Damon T. Jones – Vice President and Club Counsel – Washington Nationals
Chance2Chat is MCCA’s regular online interactive discussion. Each session features a legal luminary from the MCCA network. Participants may post questions prior to the start of the session, or as the session progresses. The exchanges may be read during the session; transcripts of previous chats are available online at www.tools.mcca.com/chatarchives.shtml.
The host of the May 2008 Chance2Chat was Damon T. Jones, Vice President and Club Counsel for the Washington Nationals. MCCA thanks Mr. Jones for participating in this event.
The transcript from this session follows.
Damon T. Jones
How did you become General Counsel for the Washington Nationals baseball team?
I came to the Washington Nationals from Williams & Connolly, a law firm here in Washington, D.C. At Williams & Connolly I did some complex litigation work and also some transactional work. In addition to that, I also did some baseball industry-specific work; so I was well-prepared, I think, for this kind of opportunity, although I didn’t particularly seek it out. Someone tipped me off that the Nationals had an opening for a lawyer and so I looked into it a little bit, because I thought it was a position that would be interesting to me. I found my way to one of the senior executives here and asked that person whether the job was still open, whether it was for real. At the time there was a posting for a more junior position like a staff position; so we sort of agreed that if a general counsel level position ever came open, I would be a good candidate for that job. But that wasn’t the idea at the time. Five or six weeks later they changed their mind and called me. And I went through an extensive interview process and ended up getting the job.
In what area or areas should an attorney focus if he/she wants to become a General Counsel?
That’s an interesting question, because I think the nature of a general counsel position is to be very broad in scope. I think there are a number of different ways to prepare well for this job. There’s probably no single way that will prepare you completely for this kind of a job because, in my job, I can literally see any kind of issue on any given day, whether it’s a baseball related issue, a business related issue, or something that is common to sorts of all business organizations like labor and employment issues.
What worked well for me is that I had some litigation experience, was familiar with the litigation process, and the tasks and skills that you come across in a litigation context. I also had experience in a trans-actional context because I was negotiating and papering deals on a regular basis, and had a sense of the rhythm of thatprocess.
So, I think the most important thing to do to prepare for a position like this is to learn very well whatever it is you’re doing in a legal context, because it will surely come to bear in a job like this. I think broad exposure is probably the best preparation, although there are a lot of ways to do that.
Do you think that law school adequately prepared you for the practice of law?
Yes and no. Obviously, law school gives you enhanced analytical abilities and a great deal of substantive knowledge that will serve as the foundation for a strong legal career. As almost anyone who’s practiced law before knows, however, law school doesn’t expose you to the broad range of skills and practical circumstances that you will face as a lawyer. So you need the strong foundation that you get from law school, but a lot of what you need, I think, also can only come from practicing law. If one is lucky, the practice of law will be conducted under the tutelage of very wise and experienced attorneys so you can pick up some of the nuances of how to be a great lawyer.
What is the most important skill/quality that you think a lawyer should possess?
I think the most important quality of a lawyer is judgment. At the end of the day, what people hire a lawyer for is judgment. Someone who obviously has the knowledge of the law and can analyze particular situations and communicate clearly about those situations, but there are some other ancillary skills that I think are very important. At the end of the day, you have to take all that information in a specific context; and this is whether you are in-house counsel or whether you are representing a client in another context.
You’ve got to exercise some judgment about a particular question or a particular circumstance, and advise people from a practical point of view of what to do. So I think without question, judgment is the most important quality that a lawyer should possess. Good judgment will serve a lawyer well in whatever job he or she is in.
Do you have a mentor? If so, how did you obtain your mentor?
I think I’ve had a few. I obtain my mentors mainly from just connecting with someone wherever I was. So whether that was in law school, sort of making sure I connected well with at least one or two professors and developed a relationship with them such that I could go back and ask them for guidance, ask them for suggestions. When I served as a clerk for a judge, I think that was where I developed one of my most important mentor/mentee relationships. While I was practicing at Williams & Connolly, one of the partners there served as a really good mentor to me as well. So there have been a few people along the way; but it is really about working hard, doing good work for someone, showing them that you have the passion and dedication to help them do their job or make their job easier, and sort of from there connecting with the person and developing a relationship that will serve you in the years to come.
Were your mentors also African American, or did you have mentors of different ethnicities and genders?
I had a variety of mentors. Some were African American. Some were not. That’s the short answer, I think. That’s probably a topic of discussion for an entire chat in and of itself.
Did you find it harder to connect with your non-African American mentors, and what techniques did you use to connect with them?
I wouldn’t necessarily say I found it harder to connect with non-African American mentors. This may sound a little inconsistent, but I might say it was a little easier, maybe a little more natural sometimes, to connect with an African American mentor. Partly just because, on a personal basis, sometimes you hit it off really quickly. But I think good people are good people. So if you are fortunate enough to end up in places where you are working with good people and interesting people,you just connect with people on whatever you have in common. Most of the time there’s plenty that is there, whether it’s sports, politics, the law, or whatever is going on in your personal life. People are people for the most part.
