The Life and Career of Mark S. Levinstein: Partner with Williams & Connolly, LLP, and Co-author of Sports Law: Cases and Materials.
by Kenneth Davis
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"My dad was a scientist," he said. "When I said, 'Should I be a scientist?' my dad said, 'You aren't really interested in science. You don't take things apart and put them together.' And it was my grandfather; he was a lawyer and seemed to help people. Kids today don't have any clue what they want to do, but I always wanted to be a lawyer."
Levinstein stuck to his career plan and has had a successful law practice for 23 years. He handles civil and criminal matters, and his practice covers a wide range of areas, including antitrust, arbitration, commercial litigation, franchise law, intellectual property, trademark, false advertising, and unfair competition, labor law, and RICO. In addition, he has a thriving sports law practice representing a number of high-profile clients. However, Levinstein didn't initially set out to become a sports lawyer.
"When I came to the firm, it was to do litigation, generally with a focus on antitrust," he said. "It never was to be a sports lawyer. But the firm was founded by Edward Bennett Williams, who was probably the most famous trial lawyer of the 1970s and 80s. And he also owned the [Baltimore] Orioles and part of the [Washington] Redskins. So as a summer associate here, I saw that our firm had a lot of sports-related litigation. I knew there were a lot of sports antitrust cases, and so I figured, Well, one of these days the boss is going to walk in and say, 'Okay, you know a lot about antitrust, but do you know about sports antitrust?'"
Levinstein said that there were very few books that covered sports law at the time, so he did a Lexis search for all the antitrust cases involving sports.
"I read them and tried to make sense of them, so that one day when somebody came along, I'd know what was going on," he explained. "And then I handled a couple of big cases that involved sports and antitrust, including a four-year case involving professional tennis."
After that, Levinstein's sports practice took off. And over the past years, he has handled a broad spectrum of sports-related cases. His sports clients run the gamut from professional athletes, players associations, sports teams, and owners to leagues and league properties, Olympic athletes, organizations, amateur athletes, sports associations, and boxing managers and promoters, among many others. His sports cases have involved professional baseball, basketball, football, golf, tennis, skiing, volleyball, boxing, fastpitch softball, golf, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, wrestling, and many more sports.
In addition, he has represented a number of famous athletes, including figure skater Nancy Kerrigan. Levinstein was Kerrigan's attorney during the infamous knee-clubbing incident back in 1994, when rival skater Tonya Harding allegedly conspired to have Kerrigan injured to prevent her from competing in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Levinstein said he kept a very low profile during the Kerrigan case because he did not feel it would be in his client's best interest for the media to focus on her attorney. He said he refused when Kerrigan's agent asked him to appear on Larry King Live.
"We didn't want anything in the papers about Nancy Kerrigan having a lawyer," he said. "As soon as someone says that Nancy Kerrigan has a lawyer, there would be speculation about who she is going to sue. Nancy Kerrigan was a skater with an agent who got hurt. She was just a victim and did nothing wrong."
"The key is to focus on your client and decide what's in your client's best interest," he explained. "Was it in my best interest to be in the media all the time as Nancy Kerrigan's lawyer? Maybe. But that wasn't in her best interest, and we didn't do it."
Levinstein also represents all the members of the U.S. National Soccer Team.
"I unionized them in 1996," he said. "They were the first national team to become a union, and I've represented them for ten years."
Cyclist Lance Armstrong is also one of Levinstein's clients. Levinstein recently represented the seven-time Tour de France champion when a French newspaper alleged that he had used EPO, a performance-enhancing drug, during the 1999 Tour de France. Armstrong was later cleared of all accusations that he used any performance-enhancing drugs during the race.
Additionally, Levinstein and his colleagues represented the Los Angeles Rams when the team moved to St. Louis in 1994.
"We were the lawyers for the Rams, convincing the league that they didn't want to have an antitrust lawsuit," he said. The league decided to let the Rams relocate.
Levinstein said that he and his colleagues represent a number of teams attempting to relocate.
He also serves as outside counsel for the U.S. Olympic Committee and represented the Arena Football League players for a couple of years in a labor and antitrust dispute against the Arena Football League.
Levinstein discussed what's involved in becoming a sports lawyer:
"Basically what makes someone a sports lawyer is that you have a client in the sports industry, and he or she comes to you and has a legal problem," he said. "And then you could say you're a sports lawyer. It could be a criminal case, it could be tax, it could be intellectual property, it could be labor law, and so on."
Levinstein said he likes to keep up-to-date on what's happening in the sports fields with which his clients are affiliated so he can represent them more effectively. For instance, one of his clients was the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, and even though he's not a golfer, he subscribed to eight different golf magazines to stay apprised of what was going on in the golf world in order to better serve his client.
He said that two big parts of a lawyer's job are helping clients deal with all aspects of their problems and taking responsibility for solving those problems, to the extent possible.
