With the National Football League’s 2017 season less than two weeks away, millions of people, many of them lawyers, are preparing for fantasy football season.
But in what seems to have become an almost annual tradition, one of the NFL’s star players is once again awaiting the outcome of a disciplinary proceeding to see whether or not he can take the field with his teammates. And once again, the lawyers are choosing sides.
Frank Salzano, 42, won’t comment on the case against his star client, Dallas Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott. Salzano, a former associate at Jones Day and now-defunct Dewey & LeBoeuf, was willing to discuss his journey from corporate litigator to current consigliere to Elliott, who at just 22 is already one of the league’s top players.
“If you’re at a big firm, you’re someone’s bitch,” said Salzano, who has the declarative patois of an agent, one used to being in a room full of alpha males.
Salzano’s clients over the years have included boxer Evander Holyfield, musician Usher Raymond IV and Darryl McDaniels, a founding member of the hip hop group Run-D.M.C.
“I’m a people person, so I like working with individual clients, not corporations,” Salzano added. “And I had an itch to be more entrepreneurial, so that’s how I got into this business.”
Before delving into how Salzano went from doing document review at Jones Day in New York to having dinners at Prime 112 in Miami Beach with famous athletes and entertainers, a quick resuscitation of the circumstances that have thrust him into the spotlight—the NFL’s case against Elliott—is necessary.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, the son of a former U.S. senator and brother to two former Big Law partners, has taken a hard line on player conduct in recent years. On Aug. 11, the NFL announced that Elliott would be suspended for the first six games of the season as a result of an incident on St. Patrick’s Day earlier this year and domestic violence allegations levied against him by ex-girlfriend Tiffany Thompson during a six-day period in July 2016.
Police have not charged Elliott with any wrongdoing, although Thompson has provided photos showing bruising from her alleged altercations with Elliott, whose camp has countered with revelations about his accuser. Other details, such as the NFL’s relationship with a prosecutors’ group, have also emerged from the Elliott imbroglio.
Salzano (pictured right) is focused now on Elliott’s appeal, which will be heard on Aug. 29 by Goodell-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson. Without discussing the details of his client’s case, Salzano is confident he’ll be able to get Elliott back on the field soon. Whether that will be in time for the Cowboys’ first game on Sept. 10 against the rival New York Giants remains unclear.
Working with Salzano in representing Elliott on his appeal is Scott Rosenblum, a name partner at St. Louis-based Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry. Both lawyers are also working in tandem with Salzano’s former Dewey & LeBoeuf colleague Jeffrey Kessler, a well-known sports lawyer and longtime adversary of the NFL. Kessler is advising the NFL Players Association, a labor union representing the league’s players that is backing Elliott in his appeal, said Salzano, noting that the interests of his client and the NFLPA are “totally aligned.” (On Friday, Henderson reportedly denied an NFLPA request to make available to Elliott’s lawyers notes by league investigators.)
Kessler, who declined to comment, now serves as co-executive chairman of Winston & Strawn, having led a 60-lawyer team to the firm in 2012 shortly before Dewey & LeBoeuf’s demise. Kessler, whose son is an NFL player agent, has also earned millions for his various firms via his role as chief outside counsel to the NFLPA. The American Lawyer reported in May on Winston & Strawn making $6.4 million from the NFLPA during the organization’s last two fiscal years.
Salzano, by comparison, is still a young upstart in a hypercompetitive industry. His registration with the NFLPA notes that he has negotiated only two player contracts. As a matter of comparison, Adisa Bakari, a former chair of the sports and entertainment group at Kelley Drye & Warren who now runs his own player agency, has handled 29 contracts. (Bakari is currently advising star Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell on his contract holdout.)
But Salzano has big plans for expanding his client base beyond Elliott, whom he is careful to note that he advises as part of a larger enterprise called The Alliance Management Group, a sports agency whose president and CEO is veteran player agent Rocky Arceneaux. In early 2016, when Elliott was poised to turn pro, he signed with Arceneaux and Salzano to jointly represent him heading into the NFL Draft. The Cowboys took Elliott with the fourth overall pick.
Arceneaux, who represented Hall of Fame NFL running back Marshall Faulk, acknowledged the unusual arrangement—he had never shared a client before—to the Sports Business Journal at the time. “We’re looking to do more in the entertainment space and [Salzano] is looking to do more in sports, so it was a great time to align ourselves and grow,” Arceneaux told the SBJ.
