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January 29, 2009 1:06 PM

Ex-NFL Commish On How to Win The Career Superbowl

Posted by Ed Shanahan

Paul Tagliabue was commissioner of the National Football League from 1989 to 2006. Prior to that, Tagliabue was a lawyer at Covington & Burling, where he functioned in many ways as the league’s general counsel (Tagliabue returned to the firm as senior of counsel in December 2007). Last June he was the keynote speaker at Corporate Counsel’s 20th Annual General Counsel Conference in New York. With the Super Bowl XLIII coming up Sunday, and given our ongoing consideration of innovation in law, Corporate Counsel and The Am Law Daily decided to revisit his remarks, with an emphasis on how he rose to football’s top job--and the lessons his experience might offer others.

Tagliabue-2 In my case, a critical moment was a recommendation not to settle an antitrust treble damage brought by the United States Football League (USFL) in which hundreds of millions of dollars were sought in damages.

I had been a partner for about ten years. All of the NFL’s attorneys were in a league meeting. One senior attorney expressed the opinion that the case should be settled. I disagreed. I recommended that we fight it in court, and that’s what we did. After a lengthy and contentious trial, the jury returned its verdict for the NFL.

With the benefit of hindsight, many observers have reached the judgment that this event became my bridge from general counsel to NFL commissioner. While this moment may have transformed my career path, the moment was preceded by thousands of hours of learning my client’s business, understanding its short- and long-term interests, assessing its strengths both generally and in the specific case at issue, and embracing the league’s risk management and risk-taking policies.

The NFL’s owners selected me to be the league’s commissioner in October 1989. Having convinced them, and myself, that I was well-prepared for the challenges, I succeeded my legendary predecessor, Pete Rozelle, a few weeks later.

My experience suggests several points. In considering a move from a lawyering role to a management or executive role, a key priority is to understand the nature and responsibilities of the business position; the organizational structure in which you will find yourself; the industry context; the state of the health of the business itself; and other such factors.

But probably the most important priority is to understand yourself--your interests and capabilities, your strengths and weaknesses, and, most of all, what produces satisfaction in your professional life. Many lawyering skills can be invaluable in business functions, and many general counsel have moved to chief executive positions. But there are real differences in the two sets of responsibilities; they should not be underestimated. And it should not be taken as a given that the business functions are necessarily more satisfying than the legal functions.  

If I can offer one basic suggestion, it is to make innovation an essential part of your role as general counsel. And the first innovation for many will be to commit to an approach to lawyering that you and others can regard as clearly and consistently adding value to your enterprise.

Many of you already do this, and I urge you to make certain that those who do so are recognized and rewarded. For the rest of us, I know that what I am suggesting may not be an easy or trivial change.

Lawyers have historically been seen by many as defenders of the status quo--or, sometimes, caretakers to lost causes, subordinates, gatekeepers, or cost controllers. For ambitious and creative business people, these roles can be synonymous with "baggage," "killjoy," or the pejorative "legal beagle," coined by [former Dallas Cowboys president] Tex Schramm. Even where this is not the case, you should strive to break through erroneous expectations about what you and your legal team bring to the table.

As general counsel, you can be wildly successful and well compensated without changing a thing about how you approach the basic responsibilities of your typical role. So why change? Why try to get your organization to see your role any differently?

Well, today more than ever, innovation is a focal point of the global competition that is dramatically affecting the priorities of leaders in both business and the legal profession. Along those lines, there are a few questions you may want to consider:

•What kind of strategic vision have you fixed for your legal team? What plans have you put in place to realize these goals? How does this align with your company's business goals?

•Do you understand the dynamics that have "flattened" the world in the twenty-first century? Are you rethinking your ways of doing things to compete in this new environment?

•Are you collaborating, really collaborating, with the best partners? Are they based in the United States or elsewhere? Are you asking them to develop new ways of helping you achieve your legal services and business goals?

•What does balancing the long-term objective or interest with the short-term win mean for your legal department? Do you encourage creative and innovative approaches? Do you reward them?

•Is it realistic--given all of the day-to-day issues that you face--to spend any time fixing what ain't really broke? (My advice: Err on the side of innovation.) 

By asking these and other questions--and genuinely committing to providing sound answers--you will not immediately transform yourself into a chief executive or even qualify for a senior business or management role. But asking and answering the hard, relevant questions will help position you for your own transformational moment. And with vision, hard work, and a little luck, you may well secure for yourself a new role far more satisfying than any you have so far seen or scripted.


Photo: David Drapkin/Getty Images

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