The Legal Department

Detroit Lions GC Maggy Carlyle On Getting A Job In Sports, Being A Strategic Partner And What To Do When Taylor Swift Comes To Your Stadium

LEGD 6 | Job In Sports

Detroit Lions Senior Vice President and General Counsel Maggy Carlyle shares how she started her career in sports and landed an internship with the Kansas City Chiefs during the financial crisis and roles at the San Jose Sharks, PAC 12 Conference, and the San Francisco 49ers. She shares what it means to be a sports lawyer, her day-to-day as a senior legal executive of an NFL team, and how to demonstrate ROI of your legal department. She also offers tips for The Legal Department on what to do when Taylor Swift comes to your stadium. 

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Detroit Lions GC Maggy Carlyle On Getting A Job In Sports, Being A Strategic Partner And What To Do When Taylor Swift Comes To Your Stadium

Maggy Carlyle, baseball stats.

My name is Maggy Carlyle. I am the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Detroit Lions. The Detroit Lions is a National Football League member club. We also oversee Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. I oversee all things legal all day, legal operations across the entire organization, along with the rest of our small but mighty legal team. A fun fact about me is I was voted most dangerous pedestrian to cars in high school.

I’m super excited to have Maggy Carlyle, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Detroit Lions in the legal department, to talk with me about all things general counsel and sports teams. Maggy, how are you?

I’m doing great. How are you doing?

I’m great. This is an interview I’ve been looking forward to for a while for a couple of reasons. You have a very unique job, but we have friends in common. We are both from Missouri and we both love the Kansas City Chiefs, in addition to the Lions.

A little less now. I have a whole family who grew up rooting for the Chiefs. Now they all show up to Chiefs games wearing blue, so family comes first.

I love that. There are not many folks in your role. How many colleagues do you have in your NFL family?

More or less, every team has at least one lawyer on staff. We have 32 minimum, and every team has a little bit of a different structure for their legal department between 1 and 3 to 4. Some up to 5, but usually, those teams have a larger operation. Our team has 3 lawyers, which is probably the average, at least the median. If I do the math, and I will do lawyer math, that’s somewhere around 100 lawyers who are in the NFL family.

It’s a very small cohort. I know you were in other collegiate sports and also in hockey. Are there associations for folks in your role? How do you build a professional network? That’s something that I’ve been curious about.

I’m going to do a big plug because I’m on the board now and oversee the conference planning. Sports Lawyers Association is a national and somewhat international network for all lawyers who generally work in sports, whether it’s at a team, a league, or adjacent. That’s all of our sponsors and our vendors like Coca-Cola or the apparel companies, Nike and Adidas, which is awesome and super fun because it allows you to connect across borders. In some ways, you may be adversaries in some conversations.

In other ways, you are dealing with the same issues. Very much within our own worlds, the NFL crew has a lot of connections, collaborates, and commiserates regularly. The same was true in college and hockey as well. I’m not alone in moving through across some of those borders. We all find each other in different ways.

I have to say. Coming from higher Ed and Academic Medical Center, having those colleagues, I’m sure it’s the same in sports that have been in your seat and know exactly what you’re dealing with. It’s a resource as much as it is therapy in some respects.

Sometimes, both, all in one.

It’s a very unique role that you have. I’m curious as to how you landed there out of law school.

I landed there at a law school with a little bit of strategy but mostly luck and timing, more specifically. I was in law school during the real financial crisis of 2017, 2008, and 2009. In many ways, that was a pass because I didn’t go to law school interested in big law. I didn’t go to law school knowing anything about big law. Frankly, I knew nothing when I went to law school. I sometimes wonder if other students knew more than I did.

Law school is a mystery. You don’t know until you get there. I know you had a Journalism Degree from the University of Missouri. That’s a highly-ranked journalism program, and you could have gone into journalism. Why pivot into law?

I studied advertising primarily at the J School in Mizzou, and I loved it. I have a background in studio art. This is a real left turn where I ended up. Nobody knows how this happened, but I decided in my junior and senior years that I didn’t want to go into advertising. I was schemed out by the industry at that time and did teaching. I decided to go into teaching for a little while and thought perhaps teaching was going to be the path. Through that experience, I decided, “Maybe I’ll go to law school and do Educational Rights Law.” I grew up with a lawyer. My mother is and still is in her 70s practicing post-conviction criminal defense attorney.

