Last year Michele Roberts left behind Big Law—she was a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in Washington, D.C.—to lead the National Basketball Players Association. (Rick Kopstein)
The National Basketball League’s 2016-17 season is three weeks away, but the union representing roughly 450 of the league’s players recently filed its annual report with the U.S. Department of Labor, listing more than $1.8 million in legal expenses to 14 firms for fiscal 2015-16.
The New York-based National Basketball Players Association (NBPA) is led by former Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom litigation partner Michele Roberts, who joined the union in late 2014 as executive director. Roberts replaced former federal prosecutor G. William “Billy” Hunter, who has been involved in litigation with the NBPA since his ouster as leader in 2013.
The NBPA and the league both have the option of opting out of their current collective bargaining agreement—one forged in November 2011 after a five-month lockout of players—by Dec. 15. If neither side opts out, the current labor accord will continue through the 2020-21 NBA season. But if one side decides to opt out, the decision could trigger another round of acrimonious antitrust litigation that fills the coffers of lawyers on both sides.
Once again running point on the legal bill front for the NBPA over the past year is Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which received $720,481 for its services to the union. The firm has been representing the NBPA in litigation with Hunter, who filed a wrongful termination suit against the organization in 2013 after he was let go following the release of an internal investigation into his leadership and business practices conducted by Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. Orrick’s current fees are an increase over the $462,915 the firm received last year, but pale in comparison to the nearly $2 million that it billed in 2014.
Hunter, who defended his actions as leader of the NBPA in an interview with CBS Sports this summer, remains in litigation with the union in Los Angeles County Superior Court. A California appellate court denied the NBPA’s motion to dismiss Hunter’s case last year.
“The case returned to the Superior Court to commence litigation on the merits and is currently in the discovery stage,” the NBPA stated in its LM-2 filing with the Labor Department. “The NBPA believes strongly that the claims are without merit, but until the matter is litigated the amount of the NBPA’s potential liability will remain uncertain.”
Winston & Strawn, which trails Orrick in the NBPA legal fee standings, received $369,196 from the union during 2015-16. The firm’s co-chairman, noted sports industry litigator Jeffrey Kessler, has long served as outside counsel to the NBPA during his previous stints at Dewey & LeBoeuf and Weil, Gotshal & Manges. Kessler, who took a 60-lawyer team to Winston & Strawn from Dewey & LeBoeuf in 2012, advised the union during its last antitrust fight with the NBA in 2011.
The NBPA also paid $129,843 to Bredhoff & Kaiser in 2015-16. The Washington, D.C.-based labor and employment boutique, which predominantly does work for labor unions, provided the NBPA with its new general counsel. W. Gary Kohlman, a labor litigator and former Bredhoff & Kaiser partner, was hired by Roberts as the union’s new legal chief in late 2014. Kohlman replaced former Weil associate Ronald Klempner, who was kept on by Roberts in the role of senior counsel for collective bargaining.
Klempner, who also served as the NBPA’s interim executive director between Hunter and Roberts, received $397,467 in compensation from the union in 2015-16. Kohlman was paid $632,665, while Roberts took home more than $1.3 million in compensation. Other in-house lawyers on the NBPA’s payroll are former Bredhoff & Kaiser associate-turned-deputy general counsel Ramya Ravindran ($215,052), deputy general counsel David Foster ($119,227) and associate general counsel Kirk Berger ($123,788). Sean Brandveen, a former staff counsel who left the NBPA late last year, was paid $91,538 in 2015-16.
Other outside firms that received fees from the NBPA during 2015-16 include Syracuse’s Blitman & King ($118,365); New York’s Anderson Kill ($110,518); Weil, Gotshal & Manges ($102,822); Boston’s Hemenway & Barnes ($67,100); San Francisco’s Altshuler Berzon ($38,769); Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman ($33,273); Nashville’s Barrett Johnston Martin & Garrison ($26,274); New York’s Davis & Gilbert ($16,816); Washington, D.C.’s Groom Law Group ($14,546); Kirkland & Ellis ($12,098); and New York’s Rick, Steiner, Fell & Benowitz ($6,075).
Roberts, who grew up in the South Bronx, left Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in 2011 to join Skadden’s office in Washington, D.C. She is the first woman to head a major sports union in North America and in any future labor battle will face off across the negotiating table from her former colleagues at Skadden—a frequent adviser to the NBA—and the league’s commissioner, Adam Silver, a former associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. Silver’s father is former Proskauer Rose chairman Edward Silver, who died in 2004.