms cut back on entry fees for teams and layoffs shrink the pool of potential players.

New York's Lawyers Athletic League, for instance, has seen the number of teams in its winter basketball league drop about 30 percent over the past two years, from 142 to 100. Participation in Los Angeles' primary legal industry sports league, the Landau Lawyers League, has also experienced a decline in participation levels for its softball and basketball leagues. And in Houston, the basketball, softball, and football leagues organized by the city's young lawyers association have all gotten smaller over the past 18 months.

One big reason the Houston leagues are shrinking: some firms simply don't want to pay the entry fees required to field teams.

"The bigger firms don't seem to have pulled in the reins," says Earl Spencer, a lawyer with Weingarten Realty Investors who chairs the Houston Young Lawyers Association' sports committee. "But at smaller firms, where 400 or 500 bucks makes a difference, there is more reluctance now."

In New York, reluctance to pay steep entry fees--which can climb as high as $2,975 per team for the basketball league--doesn't  explain the across-the-board drop in participation, says league commissioner Steve Frenchman.

"A lot of firms can't justify sponsoring a team when they have to let people go," Frenchman says, adding that the layoffs have also left a smaller pool of potential players.

Despite the recent falloff, 3,000 New York-area legal industry professionals participate in at least one of the coed league's four sports. The league offers softball, basketball, volleyball, and indoor soccer. The basketball league, which plays its championship games at Madison Square Garden, draws teams representing a wide range of law firms, including some of the city's most prominent such as Sullivan & Cromwell and Shearman & Sterling. Past teams have boasted such legal luminaries as future (now former) governors George Pataki and Mario Cuomo.

Los Angeles' Landau Lawyers' League also has a rich history. Named for referee Phil Landau, the league  has been organizing games for the city's lawyers since 1966. Michael Kavanaugh, a government contracts partner at the Los Angeles office of McKenna Long & Aldridge and a pitcher on the office's softball team for nearly 30 years, says that when he first moved to the city, the league was a great way to get to know not only people at own his firm but lawyers throughout Los Angeles's geographically scattered legal community.  Kavanaugh still views that as the league's great attraction.

"The pool of teams playing has shrunk more recently," says Kavanaugh, who at 62 is the second oldest player on the team (partner James Gallagher, 71, is the oldest), "but the result is we have gotten to know our opponents very well because we play them multiple times during the year." In last month's championship game, the McKenna Long squad lost to Glaser Weil Fink Jacobs Howard & Shapiro's team.

In an e-mail, organizers of the Landau Lawyers League acknowledged that the softball league has experienced "a slow decline," without citing any specific reasons. Interest in the basketball league has remained steady, though last season some basketball teams merged or sat out as a result of cutbacks at their firms, according to the league. A league administrator would not provide specific participation numbers, but said the leagues mailing list for Spring 2010 basketball and softball registration contains more than 1,000 names. Sponsorship fees for each team range from $800 for volleyball to $1,800 for basketball. Discounts are offered to public interest attorneys and law students.

Organizers of the lawyer sports leagues as well as participants say the leagues remain a vital part of their cities' legal community--and an essential outlet for lawyers.

"The value of the sports league has probably increased over the past couple of years," says John Nipp, an IP litigator at Summa, Additon & Ashe who co-chairs the Mecklenburg County Bar Association's social and sports committee, which covers the Charlotte, N.C., area. "It has been a very stressful period and the leagues are one of the few ways that attorneys can get together in a casual environment, reinforce friendships, and burn off steam," Nipp adds. The Mecklenburg County bar association organizes basketball and softball leagues. Nipp says neither--each of which asks for a $500 sponsorship fee per team--has suffered a drop in participation.

Even in leagues where participation has dropped, organizers and lawyers expect it to bounce back once the industry has fully recovered from the downturn given the popularity of playing sports among younger associates. In Kansas City, Shook Hardy & Bacon has remained committed to fielding teams in that city’s legal industry sport league based in part on its popularity among the firm's associates. For Aaron Kirkland, a second-year Shook Hardy associate, playing on the firm's softball and basketball teams wasn't just about bonding with his colleagues. "It provides a good workout," Kirkland says.

There is one group for whom these leagues are a particularly hard sell: women. Organizers admit that participation among women is minimal, especially in comparison to their overall percentage of the legal profession.

In San Diego, the percentage of women participating in the bar association's basketball, football, and softball leagues hovers around 20 percent, while in Mecklenburg County women make up only about one in ten of players in the bar association’s sports league.

New York’s Frenchman also said women represent about 10 percent of players in his league. In Houston, the basketball league is all male because, says Spencer, "we discovered it is dangerous to play basketball coed." (Women do play in the association's other sports.)

Women who do take part in the sports leagues say they aren't deterred by their small numbers. Mary Bresnan, a New York-based associate at Proskauer Rose and a member of the firm's volleyball team, says "I would never let that stop me. I love volleyball so I jumped at the chance to play."

Indeed, for some women lawyers, squaring off in male-dominated athletic competitions is a familiar pastime.

Katharine Heitman, a Winston & Strawn associate who played on the softball team in the firm's Los Angeles office, is one such lawyer-athlete.

"I grew up playing, hockey, softball, and soccer against boys," she says, "so this is nothing new."

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The ladies have a league of their own in DC and a few other cities -- and with reasonably priced, individual registration, it continues to thrive. You can learn more about it here: www.getinthegamehoops.org

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