The Lord’s work.

She’s a real lawyer. I was like, “Cool. That seems intellectually challenging. It seems meaningful. I will do that,” but because of that, I didn’t have any idea or any clue about big law or law firms. I didn’t think about being a lawyer as making money, ironically, until I got to law school. I was like, “Okay, cool.” There’s an opportunity here except that. All of a sudden, big law is not hiring. That is not an opportunity.

Most folks, especially in sports at the time, were not hiring straight out of law school. They were only hiring from law firms, but because I never wanted to go to a law firm, all of a sudden, law firms were not hiring. Whereas probably 20% of my class would have been at a big law firm, something like 2% to 5% was because they had a hiring freeze.

It was almost an excuse for a pass. Also, on the flip side, all of the funding for clerkships and even for the minimum wage clerkships at public interest groups in the summers went away. That avenue that I thought I was going to be exploring dried up in terms of a financial opportunity just to pay my bills. I was trying to pay my own bills at the time. I was also a former athlete. When I went to law school, I got a job back at Mizzou Athletics. I had been part of that undergrad. I went back with my teaching experience. I went to the academic office there. I had some sports experience, and after sending it out, there were still hundreds of people.

That didn’t just land all of a sudden.

I got two offers. One was for zero pay and one was for minimum wage. I took the minimum wage one. It happened to be the Kansas City Chiefs. I started building this in-house sports experience in law school. I went to the NFL in my third year of law school as a clerk and finished law school there.

That was my law firm experience because they have an in-house labor arbitration group where they train you and teach you how to write briefs. They teach you how to do research and the things that you would learn in a small firm out of law school. That was my experience, and then I went in-house from there. The only reason why I was accepted was that I hadn’t gone to a law firm because everybody knew.

You can do it.

I wasn’t the only one in that place.

You had the street cred because you came up through a clerkship route because it’s a unique experience. As you were saying, some of the law firms are helping the sponsorships or agents. Maybe then those folks catapult into a team job.

There’s not one way. There’s really not one route. When I was a kid, everyone said the one route was to go to one of the five big sports law firms and somehow find your way into their sports practice.

LEGD 6 | Job In Sports
Job In Sports: There is no one single route in pursuing a legal career, although everyone recommends going to one of the five big sports law firms and finding your way into their sports practice.

That sounds a lot harder than clerking for the Chiefs.

It’s a lot less enjoyable.

I’m sure.

It wasn’t the route that I took. Folks would ask me to come talk for law school classes and say, “How did you do it?” I would tell my story and the professors would say, “Don’t listen to her too closely because you still need law firm experience.”

Thanks, Professor. What team have you worked for?

I don’t want to diminish law firm experience. What I do tell students is if you don’t rule off firm, you do need to learn what you would learn there. You do need to learn how to research, how to draft, and how to grind it out. Figure out how you get that experience elsewhere. It doesn’t have to be on a high rise in New York.

If you don’t rule off working in a law firm, you need to learn what you would learn there. Learn how to research, draft, and grind it out. Share on X

Can we talk a little bit about what is involved? Dealing with the talent, the player contracts seemed to be a lot of what I would expect would be part of the practice, but managing those sponsorships. What are common issues or projects or parts of the practice in an in-house role for a team?

Your legal team is going to do it all. On one hand, you have player contracts and player transactions. We have the Football Council that cranks through those. Frankly, that is a small part of the whole legal scope because our player contracts are pre-negotiated through the CBA. You negotiate and do drafts with additional language Then we have some rows and sometimes it’s bespoke. You also have the rest of your operations. You have coaches’ contracts and disputes with players, coaches, or staff members.

Our general staff is a lot larger than the rest of our football player’s roster. You have a whole staff of folks who run a stadium, production teams for your media, and run the buildings. The transactional work on a day-to-day basis is the biggest bulk, and you know this. By no means that I conflate sports and healthcare, but there’s always a fire going on somewhere.