"There was a character on Star Trek: The Next Generation named Deanna Troi, and she was an empath," he said. "She could take your pain or your stress or whatever unpleasant emotion you were experiencing. She would touch you and absorb all the bad emotions and suffer for you. That's what a lawyer does sometimes. A client comes in with terrible stress and a major problem, and then it becomes your problem, too. And you do the best you can to take responsibility for the problem, so it no longer troubles your client to the same extent."
He added that good attorneys don't always rush their clients into litigation; they discuss the pros and cons before they move ahead with any kind of action.
"Clients often come to see their lawyer and want to sue somebody, and it may be your job to advise them not to file the lawsuit," he said. "We take them through the pros and cons of litigation and what would be involved—what it would cost, to what extent it would cause non-financial costs, what relief they could reasonably seek, what is the probability of success, how long it could take to take the matter to completion, and what the client would have to endure for the next year or several years. And we say, 'Would our firm get paid if we sue them for you? Of course, but we do not want to do something that's not in the client's best interest. We have plenty of work to do, and we do not need to take money for handling matters that are not in our clients' best interests.' Part of what your clients are paying you for, even if they do not know it, is for you to advise them not to get involved in litigation when it's not in their best interest to do so and they can reasonably avoid it."
Levinstein majored in economics at the University of Virginia and graduated with honors in 1979. He went on to earn his law degree, also with honors, from Harvard Law School in 1982. After law school, he worked as a law clerk for Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr., of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Judge Garrity was widely recognized for implementing "forced busing" at Boston-area schools in an effort to battle segregation in 1974. Levinstein clerked for Garrity for a year; he then joined Williams & Connolly in September of 1983 and has been with the firm ever since.
In addition to practicing sports law, Levinstein writes about it. He coauthored a sports law casebook titled Sports Law: Cases and Materials with Michael J. Cozzillio, a law professor at Widener University School of Law in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The book was published by Carolina Academic Press in 1997, and Levinstein said that he and Cozzillio are currently working on a second edition.
Levinstein has taught as an adjunct professor of antitrust law, sports law, and advanced antitrust at Columbus School of Law at The Catholic University of America, George Washington University National Law Center, and Georgetown University Law Center. He stopped teaching full courses in 1999, but he still teaches classes occasionally and said he may return to teaching courses again in a few years, once his children are off to college.
He said law professors apply many of the same skills they need in court when they teach.
"When you're a trial lawyer, you're talking to judges, and you're discussing and explaining legal issues in the subject of the case, and in many ways, it involves the same skills as being a law professor," he said. "You need to learn how not to be condescending, to acknowledge that others may have different views; you need to learn how to explain a complex legal subject when you have more familiarity with it than the judge or your students. That does not mean that you are smarter than your students or the judge—you have just thought about the issues more than they have, and you have to try to persuade the judge and have to teach students how to be persuasive when they address a legal subject. You present your viewpoint (or two or more conflicting viewpoints) about what the cases say or what the law is in a way that persuasively argues for your side or helps the student understand the various sides without the students feeling like you're talking down to them."
Levinstein said the two people who influenced him the most before he came to Williams & Connolly were Professor Kenneth Elzinga, an economics professor at the University of Virginia, and Phillip Areeda, who was the leading academic treatise and casebook writer in antitrust law. Elzinga was Levinstein's undergraduate advisor at the University of Virginia; he met Areeda at Harvard Law School and worked as his research assistant for many years, both during and after law school.
Levinstein said one of the projects he's currently working on is helping some of the athletes he represents create a charitable foundation. The foundation is called Athletes For Hope, and some of the athletes involved include Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi, Mia Hamm, Andrea Jaeger, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, and Alonzo Mourning.
"We were just granted public charity status last week," he said. "So we have been dealing with tax issues, business planning issues, and a host of corporate governance issues."
Levinstein said what he enjoys most about practicing law is that he's able to help people get through difficult situations.
"People come into my office with a problem, and often I think I can solve their problem better than anybody else there is," he said. "And so there's nothing that makes me feel better than to hear a client's problem and, as I listen, think I have the solution. People come in sometimes not knowing if they're gonna go to jail or they're gonna be sued or they're gonna lose their business or house. So if you can evaluate their situation, apply your knowledge of the facts and the law, and tell them that it won't be as bad as they fear, that's already a huge benefit to the client. Practicing law is all about helping people. It's a personal service business, and people often forget that."
Levinstein had the following advice for law students:
"When I interview applicants, I always tell them in law school to make the most of it," he said. "Take all the basic subjects. You can take 'Shakespeare and the Law' or other enjoyable courses that will entertain you, but I recommend that they take tax, corporate tax, labor law, and other courses that provide an overview of an entire area of law; make the most of the opportunity to take a course with a professor who is an expert on the subject, and he or she can give you an overview about the subject and many of the insights the professor has discovered in many years of study—that sort of experience and expertise can benefit you for many years to come as you practice law."
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