Published August 25, 2021
By: Will Russell
I am very excited to be joining Sport Law and contributing to the continued success of the group as well as the Sport Organizations that we assist.
Writing this post gave me the chance to contemplate the role of sport in my life. Sport has been a constant presence, at times serving as a refuge from the turbulence of childhood and opened opportunities for me that I never imagined possible.
I fell in love with the Maritimes while working and travelling with the Canadian Coast Guard – I was introduced to this job by a university teammate. Because of the friends I made through my adopted rugby club I put down roots in Halifax. I met my partner through a mutual love of sailing. (An argument can be made that I owe my existence to sport, as my parents met through the Masters Swim program in Ottawa!)
The thread of sport running through my life has little to do with any competitive success. Along the way it was the relationships, connections, and experiences, not the victories or accomplishments, that have made the most lasting impacts.
Successful sport communities and teams have a clear idea of their shared values, vision, and goals. The teams I have found were the most fulfilling to be a part of and the most fun to play with (and usually the most successful) were those where all members were aligned with the values and goals of the team. Sport has always drawn me back because of this sense of community and alignment.
Early in my legal career I tended to charge into a situation, conduct a legal analysis, and confidently provide the exact solution that the organization needed. It was only after some hard-won experience that I realized that the legally correct and most efficient solution, while critical, is not the most important element to consider. Just as strong teams keep to their values and goals through challenges, my experience in the legal realm is that it is critical to keep the culture of the organization at the core of legal analysis.
Culture means different things to different people. The definition I apply is “culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal.”1
Organizations experiencing an issue that requires the involvement of a lawyer do not need their issue to be dissected and solved in a clinical manner. Regardless of the specific nature of the conflict - be it employment related, a disagreement over athlete selection or ongoing dispute at the board level - the Sport Organization is navigating an upheaval. In many cases, the fabric of the broader community this organization serves has been strained by a long simmering conflict coming to the surface.
When navigating a dispute, awareness of the ‘living relationships’ is vital in not only arriving at a legally sound decision, but one that furthers the overarching goals of the organization and its members. Often success in the legal realm is confined to the singular issue in dispute, not the risks to relationships that may be shattered by extensive litigation or unintended consequences of new policies. While Sport Organizations need to navigate disputes quickly and efficiently to minimize disruptions, how an organization responds to the dispute must align with the fundamental values and core principles of the group.
Advancing a litigation strategy that is inconsistent with the values and culture of a Sport Organization can lead to disengagement or distrust with the organization. How an organization conducts itself during legal proceedings is as important to the long-term success of the group as the result in the current conflict or issue.
Legal advice cannot by viewed as a necessary evil, only accessed in times of crisis. Accessible and practical strategic advice is a key element in supporting and helping shape the culture of an organization. Truly effective legal advice works to advance the strategic direction and values of a governing body, not hinder their efforts towards alignment. An important element of effective legal support is timely and accessible communication, considering the perspectives of all stakeholders.
Strong teams and communities have shaped both my personal and professional values and culture. I am looking forward to working with, strengthening, and elevating more strong communities through my work with Sport Law.