Clifton began his legal career at the firm after graduating from Hofstra Law School. Five years later, in 1990, he left the law to work for legendary sports agent Bob Woolf. That was the only way to develop a sports law practice at that time — you had “to be on the representation side of the business,” Clifton says.
“When I started practicing 25 years ago, the opportunities to represent franchises and universities were at a much smaller level,” he adds. Now, Clifton and his new firm hope to use Jackson Lewis’ reach across the U.S. (the firm has more than 40 offices in 30 states) to cater to the growing number of professional, minor league and college teams.
Clifton, who will be based in the firm’s Phoenix office, began talking with Jackson Lewis more than a month ago. Talks gradually intensified until Clifton last week announced plans to leave his agency, Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Gaylord Sports Management, to take the Jackson Lewis job. Clifton won’t say whether other firms also approached him about resuming a legal practice.
Now, as he settles into his new position, the former agent is turning his attention to advising management. And his new employer is confident he can successfully make the switch.
“We want to become the go-to firm for sports franchises providing day-to-day [legal] advice,” says Jonathan Spitz, a labor and litigation partner in Jackson Lewis’s Atlanta office. “But we don’t want to just focus on sports-specific issues. The sports industry is made up of employers, and Gregg’s practical experience in that industry will help us understand the specific nuances that those in that industry deal with.”
Clifton laughs when Jackson Lewis’s reputation as a union-busting firm is mentioned. He points out that many of his former players, some of whom held prominent union roles like Glavine, are now in management positions. As Clifton sees it, Jackson Lewis will seek to counsel clients on how to avoid litigation and labor disputes.
“One of the things I learned from Bob Woolf was that it’s not about picking the fight or trying to embarrass the other side, it’s [about] trying to achieve a mutually beneficial working relationship,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what side you represent, the goal is still the same.”
Professional franchises aside, another major client base that Clifton and Jackson Lewis hope to market their services to are colleges and universities dealing with an increasing number of NCAA and government regulations. Some areas coming under greater scrutiny, such as drug testing, are really labor and employment issues, Clifton says.
A recent Associated Press report found that more than half of the 42 states with sports agent laws were not enforcing their requirements. In the past six months alone, coaches at college football powerhouses like Alabama, Florida and USC have called for restrictions on agents and financial advisers that threaten the eligibility of their players. When asked about the study and the negative publicity surrounding agents, Clifton says it’s one of the reasons he decided to leave the business.
“One of the things that was disappointing to me was that there were less lawyers involved [in the sports agent business],” Clifton says. “We had folks coming into it with no knowledge of what it takes to be a sports representative.”
Spitz adds that with many schools wanting to protect the eligibility of their athletes, college programs will be looking for legal counsel to represent them in negotiations with the NCAA or other organizations to handle investigations stemming from those disputes.