You have your standard stuff, which is our sponsorship deals, and employment contracts are coming through. You have a real estate matter that you need to deal with, but then you also have your emergencies, which is something that happens, whether it’s a legal matter from a criminal standpoint or an issue that somebody has a slip or a fall.

Players kneeling during the national anthem.

It’s a mix of the standard day-to-day and it’s all the unexpected stuff that comes along with it.

This is a perception, but you have a big brand and a big institution with professional sports, football in particular. I feel that’s very similar to my past experience in higher ed at a top twenty university where the expectations of the public are that you have a lot of infrastructure. It’s like, “You are a brand we trust. You’re an institution that’s well known. There should never be any hiccups. There shouldn’t be problems because you have people for that.”

In my experience, that wasn’t always the case, especially in the legal department, where new laws have come out, or we’ve been sanctioned by the NCAA. You need a whole new regulatory apparatus to deal with. It’s hard to get resources. My perception is that being on a team that is a big brand and has that relationship with the public, you’re saying you have a legal team of five people, sounds lean to me. Can you talk about getting resources and how you meet those expectations of the public?

I can’t imagine ever getting sanctioned by the NCAA. Why wouldn’t you even have a whole goddamn regulatory framework to deal with? You pull the curtain back. It’s a little bit of Wizard of the OZ.

Tape and chewing gum to hold it together.

I completely share your experience, which is first, there are some large organizations that have very robust legal departments and regulatory departments. When you see those, it has happened somehow out of necessity, whether it’s in the financial industry or in the media industry. You’re looking at Disney or some of the major banks. I would guess that those early-on companies also had lean bubble gum and the guy who works in the legal departments because nobody wants to pay for a lawyer. Nobody wants to pay for a doctor. Nobody wants to go to the mechanic.

The way that I’ve found efficacy and the basis for establishing resources, and by no means to figure out the magic secret sauce because I’m still trying to figure that out, is to integrate as a legal department and help change the perception of legal as a regulation rather than legal as a team member and a business partner and a partner generally.

LEGD 6 | Job In Sports
Job In Sports: Legal departments must work to change the perception that they are only for regulation rather than an actual legal team.

It’s being present, being available, and making yourself not obstructive but integral. All this is very obscure, but I’ll give specific examples. It’s proactively asking especially when I come into a new place, “Invite me so I can listen,” and doing that first, coming and listening, and being a person who’s not going to be perceived as always being obstructive.

When being asked, give very specific opinions and advice. Sometimes, it’s legal advice or practical advice or opinions, but it’s all in the spirit and the nature of figuring out how to do this better. It’s all about relationships. I tell folks, “My number one legal strategy is good customer service.” That’s not just my customer service.

I’m a lawyer because I don’t have very good outward looks, but whether it’s our folks on our concourses during the game, them having good customer service, or our coaches, the media, the coaches, and players then treating players as partners, or internally, people treating each other well. That’s the best legal strategy because you’re less likely to get sued, and people are not pissed off.

You start with that ethos. You integrate yourself as a problem solver. You identified risk, but you also helped them figure out how to make their business better. That’s the soft, touchy, feely way of building value, and then figuring it out. Whenever I identify risks, let me figure out what the actual risk is. Let me do my own damage calculation and take a little note for myself and say, “We could have been screwed out of $1.5 million but I saved it for you.” You didn’t lose that on the books, but let me start taking notes and taking receipts, as they say, of what I saved you so that you can start establishing your value and building that up.

Personally, I feel like I’m always in the doing business and not the showing what I do business. It is hard to get those receipts together if you’re not tracking them. I saw a good LinkedIn post where it’s an in-house person. They calculated the hourly rate at most law firms for associates. It’s between $700 and $900 an hour, which is outrageous, but calculating that as compared to what in-house counsel are paid on a salary basis.

Just that alone, the multiple is quite significant, but it can be hard to show those numbers. Your point about being part of the team and being seen as a problem solver, that’s the expectation for us. The building relationships also, I want to touch on further. I interviewed the General Counsel of Fender Instruments, Aarash Darroodi. He described it as the ability to connect with humanity. The modern worker expects lawyers who can connect. You can’t just be in your office, head down, or whatever. I liked your suggestion to come to meetings and listen. Do you encourage the rest of your team to do that as well?

