By Aaron Fogelson ’23
As with last J-term, my experience this winter with the Sports Law Clinic was a highlight of my time at Harvard Law School. My previous placement was with the Detroit Pistons, so this year’s placement with the Special Olympics was a totally different experience with unique strengths & challenges. That said, as with last year, both the work and the people were filled with legal, as well as life, lessons that I will forever carry with me. Above everything, the experience with the Special Olympics increased my attention to detail and ability to work within a large team, while also giving me a deeper appreciation for the incredible impact of sports and for the exciting opportunity to explore a career in Sports Law.
The Special Olympics’ in-house legal team were some of the best supervisors I’ve ever had and demonstrated how an effective in-house team operates. Each of them provided me with a variety of challenging assignments and they always supported me even when I struggled. Almost all of my learning was from these wonderful people, whether through observing their comradery & communication or reviewing their thoughtful feedback on my projects. Similar to last year, early on in the clinic, my supervisor had to remind me to slow down & triple check everything before submitting. His reminder helped me fight against my instinctual sense of urgency and improve my attention to detail, which has always been one of my biggest weaknesses. Ultimately, this led to much better initial submissions that required less feedback.
Interestingly, the person who had the biggest impact on me was not one of the lawyers but rather, my supervisor’s secretary, Carrie*. Carrie was incredibly supportive from day 1 and because we were often the only two people working in the office, we became very close over the three weeks. She opened up to me and shared the story of her son’s recent murder. She cried when telling me about how incompetent the detectives on the case were and we both cried when discussing each of our experiences with grief. Our discussions about grief and justice will stick with me for the rest of my life. I haven’t fully processed all the lessons from this brief friendship but it is a reminder that everyone has something to teach you if you’re willing to listen.
The in-house team at the Special Olympics works incredibly effectively together. To start, they open every call with a fun icebreaker, and they genuinely seem to enjoy their bi-weekly team meetings. In contrast to my time at a law firm this summer, I learned that the way their work is distributed, each lawyer handles a broad portfolio that crossed multiple areas of law. Despite dividing the work in this way, it became clear that they make a point to collaborate and work together on projects that call for more than one attorney. My time with the team was wrapped up with a bow because my last day coincided with the monthly group lunch where we all went out to a restaurant together around the corner from the office. Seeing this level of teamwork & comradery amongst a very busy in-house team was incredibly encouraging.
Moving on from the team, I’d like to reflect on the actual work I was tasked with and how it helped me better gauge what it’s like to work in a general counsel’s office for a complex multinational sports non-profit. While the work was not as wide-ranging as for the seasoned lawyers, the work I was given was challenging, multi-dimensional, and covered material that I haven’t been able to learn at law school.
By far the most common assignment was contract drafting and review, which seemed to make up a large portion of all the lawyers’ day-to-day workload. I was very impressed by their contracting system; about five requests come in per day, and Carrie distributes them throughout the team. Most of the requests fall into two buckets, consulting agreements & sponsorship agreements, each of which they have a very strong form agreement for. Despite having form agreements, there are still the tasks of ensuring that the language is fitting for the particular situation and adding any new language that may be necessary. I was responsible for about five contract drafts or reviews and quickly discovered that it’s a bit of an art matching the form to the particular needs of the requester. Interestingly, the legal department at the Special Olympics calls an employee requesting a contract a “client,” and it makes sense because the way the lawyers interact with said employees is like that of an attorney/client relationship. I was lucky to work directly with “clients” from throughout the organization to make sure that the contracts I was drafting fulfilled their needs, which was a very rewarding & informative experience. Translating between plain English and legalize is something I definitely need to work on, but it was great to get some initial experience in this pseudo-academic environment. This type of real-world contracting & client communication were things I haven’t had the opportunity to experience yet at HLS, so it was certainly a highlight of the Clinic.
Outside of contracts, I had a few other projects, including to review the new internal policies & procedures for electing board members, to summarize the new medical charter, and to analyze a potential Trademark claim against a competing charity. These other assignments were interesting on their own but most importantly, they helped give me a better sense of how broad the work is for the in-house team.
The people & the work at the Special Olympics made working there such a unique and memorable learning experience that I will take with me for the rest of my career (hopefully, in Sports Law). I simply cannot imagine a more effective way of learning real-world legal skills and what it’s like to work at a general counsel’s office. I am incredibly excited to take the various lessons from this experience with me moving forward in my legal career, in addition to integrating them into my everyday life. Lastly, I now have increased motivation to continue pursuing Sports Law, along with a newfound interest in non-profit work. Pursuing a career as a Sports Lawyer felt like a far-off fantasy prior to participating in the Sports Law Clinic, and non-profit law was not even on my radar before the Special Olympics. I am very grateful to everyone who made this opportunity possible and I hope to continue my relationship with the Special Olympics into the future.
*name changed for anonymity