The new law firm cash cow: professional athletes?


Adisa Bakari, chair of the Sports Entertainment Group, left, and Jeffery Whitney are new sports agents lawyers at Kelley Drye & Warren. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)
November 10, 2013

As law firms nationwide scramble to find new sources of revenue in a flat legal market, Kelley Drye & Warren, the New York-based law firm with about 125 attorneys in Washington, thinks it has found a bankable solution: professional athletes.

The firm recently hired a pair of attorneys from Dow Lohnes, Adisa Bakari and Jeffery Whitney, to start its sports and entertainment group — a new practice for a firm best known for bankruptcy, tax and estate law.

Bakari and Whitney double as sports agents and attorneys, going beyond just negotiating contracts for athletes to doling out legal advice on issues such as wealth preservation, taxes, real estate, and trusts and estate planning — essentially anything that the chief executive of a company would want from their lawyer.

“We view [athletes] as high net-worth clients, as executive clients,” said Bakari, who chairs the sports and entertainment group. “We sell long-term success and business protection.”

Bakari and Whitney cast themselves as an alternative to the traditional sports agency model, which they say fails athletes by not supporting them once their playing career is over. According to one estimate, nearly 80 percent of National Football League players are broke or bankrupt within three years after retiring.

The formula is one the duo, who met as classmates at the University of Wisconsin Law School in the 1990s, perfected at their former firm, Dow Lohnes. Bakari, a Washington native who played football at Delaware State, founded the sports and entertainment division at Dow Lohnes 15 years ago, and four years ago recruited Whitney to join him. When Dow Lohnes announced last month that it would combine some of its Washington practices with the Silicon Valley-based law firm Cooley, Bakari and Whitney’s group, along with Dow Lohnes’ lobbying practice and others, were not part of the deal.

The group’s clients include Redskins running back Evan Royster, Indianapolis Colts safety Antoine Bethea, Chicago Bears running back Matt Forté, Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew and IBF junior welterweight boxing champion Lamont Peterson.

Professional athletes call for an unconventional approach, they said. Bakari and Whitney typically try to meet with a player’s parents first, pitching themselves as long-term business advisers who will stick around once an athlete’s playing career is over to help them transition into a second career, such as broadcasting or franchising.

“A kid being drafted shifts the financials for the family,” Bakari said. “We get them to look at themselves as an executive who runs their own business.”

Being part of an established law firm — Kelley Drye was founded in 1836 and is one the nation’s top 200 firms by revenue — helps with the sell, they said.

“No sports agency has been around as long as [Kelley Drye],” Bakari said. “It’s immediate credibility.”

For years, Washington law firm Williams & Connolly was one of the few firms in town that had a significant practice representing athletes, primarily NBA players, including Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Shane Battier. The leader of that group, sports lawyer Jim Tanner, recently left to open his own sports agency in Arlington.

Kelley Drye’s sports and entertainment group, which in addition to Bakari and Whitney include two publicists, will help drive business to the firm’s existing practice areas, said Lewis Rose, managing partner of Kelley Drye’s Washington office. The firm’s intellectual property lawyers, he cited as an example, will come into play when negotiating how a company uses an athlete’s name and image in advertising materials.

Such work is a way to leverage the firm’s existing skills, part of the motivation behind the deal.

“We thought, ‘How do we find a new inventory of high net worth clients?’” Rose said.

Catherine Ho covers law and lobbying for Capital Business, which she joined in 2011. She was previously a reporter at the Daily Journal in Los Angeles, covering LA civil courts and labor and employment law.
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