You want the folks on your team to be integrated and integral in the same way. Whether it’s being social and showing up to an after-hours. When I was at the Pac-12, everybody was all hands on deck for championships. Whenever you’d say, “We need ten random staff members to do production for the basketball championship game and hold up signs or move around and be a runner,” I encourage my staff to be runners so they build those relationships and start having those touchpoints.

Go to meals. At the Lions, we have meals in different public places. Interact and have meals with different folks. Not always the same folks all the time. I’m extroverted, but I’m not highly social. It’s not saying it’s always easy for me too. I feel for those who are naturally introverted but do it however you are. Be who you are. By no means, be me and be a loudmouth at all times. Be available, be around, and have people get used to you and know who you are and what you do.

If somebody likes to work with Jane Smith and vibes with her and can understand how to communicate with her, even if Jane Smith isn’t the subject matter expert on my team, she can give back to the team and make that connection. If everybody can have a buddy or a person they feel comfortable within the legal department whom they go to, that to me is a win because that means they have a resource somewhere.

If every lawyer can have a person they feel comfortable with within the legal department, that is huge win. It means they have a resource somewhere. Share on X

Having onboarded my in-house team folks who came from law firms was probably one of the biggest teaching points. It was like, “You are not judged on hours built. I need you to go to lunch and have coffee with people.” I had an expectation of three networking touchpoints per week because you’re so much more effective from having those relationships and having the business folks look to legal as a resource and not as a blocker.

Having those communications too, especially as you referred to folks who are coming in-house from law firms. They understand more viscerally why layman’s terms are so important. You don’t need to write a full memo for Joey. I need you to give a two-sentence answer to his question and give more context if he needs more context or wants more context. It’s a different communication style, and getting used to that is important.

The other thing, and I’m interested in your experience with this as well, is getting used to being a lawyer who makes a risky decision. You might know certain courses of action have risks, but the business people are looking for you to say, “That’s probably one that’s not worth taking,” and to be able to calibrate whatever legal risks your team sees. In my experience, it was hard sometimes to get lawyers to put their foot over the edge and make a recommendation.

That’s part of the scary part of being in-house. There are a lot of benefits, but it’s part of the scary part. You have to own it.

I had another guess who talked about that, Brandon Neil from Walgreens. He had to live with his decisions. That was the way he looked at it. It’s not a living out there anymore. You’re seeing the people in the bathroom or at the coffee pot.

That’s the fun part though.

It can be.

It depends on your personality. That’s another thing. It depends on the role you are in and the company you’re in. I’m a decision-maker, but I’ll give you the advice based on all the information. Being understanding that you’re not the decision-maker and being okay with that. We all make our contributions and we make a decision as a team, then we move forward. Also, if you’re going to be in-house, you shouldn’t be the type of personality who wants to hedge. We all have to hedge a little bit, but you have to be willing to play.

LEGD 6 | Job In Sports
Job In Sports: Lawyers are not the decision maker in a sports team. All they want is a leadership team that appreciates their contributions and makes a decision based on their advice.

That’s almost worse than hearing the no if you just sit there and waffle. I don’t think somebody would get very far in their legal career if they were a hand-ringer. We agree that the expectation, especially the general counsel, is that you’re not just giving legal advice but that you are part of the leadership team that helps drive strategy for an organization. Are there any examples you can give from your career at the Lions or elsewhere where you feel that as the GCE, you were able to help push the strategy forward?

It grows the larger my career grows. The longer my career comes, the more various experiences come. First, it starts with having an executive team or leadership team that trusts me and my team as not just legal contributors but common sense contributors. I tell a story, and this is not at all legal, but I got a phone call from my 75-year-old mother about where to put paintings on the walls.

She calls me up. She said, “Can you FaceTime?” I said, “Yes.” She FaceTime me and she’s like, “We just painted the living room walls, and your dad told me I should call you to ask you where to hang the paintings.” I was like, “Hold up.” She held it up. I’ve been in their house. I know what it is. I told her where to put them. She’s like, “That’s good. That sounds good.” I hear in the background my father goes, “I told you she’d have an opinion.” You can always call me for an opinion, whether it’s informed or not. I will give you an opinion.