I think that if there’s any technique—I’m not sure I consciously used any technique—I think it would just be to try to be yourself and be personable, and sort of chat people up and connect with people at a personal level no matter who they are. If you can do that, if you have some reasonable skill in doing that, I think you have a good ability to connect with mentors wherever you are so long as you are working with good, fair-minded people. In my case, I was fortunate enough to work in those kinds of places with those kinds of people.
Approximately how many hours do you work a week?
There are some weeks where I probably put in 80 hours and some where I put in 40. I think as a general rule—I’ve been here almost a year—as a general rule, during the period leading up to April 1, I worked a ton of hours because we were trying to get the stadium constructed and do everything that comes along with opening a new stadium in a very, very compressed period of time. And I was the only lawyer in the building. I didn’t have any help. I could use outside counsel to some extent, but internally here, I was the only lawyer.
During that period, I was extremely busy. Since we opened the ballpark, it’s still been busy, but I’ve been better able to manage my workload and my schedule, so I have had more of the sort of 40- to 50-hour weeks since that time. One of the wild cards in my job is the fact that we have a lot of night games; and I’m here for a lot of the games. I don’t know whether you count those hours sometimes; but if you count all those hours, it is a busy job. I’m here a lot.
The Nationals have a new stadium in D.C. What were some of the legal challenges in getting the stadium constructed, and what role did you play in overcoming these challenges?
That’s a tough question. You have the pure construction-related issues, which I was involved in to some extent but also there were large pieces that I was not involved in because the thing was being built by the time I got here. Construction was well underway. There were some construction-related issues, but for the most part, that didn’t take up a huge part of my week during the construction phase. I think for me what was much more significant was all of the other business-related issues that come along with opening a new stadium. As an example, I was doing everything from telecom deals in order to get the stadium up and running from the phone systems, to the cellular towers, to the wireless Internet providers, to the provision of all kinds of specialized telecommunications services that were required to be run once the stadium opened. That stuff is more closely construction-related.
At a broader level, almost all of the business issues related to the baseball were keyed to the opening of the stadium. When we finished the 2007 season at RFK [Stadium], we had it keyed so that almost all of our sponsorship relationships terminated or expired so that we had almost our entire inventory open and had to be filled during the off-season between 2007–2008. That would include over 100 sponsorship relationships that had to be consummated during that period of time. That’s not a purely construction-related issue; but there probably are a dozen different major business areas where we faced those kind of circumstances because everything changes when you move into a new stadium. All the luxury suite deals have to be done. Your premium club deals have to be done. You have a lot of intellectual property issues that go along with opening a new stadium. Even things as searching, clearing the name of the stadium and going through the required lead processes there.
There are a ton of labor and employment issues. And then agreements with everybody from our facilities management company to—for us transportation companies that had to help us get people to the ballpark in an efficient way. There’s just a thousand different things that went into it.
So I’m not sure that I would give you a long list of pure construction issues. I think a lot of that was under way when I got here. Before the team was sold to the Lerner family, the league cut the deal with the District of Columbia in order to construct the stadium. There have been some issues along the way, but for the most part it was dealing with all the business issues that come along with opening a new ballpark. That’s aside from some of the regular stuff that goes on in terms of getting the baseball contracts done, dealing with other things around here that have to happen no matter whether you are in a new stadium or not.
The Nationals are a team/business, but also part of a “league.” What’s the legal significance of being part of a league and how does that impact you?
Major League Baseball, you can think of it as sort of an umbrella organization, and as a result, the 30 major league clubs are signatories to a variety of agreements and other legal documents that govern the actions of each individual club. So you have, at a basic level, the collective bargaining agreement that the teams collectively sign with the players’ union. You have the Major League rules, which govern everything from baseball operations to a variety of other topics. You have the major league constitution. You have agreements that relate to the minor leagues and how those business are supposed to be done, and then you have certain divisions of Major League Baseball that have jurisdiction over certain business and/or legal subject matter areas. For example, baseball properties plays a significant role in managing the use of the intellectual property of individual clubs and enforcing the rights of individual clubs against third parties. As a result, there’s a complex agreement that we have to adhere to in terms of how we use our marks.
We have to be careful to follow all of those rules. We can’t just go off and do something that maybe an entity that is not tied to a league could do on its own. It is the same thing with interactive media rights, Internet rights, and so forth. There is a complex agreement among the 30 major league clubs and Major League Baseball advanced media, which is a division of Major League Baseball that governs the use of club materials in interactive media. Again, we’re not always able to license or to make certain uses on our own. We have to work through the league to get certain things done.
