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February 13, 2012 7:29 PM

Firms Line Up for Buffalo Bills Stadium Lease Negotiations

Posted by Tom Huddleston Jr.

UPDATE: 2/14/12, 6:45 p.m., A statement from Terrence Gilbride, general partner at Hodgson Russ, has been added to the post's 15th paragraph.

Five Am Law firms are among 13 law firms vying for the chance to represent Erie County as it begins negotiating with the National Football League's Buffalo Bills over a new lease for publicly owned Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the teams has played its home games for nearly 40 years. 

Five Am Law firms were among those responding to the county's January request for proposals (RFP) for legal counsel on the negotiations: Hodgson Russ, Nixon Peabody, Squire Sanders, Thompson Hine, and Winstead.

In announcing the list of firms competing for the assignment Friday, Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz and said he and the rest of a committee charged with awarding the contract—which includes county attorney Michael Siragusa—will now review the proposals. The selection process could include in-person presentations from certain firms and is to conclude with the legal services contract being awarded by February 24, according to the county's announcement.

The initial 25-year stadium lease ran from 1973 to 1998. The current lease is set to expire on July 30, 2013. Hodgson Russ represented the county in the negotiations that resulted in the current lease, according to The Buffalo News. Dykema Gossett represented the Bills, according to a copy of the lease found online, but a firm spokesman declined to comment on whether the firm is representing the team this time around.

A spokeswoman for the state-owned Empire State Development Corporation said the state has not yet retained outside counsel for the renegotiation. Harris Beach represented the state in 1998, she said.

The firms aren't the only ones gearing up for the renegotiation. Football fans upstate will be watching carefully for developments regarding the Bills' stadium.

Though the team played in—and lost—four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s (one of which featured this performance of the Star-Spangled Banner by the late Whitney Houston), it is frequently rumored to be headed to Los Angeles or even nearby Toronto. Diehard fans who have gone from rooting for Hall-of-Famers Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas to suffering through a 12-year playoff drought could be cheered up with a swiftly negotiated, long-term lease that keeps their beloved-yet-beleaguered squad in Buffalo. 

Poloncarz said in a statement that the review committee is looking for the best legal team possible that can negotiate a fair deal for taxpayers, but also emphasized the importance of hanging on to the team. "Keeping the Bills here in Buffalo is not only important for our economy but also critical to the framework of our community," he said.

The Buffalo News points out in a separate article that potential sticking points in the negotiations include the length of the next lease, as well as the value of any termination fee the team would have to pay if it were to opt out of the agreement. According to the current lease, the Bills would have been obligated to pay the county $20 million if the franchise decided to leave the stadium—or, Buffalo altogether—at any point before the 2004 NFL season. That figure dropped in each of the subsequent years and stands at only $2 million for the upcoming 2012 season.

Should the talks between the various parties—the team, the county, and the ESDC—last, last until the final deadline, the law firm that wins the county's contract could have more than a year's worth of work on its hands.

Thompson Hine construction practice chairman Jeffrey Appelbaum is heading up the firm's team on the matter. Appelbaum is also managing director of Project Management Consultants, the firm's wholly owned consulting business. Based in Cleveland, Appelbaum has worked on a number of professional stadium construction projects, including work on the Minnesota Twins' newly opened Target Field and the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium that will open in 2014.

"We've done about 17 of these [professional sports stadium] projects and when we saw the [county's RFP] we obviously would respond to it, simply because we do so much work in this field," Appelbaum said.

Winstead's bid is being led by Houston partner Denis Braham, who chairs the firm's sports business and public venues practice. According to his bio on the Winstead Web site, Braham provides regular counsel to sports clients that include the NFL's Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans.

"Winstead is looking forward to the opportunity to discuss our experience with Erie County officials," Braham said in an e-mailed statement. "We have a stellar sports practice that specializes in representing public authorities in large stadium projects such as this, and our team continues to work on landmark stadium projects across the country."

Hodgson Russ general partner Terrence Gilbride, who is leading that firm's team, said in an emailed statement to The Am Law Daily that his firm is proposing a joint counsel arrangement with Faegre Baker Daniels should it win the county's contract (the firm worked with Faegre's predecessor firm, Faegre & Benson, on the 1998 negotiations). Gilbride wrote in the statement that the cocounsel arrangement offers advantages to the county, including the firms' familiarity with the negotiations. "The cocounsel arrangement offers the county, we believe, the most efficient structure for delivery of the appropriate legal services and level of experience at the lowest possible cost," Gilbride wrote.

A Squire Sanders spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did a spokeswoman at Hodgson Russ. A spokeswoman at Nixon Peabody declined to comment.

The NFL has proven to be fertile ground for law firms of late. Earlier this month, The Am Law Daily took a look at the massive legal fees racked up by the NFL's players union in the year leading up to the league's lockout and labor negotiations. None of the Am Law firms bidding on the Erie County contract were among the firms working for the players on that CBA deal (though Nixon Peabody has done work for the NBA's players association in the past). Last September, we reported that Faegre & Benson and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom were among the firms representing the Minnesota Vikings in their ongoing attempts to get funding for a new stadium following the 2010 collapse of the Metrodome roof after a snowstorm.

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