To be willing to have that conversation, step up, and have an opinion. Knowing because of my experience in sports, whether it’s in college athletics or the governance level or having worked in an actual Pac-12. I’d come in and have these conversations with our folks here going through international strategy.

The benefit that people used to talk about and have a lot of degrees that at some point in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, people just went to law school to get a law degree. It was a valued degree, and frankly, I think it is. It’s $200,000 now. It is a great degree. It’s a great degree around analysis, thought process, condensing a ton of information, and distilling it down to its core elements.

That skillset that we have as in-house counsel is applicable and can be applicable to business strategy generally. When you can be a thought partner and a problem solver, you can use those skills to help folks in a room around strategy to think about their strategy and their business in the same way. We have a ton of inputs. How do we distill all these inputs down to their primary parts? How does that communicate and inform the strategy that we’re going to take? I love that. It can be anywhere from working on an international strategy to taking any strategy to real estate. Think about how it might develop the real estate we’re in or elsewhere. At the Pac-12, it was figuring out where our championships would be.

That sounds interesting.

It’s super fun and super interesting. It’s all pieces of it, which is, what’s the location? What’s the facility? When we talked about whether to stay in Santa Clara. We were at Levi’s for many years. We went out and got bids. We get bids from multiple different locations. You go and visit. You think about what ingress and egress are. How does that work? What are the legal implications? What are the actual regulatory and government implications? How do you work with your finance team and think about the tax implications?

I’m sure it’s so much more complex than anybody can see from the outside. What’s going on in that city? Is there a lot of protests? Are there Union activities? Is there going to be a boycott? It’s not just, “Can we get the contract done on the site?” I’m sure some people think that might be the lawyers’ role.

It is, for sure. Also, you think about, “Let’s get a contract done.” People think about contracts as legal documents. Law is just us figuring out how to make people’s lives work and enforceable. You have this legal document that people think, “That’s the lawyer. You tell me what to do.” I sit down with you because this is all of your business points, operations points, and logistics points. Is this what you want because you’re going to have to do it?

People think business contracts as a legal document that enforces the law. In reality, it is just a way for lawyers to figure out how to make people’s lives work and enforceable. Share on X

It is a collaborative document. The goal is for it to be a working document. Going back to the piece on strategy, it’s not unlike what we deal with in legal matters, which is a ton. Whether it’s case law, statutes, or other inputs. You have to distill it all down to its basic components to understand what the strategy is going to be from a legal standpoint.

I don’t know about you but if I’m advising on a lawsuit or responding to a government investigation, the leadership team gives me a little bit of deference. If we’re in the space like business development or real estate development, to your point about telling your mom where to hang the pictures, it’s like, “This is what I see, but I don’t have to execute that. I need to win the case for you, but my job is not to make sure that the site for the Pac-12 Championship is the right one.”

It’s the same. It’s more contributory rather than leading a lot of those efforts, but it’s knowing the past roles and different roles, and overseeing different types of operations, so medical and security of the Pac-12. At some point, I was a tournament director for a tennis tour at the Sharks. These are random things, but when you’re there in a legal capacity, you’re just giving your opinion and you have to be comfortable with that and know that it might not be the right opinion. If you’re educating and you know this business, you would hope that your leadership team or your executive team is elevated, and that’s all I hope, to say, “We want informed and intelligent opinions. Mine is not the only one. Sometimes it’s not the most one.” Having that team mentality is helpful.

For the GC rule, in particular, fit and alignment with the leadership team are table stakes. As I was coming up in the roles, I don’t think I realized that, but then it’s like, “I need to be aligned with the CEO. I need to be aligned with the leadership team.”

It’s a little bit different when you’re a junior lawyer rather when you’re higher up. You’re working in leadership or a Director of VP or higher level, a C-suite level. You just need experience whenever you’re coming up as a junior lawyer, but also you are part of a team. To me, whenever I was a junior lawyer, what was the most important was my fit with my boss. You see the team.

At this point, even coming into the Lions, sitting down when I first had interviews and meeting our leadership team and thinking, “I didn’t necessarily come here thinking I was going to be interested in this job, but I just sat down. I do have the same vision and alignment with this leadership team now.” It makes a huge difference. It gives a huge satisfaction, whether you like your job, which is important, but how effective you can be.

