Earlier this month, Gordon & Rees announced the addition one of the sports industry’s most prominent attorneys.
Wm. David Cornwell Sr., 51, arrives in the firm’s Atlanta office with 25 years of sports-related law experience that includes a five-year stint as the National Football League’s assistant league counsel. Cornwell took the in-house post with the NFL in 1987 after spending two years in the litigation group at New York firm Whitman & Ransom (now part of Winston & Strawn).
A Georgetown University Law Center graduate who briefly played professional basketball in Cairo during his college years, Cornwell says his sports-law career got a boost when current Akin Gump Strauss & Hauer senior counsel Vernon Jordan (whom Cornwell met through the former Clinton administration adviser’s daughter) introduced him to former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
From the NFL, Cornwell went on to briefly work as a sports agent with industry heavyweights Leigh Steinberg and Jeff Moorad in the early 1990s before becoming The Upper Deck Company’s general counsel in 1993. Four years later, he entered private practice by establishing the Atlanta-based one-man shop DNK Cornwell. Building a sports-industry client roster that encompassed athletes, agents, coaches, executives, and companies, Cornwell has taken on such high-profile matters as representing Ben Roethlisberger in a civil suit that grew out of rape allegations lodged against the Pittsburgh Steelers star and successfully appealing the 50-game suspension imposed by Major League Baseball on the Milwaukee Brewers’ Ryan Braun for the slugger’s alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Along the way, Cornwell has also served as outside general counsel of the entire sports management group at the Assante Corporation sports agency. In 2009 he was among the candidates vying to replace Gene Upshaw as head of the NFL Players Association, according to our prior reporting (the job ultimately went to former Latham & Watkins and Patton Boggs partner DeMaurice Smith). Earlier this year, Cornwell was named executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, a job he will continue to hold even after settling into the sports and entertainment practice at Gordon & Rees. His responsibilities in that post include advising New Orleans Saints assistant coach Joe Vitt in his appeal of an NFL–imposed suspension connected to claims that Vitt and other members of the Saints franchise paid players bounties for injuring opposing players during games—as well as dealing with a lawsuit brought by the NFLPA challenging Cornwell’s authority over the NFLCA.
The Am Law Daily recently caught up with Cornwell to discuss the reasons behind his move to Gordon & Rees and how he expects his practice to fit in at his new firm.
What made you decide to join a larger firm?
Over the past, probably, four to five years, I’ve had the fortune of my practice growing and being able to work in a number of areas besides just some of the player work that I was doing. I started to do more work for either individual agents or sports agencies. I started to represent more coaches and executives, and actually had been doing some work for some teams on some matters as well. And, my structure at that point had been using individual attorneys on a contract basis. But I just felt like I was growing to the point where I needed more resources. And I had referred out some matters and also brought in firms to work with me on some matters. So, it was really, the initial push was the need for resources. And over the last two years, I have spoken to a number of firms and met with them about kind of merging my practice, or dropping my practice into, those firms and getting greater resources.
Why Gordon & Rees?
The untraditional practice that I have really didn’t fit with many of the traditional firms that I had been talking to. And, I had known [C. Anthony Mulrain, managing partner of Gordon & Rees's Atlanta office] over probably the last six or seven years. And we had a discussion at the beginning of 2012, and he said, “Listen, do you have an interest in talking to us?” So, Gordon & Rees has 26 offices, nearly 500 lawyers. And, I didn’t have to educate them about the nature of my practice, because, another one of the partners here, Donald Woodward, does entertainment work and [Mulrain] was doing sports work and entertainment work. So, the firm had already been introduced to this kind of practice and embraced it, frankly. So, after meeting with Tony and [firm assistant managing partner Miles Scully] I flew out and met with [founding partner Donald Rees] and the other managing partner and members of the executive committee in San Francisco. And there was a clear fit and just a great opportunity for me individually and for my former firm DNK to kind of drop the practice in here and hit the ground running.
Will the move to a large firm affect your clients? And will you be targeting different types of clients?
I think that we’ll have the same approach in terms of the class of clients that I’ve worked with, where I think the growth will be that I’ll be able to offer them more. I have advised, on the sidelines, a client with respect to an acquisition. But I really didn’t have the resources at DNK to be the lead counsel on the acquisition. Now, with Gordon & Rees, we can do that. And at DNK, because of the resources need, the adversarial proceedings that I handled generally were administrative appeals. And when we had civil matters, I would bring in another firm. But, now, again, that’s something that I have the resources to handle.
Will it be tough balancing your responsibilities with the NFL Coaches Association, including the NFLPA lawsuit, with your new role at the firm?
I’ve always been a hard worker. I don’t see it as an issue. You’ve just got to do what you’ve got to do.
Will that leadership role with the coaches association create any conflicts?
Conceptually, there are two levels of potential conflict that I see. One is your traditional and your technical conflict. And the other is kind of the optics that might arise from representing a particular client and that, kind of, casting a bad light back on the association . . . I won’t identify anything, specifically, as a ‘Can’t Do.’ But I’ll address that as it arises with [Mulrain] and the firm’s executive committee. They understand that I have the additional role as executive director of the coaches association. But, I also feel like it’s a benefit to the coaches association because, I won’t serve as counsel, but it will have access to the lawyers and services that the firm offers.
What kind of day-to-day changes do you expect, going from a firm where your name is on the wall to one where you’re part of a partnership?
Again, it really is the resources available to me and the opportunity to grow [at the firm]. I’ve been an hourly rate attorney since 1997. So, you know, those kinds of things—you’re doing the same kind of thing in a different environment. So, that’s not that much of a transitional change.
Do you see yourself pursuing any further leadership roles, or perhaps returning to an in-house role somewhere in the sports industry?
I really don’t. I really consider Gordon & Rees to be my last stop as a lawyer and the NFL Coaches Association to be kind of a challenge and an opportunity that is a lifetime appointment. So, I think I’m done looking for jobs.