The league issues all kind of bulletins on all kinds of topics, like with whom you can and cannot enter into sponsorship agreements. Some guidelines about how your concession agreements should work and so on. It is an interesting structure, because you are cooperating with the other 29 major league clubs on a lot of different levels; but then they’re also your competitors on a lot of different levels. The league is there, I think, to serve our interests or to serve the interests of the game; but in particular circumstances our interests may not be particularly aligned or we want to do something the league does not want us to do. There’s sort of an overlaid structure where you’ve got to deal with the league, and sometimes the other clubs, in certain business contexts.
How large is your legal staff?
I have an assistant counsel and what we call a trainee here, which is a local law student who has a paid part-time position that’s pretty much year-round. And then I have two summer interns and have an executive assistant. Which is all much better than the state of affairs that existed for my first six months on the job, when I was a one-man legal department.
How do you motivate your staff?
I think I motivate my staff by trying to give them interesting projects, by learning what it is that they like to do, what they’re interested in, and give them enough projects in those areas. I also motivate them by giving them significant responsibility in areas where I think they can handle it, and by supporting them with the resources that they need and with access to me so that when they’re doing something, they always feel like they’re not just out there on an island trying to figure everything out, but that they can come to me and ask questions or pose ideas. They may have other people who can help them get their job done efficiently. That sort of thing.
Those are the basics. I’m still figuring out what the best way to motivate my staff is; but I would say that my approach so far is to give them stuff that’s interesting, give them a lot of responsibility, and try to support them the best I can.
If your colleagues had to use three words to describe you, what would they be?
I would say probably detail-oriented, principled, and fair. . . In a dynamic business environment such as this one, people want to do a lot of things and accomplish a lot of objectives, and they don’t often have a strong sense of the legal considerations. So I have to pay attention to details when things come across my desk or when people come in and ask me questions, because often I’m the only one who will pay attention to the details. As we all know, the devil sometimes is in the details. So, I think people probably think I’m pretty detail-oriented.
And I do think, consistent with what we discussed earlier about judgment, being principled is very important, because there are 800 things going on here at any given moment, 400 of which somebody wants my opinion on or requires my participation in the process to get it done. And I have to have a sense of principles and a sense of what we should and should not be doing; and what kind of liberties we should be taking and what kind we shouldn’t be taking, because otherwise you have too many things going on and too many ways to fall into traps. I hope people think I’m principled and don’t raise objections for the sake of raising objections, but that I try to think carefully about why we need to push back on certain things or even internally as I push back against other departments on selected items. I hope that people believe that I try to do that in a fair way that does not compromise the interests of the organization, but also tries to help people around here get things done and face the challenges that they face every day.
What would you say are the top diversity issues facing your organization and MLB in general?
I think Major League Baseball and the Nationals, as with all similar organizations, face a challenge in diversifying its workforce and maintaining a diverse, talented workforce. My guess is that Major League Baseball is probably ahead of other similar industries or organizations on diversity, particularly in sports; particularly when you look at the front office, the league, and those sorts of things.
But there’s still more work to be done. I know that it is a priority of the league. At the team level here, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of having a diverse front office, and that’s something that I think we’ll continue to try to do consistent with finding talented capable people who have experience and can add tremendous value in their areas of responsibility.
I think baseball also faces an issue—and this has been widely publicized in a document recently—with African Americans in particular, and that’s in terms of drawing fans to games, in the front office, and in the player ranks. There’s been a tremendous drop in the number of African Americans who are playing in the major leagues; and I think for some time now, the attendance numbers have been a little alarming probably in terms of the number of African Americans who attend games.
So, I think obviously Major League Baseball faces a lot of different challenges. That is just one of them. But I think in terms of diversity, if you are asking what major challenges that Major League Baseball faces, that’s got to be one of them.
In your present capacity, have you had the opportunity to authorize outsourcing of legal work to minority firms?
Yes and no. I inherited a situation here where there are established relationships with a number of law firms in select subject-matter areas, and a situation in which I faced a tremendous workload in a very short period of time. Again, most of this was keyed to the opening of the stadium, so I had to use whatever resources were sitting there at my disposal to get my work done. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t asked questions. For example, even when I’m dealing with an established law firm that the Lerner family has a long history with, I ask them what their numbers are, what their approach to diversity is, and I gather information.
I think as time goes on, I will certainly have an opportunity, as a need arises in different areas, to hire new law firms, and that will certainly be one of the factors that I consider strongly in that process.
There has been a lot of discussion about the use of performance-enhancing substances in baseball for the past few years. What effect, if any, have some of the congressional inquiries or charges brought against players had on your practice?