Salzano is listed as managing partner and general counsel for Alliance, which has offices in St. Louis and New Orleans. He is also a name partner at Salzano, Jackson & Lampert, a New York-based law firm he runs with former Dewey & LeBoeuf counsel Bernard Jackson and Jason Lampert, another registered NFL player agent who also serves as general counsel to Alliance.
The way that Salzano explains it, the web of relationships between his law firm and the Alliance sports agency serve dual purposes. Arceneaux brings the football industry expertise to the enterprise, while Salzano’s portfolio covers litigation, trademark and transactional work, all of which he can handle through his firm. Joint venture agreements, Salzano said, delineate the responsibilities between all parties. He likened Alliance’s Arceneaux to being the center of a wheel, with spokes pointing to different branches of the operation.
This past January, Alliance struck again, signing top college cornerback Adoree’ Jackson ahead of the NFL Draft. The Tennessee Titans subsequently chose Jackson with the 18th overall pick. Salzano said Alliance has designs on branching out into basketball and baseball, although he admitted that those initiatives are still in the planning stages. It’s all still a major change from where Salzano started some 16 years ago.
As a young litigation associate at Jones Day, Salzano found himself doing the usual grunt work for various Fortune 500 companies until he caught a break that would change the trajectory of his legal career. Salzano was staffed on a litigation team led by Jones Day partner Lee Armstrong that was representing a Swiss film investor in a dispute with Woody Allen.
Salzano helped prepare witnesses and handled other assignments normally reserved for more senior lawyers. While the case eventually settled mid-trial, Salzano was hooked on handling work for people in the entertainment industry.
“Those cases are staffed pretty lean—you can’t bill like you would R.J. Reynolds,” said Salzano, comparing representing individuals to advising the tobacco giant. “I could’ve went and spent five years working on Enron,” he added, referencing securities class action litigation related to the busted energy giant in which Jones Day had a key role.
Instead, Salzano switched gears and left Jones Day in January 2004 to join a small firm led by L. Londell McMillan Jr., a New York entertainment lawyer who has been a mentor to many young lawyers in the industry. McMillan has deep ties to the music industry—he traded barbs this summer with Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z—and Salzano said he worked for McMillan on an “eat-what-you-kill” basis.
McMillan’s firm, which was absorbed in June 2007 by Dewey & LeBoeuf predecessor LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, exposed Salzano to a number of prominent individuals in the entertainment space. If one of McMillan’s clients ran into litigation trouble, Salzano was there. McMillan began serving as general counsel to Michael Jackson and the pop icon’s companies starting in 2006, and once Jackson died in 2009, McMillan and Salzano were retained by Jackson family matriarch Katherine Jackson for the ensuing estate litigation.
But as the Jackson estate litigation began to slow and Dewey & LeBoeuf’s struggles became more pronounced, Salzano began thinking about doing something else. In early 2011, a year before Dewey & LeBoeuf’s implosion, Salzano joined New York’s Rottenstreich & Ettinger, where he would continue to handle general litigation work until leaving that firm in 2016. (Florida’s Greenspoon Marder acquired what was left of Rottenstreich & Ettinger last year; McMillan, who left Dewey & LeBoeuf in early 2012, would spend years in litigation involving the busted firm.)
But on the side, Salzano hung up his own shingle to continue doing sports and entertainment disputes work. That included representing former NFL tight end Jeremy Shockey against allegations that he spoke with league investigators in a high-profile probe of the New Orleans Saints. In early 2015, he started Florida-based Ancient Ei8ht LLC, a nonlegal enterprise that seeks to advise athletes and entertainers in a variety of endeavors.
On Tuesday, Salzano, Rosenblum and Kessler will travel to the NFL’s headquarters in midtown Manhattan to appear before Henderson in Elliott’s appeal. Facing off against them will be Lisa Friel, the NFL’s new special counsel for investigations, senior vice president of labor policy and league affairs Adolpho Birch III and a team of lawyers from the NFL’s outside counsel at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld led by partner Daniel Nash.
And as for those legions of fantasy football players, members of an increasingly lucrative industry, keen on knowing when Elliott will return to the field so they can cross his name off their draft sheets, Salzano is confident he will be able to alleviate their collective anxieties.
“We’re gonna get it done,” he said.