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Sixteen months ago, Philadelphia’s Morgan, Lewis & Bockius made the best of a tricky situation with one of its sexiest clients, major league baseball. After the league announced that it wanted to make a brand out of its initials, à la the National Basketball Association, Morgan Lewis turned over its registered domain name, MLB.com, to the league — free of charge, of course. The gift won Morgan Lewis some goodwill. But it didn’t permanently win over major league baseball (or, should we say, MLB). That became clear recently, when the commissioner’s office bypassed Morgan Lewis and tapped New York’s Proskauer Rose to handle the most important piece of work to come along in a half-decade, this winter’s labor negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players Association. The stakes are big. A failure to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement could lead to a strike or lockout at the beginning of the 2002 season. Baseball’s choice wasn’t totally out of the blue. In the summer of 1999, the American and National Leagues — entities technically separate from MLB — picked Proskauer’s Howard Ganz to handle their ongoing labor disputes with the Major League Umpires Association. It was a natural choice. Ganz was well known as the NBA’s longtime chief outside labor counsel. Since tapping Ganz, the leagues have mostly had their way with the umpires. Robert Manfred Jr., MLB’s top in-house labor lawyer, says that success helped win Ganz a chance to butt heads with Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, the Players Association’s formidable in-house duo. Manfred’s choice wasn’t without political risk. He and Frank Coonelly, another top in-house labor attorney, got their starts at Morgan Lewis’ Washington, D.C., office, and worked closely with former commissioner Fay Vincent in the early 1990s. Current commissioner Allan “Bud” Selig later rewarded the two young partners’ service by giving them in-house posts. So Manfred is treading lightly in the current situation. He insists that his choice says more about Ganz’s expertise than about any lack of talent within Morgan Lewis’ labor department. And he’s still farming work out to his old firm. “We use Morgan Lewis, and we’ll continue to use Morgan Lewis,” he says. “We think it’s a good practice to develop working relationships with more than one law firm.” How is Morgan Lewis taking the move? With a smile fixed firmly in place. For the time being, the firm is handling the league’s garden-variety ERISA and employment work. “We’re just happy that Rob and Frank are keeping us busy with other matters,” says Steven Wall, the deputy manager of the firm’s labor and employment practice group. Wall gamely calls Ganz “a great choice” for the job. Now the pressure is on Proskauer and Ganz to perform. MLB is a notoriously difficult client, not known for meekly following outside counsel’s advice. And in a negotiation where every bluff, feint and counterproposal will be nitpicked on sports radio and in Internet chat rooms, it will be Proskauer — not Morgan Lewis — that will be pilloried if opening day sees picket lines instead of live pitches. But it’s good work if you can get it, and Morgan Lewis didn’t. Was it overconfidence that kept the firm from bringing in a big gun or grooming someone from within to handle it? “No matter how you slice it, Morgan Lewis lost a top-flight job,” says a prominent East Coast sports lawyer. “If I were there, I’d be asking myself a lot of questions right now.” Like whether the firm should have driven a harder bargain for its Web address.

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