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Last month, Helena Hill caught up with John Ireland at Electric House in Notting Hill, who talked about the creative industries, working for Alan Sugar, football and life after in-house.
Please tell us a little about yourself and your career
First off, I’ve been fortunate – on two occasions. The first time was joining Lee and Thompson to head up their new litigation department, working in the music and entertainment industry. Later on, getting the job at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club and working for Alan Sugar.
I actually started out working for a construction litigation law firm called Masons on Fleet St in the City. It was good training but it was clear early on however, after being told by one partner that my suits were apparently “too West End”, that there was no long term future for me there.
Then I saw my dream job advertised and I joined Lee & Thompson in the West End. I spent the next six years having a great time working for and litigating on behalf of clients such as Simply Red, Bryan Ferry, Queen, Joe Strummer of the Clash and very young Catherine Zeta –Jones.
In 1992 the Premier League was formed and football became the new rock n roll. I happened to know someone on the board at Spurs and was invited up to a game, interviewed at half time by Alan Sugar and shortly after that appointed Company Secretary and in-house lawyer for the Club and Plc.
Nowadays, I run my own law practice based in Notting Hill and have done so ever since the new people at ENIC took over control of the Club from Alan Sugar in 2001. I love my life as a lawyer and have the pleasure of representing a small and select group of clients across a range of creative industries.
What motivated you to move in-house at Tottenham Hotspur ?
Are you kidding me? It was just a brilliant opportunity to get involved in an incredibly exciting industry – the only slight difficulty I foresaw was that I supported Manchester United, my fathers’ team !
At the time in the early 90’s, Alan Sugar was not so well known and his main business was Amstrad computers. It was being constantly in the public eye as the owner of Spurs that really kick-started his subsequent media career and elevation ultimately to the House of Lords.
When Alan took over the Club with Terry Venables in 1991, one of his first priorities was to install a lawyer to oversee all contracts. Football was becoming a big and complicated business and the Club needed to be run in a much more professional manner. One of the many reasons he appointed an in-house lawyer was that the Spurs had recently lost a considerable amount of money in relation to the transfer of a player to Manchester City due to a badly written provision in the agreement between the two Clubs.
I was given a position on the Board with complete responsibility for all legal agreements, football and commercial, as well as the Club’s litigation so I was kept quite busy and it was a roller coaster of a ride for the next eight years ! With Alan in charge, you never knew what you might be handling or who you might be suing from one day to the next. But it certainly made me a much better commercial lawyer and one that had to be available for advice 24/7 even on holiday.
So what was your experience of the transition from law firm to in-house?
Culture shock! I was used to dealing with lawyers most of the time and speaking lawyer-language – now I was working for a business minded Chairman who demanded straight-talking.
I must confess that, before starting the job, I imagined my experience in the music industry would be useful in the arena of the football player contracts. On one level, I thought, a football team is a bit like a rock band in that they perform live in front of audiences, sell programmes and merchandise etc.
Instead I found out that every player signs a centrally negotiated standard contract. There was no real room for creativity in those player contracts although I did come up with a clause that gave the Club an option to keep players under contract for an extra year if they had been injured for a certain period of time – I called it my “Sicknote” clause for reasons that Spurs fans from that time may understand!
As mentioned, I was also responsible for drafting all the Club’s commercial contracts ranging from sponsorship deals, the licensing of the Club’s Trade Marks for merchandise purposes to the purchase of those huge TV screens you see inside all stadia today. Many of these contracts had to be circulated amongst and understood by the Heads of Departments within the Club so I soon learnt to draft my agreements in very clear English.
Another insight I gained was that when deals get agreed, the parties want the paperwork concluded straightaway so they can move on to the next deal. For instance, once Alan negotiated a sponsorship deal himself and wanted it signed off the next day, which we did. It was two pages long – succinct yet precise – and we got on with the next deal.
In addition, I became much more financially aware and conscious of the need for any business to keep an eye on its running costs. For day-to-day business, I reported to a Chief Executive, Claude Littner who was, shall we just say, a ‘stickler’ for keeping all (non football) costs down. He was quite right of course and it has become second nature to negotiate good deals for my clients when say agreeing brief fees in litigation matters.
How much do you think lawyers looking to move in-house need to appreciate just how multi-faceted the role is?
Well it all depends on the business and their role within it but they are likely to end up dealing with a lot more commercial and business issues than pure legal work.
By being involved in drafting contracts for virtually every commercial deal, I became much more involved in the negotiation of those deals. Nowadays, I will always talk though a deal with a client from a commercial perspective at the outset of any instructions to draft the legal contract.
How was your transition from Tottenham Hotspur back into private practice?
It was tough – unlike many private practice lawyers who leave a firm, they already have clients who may well follow them. I only had one client and that was Tottenham Hotspur! My old clients at Lee & Thompson had naturally found other lawyers in the eight years I was at the Club although I’m pleased to say some of them have come back since.
As a result I had to go out and get new clients. I soon realised that, whereas everyone wanted to talk to me as the lawyer at Spurs, I was just an ‘ordinary’ lawyer after I left. The only conclusion was to become very interested in meeting new people! And if, after probing them, I could not find any potential business connection then I would conclude by asking them if they are happily married as I also practice divorce law!
Now, after twelve years running my own firm, I really enjoy my job and have a wonderful and varied client base – one of whom, the hip hop band, Young Fathers, have just won the Mercury Prize for “Best Album of the Year” – now that was quite a night of celebration!
What would your tips and suggestions be for lawyers looking to set up their own practice?
Network, network, network. You never know where your next client is coming from. I have the pleasure of working for a blue chip media company because I spent half an hour chatting to the CEO’s son free of charge on the phone when the son randomly called me for advice about his music career.
Do you think it’s just as important to be business minded in the legal world?
Incredibly important and that’s why I treasure every minute of my eight years in-house. When you act for talented and creative people quite often they want to concentrate on their creative skills so part of my job is to make sure the financial structure of the deal is the best that can be negotiated.
For more information on John Ireland & Co please visit http://johnirelandandco.net or contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org