During his 35 years on the job, Sam Fernandez of the Los Angeles Dodgers has had to play ball with dramatic new developments in the sport.
At Berkeley Law’s Future of Sports conference Friday, the Dodgers’ longtime general counsel and senior vice president spoke about his journey as an in-house leader in Major League Baseball and where the legal side of the sport is going next.
Fernandez was one of the first GCs in the major leagues, joining the Dodgers in 1983. He said that at the start of his in-house career, the team’s lawyers were often “making it up as we [went] along,” with little in the way of clear precedents before them.
“When I look back at my career, and I do so from the perspective of giving someone advice who may be getting into sports [law] today, the first thing that comes to my mind is that the opportunities I had, the experience I had sadly probably cannot be replicated,” Fernandez told a room of sports lawyers and J.D. candidates.
He noted that the growing use of analytics, technology and social media have completely changed the in-house role. While new lawyers coming in-house with baseball teams may not have to navigate changing rules around free agency and the creation of MLB properties like Fernandez once did, he said there are new questions arising in the industry.
“For people getting into the industry now, I think there are some exciting opportunities relating to technology and the impact of how we present the game,” Fernandez said. “Not only how we present the game on cable, but also how we present the game at the ballpark, from digital ticketing, the kind of information you get at the ballpark, all of those things are just developing now, and how we interact with our customers. It will be an exciting area to be involved with in the future.”
Fernandez said his job now includes helping the Dodgers walk a difficult line with social media. The team wants fans to share their love of the game online, but when they live stream games from the stadium, intellectual property issues may come into play.
He added that employment law in baseball has also become increasingly complicated, and that he’s had to rely more on outside counsel for help with human resources, employment law and players’ immigration issues in recent years. But increased use of outside counsel isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Fernandez said.
“One of the pieces of advice I would give to someone starting in the business is to rely on outside counsel a lot more than I [did when I was] starting in the business,” he said. “Because everything has gotten a lot more complicated.”
Fernandez said lawyers who want to play in the big leagues should not be afraid of technology, but they should also avoid being “seduced by technology to skip the steps necessary to generate good work.” He explained that contracts and other legal documents can’t be done well if they’re copied and pasted—they need a thorough look.
And for those interested in an in-house gig just for the love of the game, Fernandez clarified that his job doesn’t involve practicing with the team, or much baseball-playing in general.
“Sports fans think there’s some aspect of getting close to the players and coaching staff and somehow participating in the sport,” he said. “In 35 years, I have never swung a bat at Dodger Stadium.”