The Work

August 1, 2009 9:54 AM

The David Cornwell Chronicles: A (Semi) Regular Look at Sports and the Law

Posted by Brian Baxter

When Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and two-time Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger was sued last week by a woman accusing him of raping her in a Lake Tahoe hotel penthouse last summer, he turned to Wm. David Cornwell, Sr., of Atlanta's DNK Cornwell to represent him.

But Cornwell has more to his resume than being Roethlisberger's lawyer. The 48-year-old Cornwell has climbed almost every rung on the ladder in his two decades of experience in the sports industry.

"I often tell people that the hardest part about my job is convincing my two brothers who are surgeons and huge sports fans that it is a job," Cornwell says. "I love what I do."

The former NFL assistant general counsel was recruited out of the league office in the early nineties by powerful sports agents Leigh Steinberg (the inspiration behind the film Jerry Maguire) and Jeff Moorad at the behest of former Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon.

W. David Cornwell

So Cornwell (pictured at right) headed out to Newport Beach, Calif., with his wife Kimberly to start a new career as a sports agent. He only stayed a year, but the relationship with Steinberg and Moorad would continue.

"Shortly afterward I was recruited by Upper Deck, the sports trading card company," Cornwell says. "The opportunity was a little more consistent with my personality and where I thought my skill sets were best used."

He spent almost six years as general counsel of Upper Deck, which Cornwell calls a "great professional experience" that allowed him to "get paid to get an MBA."

But Cornwell says the working relationship soured when he had a fallout with management--"it was a classic general counsel employment dispute with a client," is all he'll say--and soon he was back out on his own. With over ten years' experience in the sports arena, Cornwell relished the challenge.

"I thought I'd go out there and be a lawyer who eats what he kills," Cornwell says. "And the first clients I signed up were Leigh and Jeff."

At the time, other high-profile sports agents like David Falk were selling their sports agencies in multimillion-dollar deals. Cornwell says Steinberg and Moorad were flooded with suitors, eventually agreeing to sell their agency to the Assante Corporation, which subsequently acquired four other sports agencies so the Toronto-based company would have a footprint in the four major North American sports.

Cornwell became general counsel of the entire sports management group. He served in that capacity from 1997 to 2001. During that time, some of the agency's football clients were involved in disciplinary matters that required Cornwell's expertise.

Pleased with the results of Cornwell's representation, Richard Berthelsen, the long-time general counsel of the NFL Players Association, asked Steinberg and Moorad if Cornwell could also represent players that were not clients of their agency in disciplinary matters.

"One of the things that Leigh and Jeff always said to us was that although the firm can't represent everybody, in the broader scheme of things sports agents generally represent the interests of all players in how they conduct themselves," Cornwell says. "So they agreed."

Cornwell began representing other players outside of the agency on drug and steroid appeals. But in 2001 one of the agency's partners, David Dunn, left the firm one weekend to start a new agency called Athletes First. The only problem: Dunn took most of the firm's football clients with him.

"We spent two years in damage control and litigation, ultimately winning a $45 million judgment against [Dunn and Athletes First]," Cornwell says. "After that there was all sorts of cleanup that had to be done and I got the sense that Assante's appetite for the sports business had been dampened!"

Cornwell still had two-and-a-half years left on his exclusive representation agreement with the sports management group, but worked out a buyout that enabled him to take what he was doing on behalf of the company and combine it with his desire to fly solo.

"It was a little frightening there to go out in the real world again," Cornwell says. "But Leigh and Jeff had purchased their own respective practices back from Assante, and they entered into new representations with me. So I sought to build a practice on that model nationwide and have been struggling to get it going ever since."

Don't let Cornwell fool you, over the past few years his clients have included Ricky Williams, Reggie Bush, Darren McFadden, Shawne Merriman, Gilbert Arenas, and Michael Beasley. Last year Cornwell's football experience helped him become a finalist to succeed Gene Upshaw as head of the NFLPA. (Former Patton Boggs partner DeMaurice Smith was named the union's new executive director in March.)