Unfortunately, by the time I arrived, the work—the behind-the-scenes work that went into the Mitchell report, for example—had already been completed. So whatever process the league and its outside counsel undertook to gather information from individual clubs, particularly documents, had already happened by the time I got here. I’ve heard bits and pieces about that process, but to be honest with you, it really hasn’t had a major effect on my daily existence since I’ve been here. I’m sure that I’ll have stuff that will pop up and it is an area that I need to know well, but as a practical matter I sort of missed that stuff by about six months.
I won’t speak for any other GCs, but I think as in-house counsel, you are getting document requests and requests for interviews and those sorts of things, and you have to sort through what documents you have, what you can turn over, and what you can’t. I know there were privacy issues with medical documentation.
I’m sure each club had individual considerations in terms of the extent of the cooperation that was given; but that’s just sort of being on the outside in looking at whatever process I could ascertain.
Are there any programs going on in MLB or outreach underway to increase participation levels of women in management?
I’m not aware of any [but] this is not to say one doesn’t exist. I’m not aware of any specific programs at the league level or here at the Nationals. I know that as I look around our front office, we have some pretty good participation. I’m personally of the view that women should have a lot more opportunities to work in the business of sports; and I do think they bring a healthy perspective to it. I think it is interesting, fun work and it shouldn’t be dominated by one group. I don’t think that’s fair.
It is something that I think should happen more and more. I know there are a good number of women, at least in the general counsel role. I think there is one president of a major league club who is a female.
I don’t think that there has never been a woman general manager of a baseball club, but there is at least one and maybe two who are knocking on the door. In particular, I’m thinking of one, her name is Kim Ng. I believe she is the assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers at the moment. She was with the Yankees before that. I hope that is something we will see more of over the years and I look forward to the day when Kim and other women are able to break through that barrier.
Is it important or necessary to have an interest in sports to become counsel to a sports team?
I think it is probably not necessary; I’m not sure whether I categorize it as important. I’m tempted to say yes because I think to know what’s going on, to have a full appreciation for things, and to be able to react quickly to issues, it is good to have a strong interest in the sport in which you’re working.
In my position, quite honestly, on the business operations side, you could probably know very little about baseball and do an excellent job in my role. I do have some baseball operations responsibilities, so it is important for me that I know the game extremely well and follow it very closely; but it is certainly possible. I’m sure this is the case with some teams that the general counsel doesn’t have any baseball operations responsibilities, so that might be much less important.
But I think it is certainly more interesting, more fun, and you can react more quickly and have a broader perspective if you are interested in sports at least and, in particular, the sport in which you work.
Why do they stop selling beer at the 7th-inning stretch?
I can only give a common-sense answer to that question. Again, that’s something that predated me in terms of the league-wide or team-specific decision to stop selling beer after the 7th inning stretch. I can say when I was a child growing up in the Bay area, I would go to San Francisco Giants games—and there’s a fierce rivalry between the Dodgers and Giants that dates back to New York. On several occasions when I was younger, much to my horror, I saw people who were in Candlestick Park wearing Dodgers gear after the 7th inning who were not treated very well. And I saw fights and all kinds of things, most of which took place between people that consumed too much alcohol after the 7th-inning stretch. I think that’s probably a smart thing to do. You may have others, too, like dram shop liability and that sort of thing, but I think as a practical matter it is probably hard to argue against that rule.
Why don’t they show controversial replays on the scoreboard?
I don’t know the answer to that question. I could give a common-sense answer to it. I don’t know. My sense is that there may be a rule on that; but I am not privy to the rule. Obviously, probably to protect the umpires; and, therefore, protect the integrity of the on-field process would be one reason. I’m not aware of a specific rule on that question, whether it is just sort of a custom and practice that’s developed.
Would you say that this is the best job you have ever had?
I would. I think it is the most interesting job I ever had. The diversity of issues is tremendous. Also, given that I’m a longtime baseball fan and have followed the business of baseball closely for many years, it is a unique opportunity for me to be directly involved. It is something that I love. And then in addition to that, I think it gives me a good platform for community service, too, especially in a city like D.C. where there are opportunities to mentor kids. I enjoy programs that are tied into inner-city baseball, Little League baseball, and all those sorts of things. All that stuff I can wrap into one position, so I would say this is the best job I’ve ever had. DB
|Be sure to read other chat transcripts available from the MCCA Web site! Recent sessions include:|
MARCH 2008—Phylliss A. DelGreco, Associate General Counsel and Senior Vice President, Citigroup, Inc.
JANUARY 2008—Diane Cruz-Burke, Associate General Counsel, Eli Lilly and Company
NOVEMBER 2007—Lael Bellamy, Director—Legal, The Home Depot
SEPTEMBER 2007—Robin Sangston, Vice President and Associate General Counsel, Cox Communications
JULY 2007—John Lewis Jr., Senior Managing Attorney—Litigation, The Coca-Cola Company
From the September/October 2008 issue of Diversity & The Bar®