For our audience, emphasizing that point is important because, for many of us, getting a certain in-house role or getting a certain title seems like the gold ring that you’re reaching for. That may be available at a place that you don’t want to have reached. As the legal executive, you need effective working relationships with the team in order to be able to share those opinions, get resources, and move the agenda forward. That team building and I don’t know if we call it executive presence, but being able to be a good colleague in leadership is important.

I agree.

We’re getting to the end of the time. I have to ask this because I start up by saying we’re Kansas City Chiefs fans. Everyone has been watching the Chiefs and all the excitement between Travis Kelsey and his girlfriend, Taylor Swift. When I see her in the suite, which is 4 or 5 times during the game, which I find very distracting, all I can think of is, “The general counsel of the Chiefs or whatever Stadium where they are, I feel bad for them having to have dealt with the team and her security team.” Do they have to get an extra insurance writer? Is my thought wrong or is there a part that the GC’s office would get involved in?

It depends on each team. The biggest headache at the lines at Ford Field would be not with the GC’s office. I’ll speak specifically to Taylor in a minute, but it would be with our head of security, our head of operations, and possibly our head of communications, so figuring out the ingress and egress.

You’re making sure sufficient security is on board. Whoever oversees security, that team has a heightened level of scrutiny on their operations. Some days you’re a security or some days you’re legal. You’re playing a certain team, division, and conference. In another game, you’re playing the former Super Bowl champions. You’re still playing the same game. It’s still the same expectation that everybody is safe, but there may be heightened scrutiny.

To your earlier point, you’d hate for something to happen on your home turf.

For me, God forbid, Taylor Swift comes in. Taylor is welcome here. In fact, I would say because I said I was going to speak to Taylor specifically. Taylor was at Ford Field in the summer for two nights of her tour, which was fabulous. One of the things that would make a GC or a head of security or head of marketing sleep better at night is that woman has her shit on point.

I was incredibly impressed with her tour and her operations team. I’m just dealing with them from a legal standpoint. While people do think of lawyers as adversarial. Whenever we deal with tours or vendors, when they are on top of their Ps and Qs, mindful of the details, and understand what they want and what they need, that makes my life easier as a lawyer because you’re dealing with peers at a certain level because we do this work every single time.

Back to relationships, if you have a difficult person or somebody who’s not available or responsive, and you’re trying to have the field and the venue ready and safe for their event, that’s not cool.

I would expect and I don’t know what her experience was and what everybody’s experienced was, but my expectation in dealing with her legal counsel on her tour would be that she has her security team on point. Her security team will call their head of security and head of operations, plan out ingress and egress, and plan out movements and security. She’ll have her own executive security. The NFL can cover it in whatever weird ways they want.

That’s good to hear. I’m glad you weren’t too burdened by that. One thing I don’t have the audience caught, in addition to supporting the team, you and your team are responsible for the venue of Ford Field, and that’s used for things other than the football game. It’s an interesting peek into what might be on your desk. It’s not just coaching contracts and whatnot. The last question that I asked all guests is, I’ve used music throughout my life and throughout my career. Especially during some hard times in my career, I listened to songs in the morning to get pumped up right into work before a tough meeting. I need to change my energy, so I ask all the guests, what is your pump-up song?

Music is a huge part of my life too. Choosing one song is hard. My focus song or my walk-up song is Ready or Not by the Fugees. It’s not necessarily my pump-up song, but it’s my focus in and crackdown. I have a whole playlist of pump-up music. It will roll, and whether it’s going to work in the morning or going someplace into a game, I will crank it up. Jay Z’s On to the Next One is on the rotation a lot. It will just get you in the mood, and you’ll roll into the next song on the playlist.

On your point about the playlist. In 2018, at USC, I had a playlist. That was my fight on the playlist, and the first song, I listened to every day in 2018 from May onward was Dirt Off Your Shoulder.

That’s awesome. I hope, pun intended, brush that one off periodically.

I sure do.

That’s awesome.

Maggy, thank you so much. This was a super fun. I enjoyed getting to know you better and hearing what you’re dealing with day-to-day.

Thank you for having me. Likewise, Stacy.

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