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Why in-house lawyers at football clubs are key

Written by: Laurence Simons
Published on: 1 Jul 2014

Former European and permier league champions, Chelsea FC, have appointed their first ever head of legal. James Bonington, the former head of legal at the FA, has taken up the same post at Chelsea after the club created the position for the first time. 

Admittedly, hiring an in-house lawyer is not likely to be the Chelsea signing that gets hearts racing over the summer, but there is no doubt that Mr Bonington comes with a host of qualifications and plenty of experience. 

He began his career as a trainee solicitor at Magic Circle firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, before moving to the FA in August 2007. There he gradually moved up the ranks to become top dog in the legal department, before making the switch to Chelsea. The Russian-owned, London-based club is following in the footsteps of its rivals when it comes to bringing in a legal chief, with firms increasingly dealing with a host of litigatory and compliance issues in international markets. 

Jumpers for goalposts have been thoroughly left behind when it comes to football as a global business, as many fans have realised over the last few years. Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City all now employ in-house counsel, with the economic imperative becoming increasingly important and the rewards higher than ever before, as are the potential punishments for stepping out of line.

Mr Bonington's remit will likely include employment and sports law, intellectual property and commercial contracts, while he is expected to be the main contact with external law firms utilised by Chelsea. Squire Sanders and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher and Flom are the two legal organisations the club tends to use - the latter has worked with oligarch and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich for many years. Indeed, it was the company that acted on the Russian billionaire's acquisition of Chelsea FC in 2003. The former employer of Mr Bonington, the FA, came under fire after Premier League chairman Richard Scudamore was implicated in a row over sexist emails. The body expressed its disapproval but explained that it has no power to discipline the executive, who is officially under the control of a different organisation.


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