"It was a grueling process, but with the benefit of perspective that time offers, it was rewarding," Cornwell says. "But I'm fine with the results. De Smith is a great guy and he deserves it."

Cornwell's close relationship with NFL players and sports agents not only helped him become a candidate for the NFLPA job, but also helps put his name at the top of the speed dial for those looking for legal representation.

Roethlisberger's agents, cousins Bruce and Ryan Tollner, worked with Cornwell when he was with Assante's sports management group. Cornwell says the two called him the night that Roethlisberger was served with the civil suit accusing him of rape.

In the immediate future Cornwell expects to stay busy with the Roethlisberger case, which he calls "curious" (no criminal charges have been filed), as well as representing three New Orleans Saints players in a steroids case against the NFL. He hopes that his years of experience on all sides of the sports industry will help him continue to serve the needs of his niche client base.

"Thus far, it's worked pretty well," Cornwell says.

Boies Schiller Comes Up Big For NASCAR, Yankees

Boies, Schiller & Flexner has had a busy week representing NASCAR. On July 24 the firm obtained a stay from the Fourth Circuit on a preliminary injunction issued by a district court lifting the suspension of driver Jeremy Mayfield following a positive drug test for methamphetamine.

Then firm founder David Boies appeared before the Sixth Circuit for arguments in an antitrust case brought by the Kentucky Speedway, which is represented by Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft antitrust head Charles "Rick" Rule and W.B. "Bill" Markovits from Stan Chesley's firm Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley.

Name partner Jonathan Schiller and partner George Carpinello then helped longtime client--an Am Law Daily fave--the New York Yankees win a suit in New York state court filed by State Assemblyman Richard Brodsky.

The Bronx Bombers have come under fire from both federal and state lawmakers for tax breaks used to build the team's sparkling new stadium. But a ruling by New York Supreme Court Justice John Egan states that the Yankees won't have to produce roughly 2,200 boxes of documents and 1.4 million e-mails tied to the tax breaks and $950 million in financing for The House That Jeter Built.

Around the Horn

-- Like most baseball fans, we've pretty much had enough of the sport's never-ending performance-enhancing drug scandal. The New York Times reported yesterday that former Red Sox stars David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez tested positive in 2003 for PEDs, citing lawyers familiar with a supposedly secret drug testing program. Back in February when Yankee star Alex Rodriguez copped to taking a banned substance, we spoke with a Keker & Van Nest lawyer for the players union about the steroid leaks.

-- Benjamin Brafman is known for his celebrity clientele, but the noted New York trial lawyer has a street fight on his hands with Plaxico Burress, the former star NFL wide receiver facing an upcoming trial on gun charges. Legal pundits called Brafman's decision to let Burress testify before a grand jury both a "desperate ploy" and a "gamble" in the hope the ex-New York Giant can avoid prison time. A remorseful Burress testified for nearly three hours on July 29.

-- Seven baseball players that made money from R. Allen Stanford's alleged Ponzi scheme have found themselves an ally in the SEC, which has asked a federal judge to stop receiver Ralph Janvey of Dallas's Krage & Janvey from suing Stanford investors. The players are being represented by Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. The Am Law Daily previously reported that several current and former MLB players had retained counsel over their involvement in the Stanford scandal.

-- And finally, although we touched on Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's myriad legal problems in our last sports column, it turns out we missed a bevy of transcripts recently revealed from a binding arbitration ruling against Cuban last year in a dispute between the mercurial owner and former head coach Don Nelson. The Dallas Morning News has all the juicy details, such as why the Mavs didn't resign Steve Nash, a father-and-son restroom talk about drafting a 7-foot-5 Russian bust named Pavel Podkolzin, unpaid legal fees, and fallout over an allegedly fake hug. It's all there. Cuban is represented by Fish & Richardson's Geoffrey Harper in the case.

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