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Game 1 of 3: Warriors & Cavs GCs on Life as an NBA Lawyer

June 7, 2016, 1:42 PM

For the second year in a row, the NBA Finals pit the Golden State Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers and feature basketball’s two brightest stars: ascendant sharp shooter Stephen Curry and the league’s long-time “King,” LeBron James.

And for the second year in a row the team’s star lawyers — Jason Hillman, GC of the Cavs, and David Kelly, GC of the Warriors — are rooting for their respective teams on the court, and then rushing back to the office the next morning to make sure the teams are on their games off the court, too.

It’s not a small job. Though they’ve each got only one in-house lawyer reporting directly, Hillman and Kelly are in charge of protecting expensive organizations that are heavyweight players in their local communities and closely scrutinized by national media.

According to Forbes, the Cavaliers franchise was worth $915 million in 2015; the Warriors were worth $1.3 billion.

“The lights shine very brightly, so the stakes are enormous,” Hillman said. “You just can’t make a mistake, because there’s too much exposure.”

A graduate of Wayne State University Law School, Hillman has been GC of the Cavs since 2005. Kelly’s a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law, and spent eight years as a corporate lawyer at Katten Muchin Rosenman before coming to the Warriors in 2012.

In honor of the NBA Finals, we spoke with Hillman and Kelly on Monday about a host of topics: the legal challenges facing their teams, networking with other NBA GCs, managing outside law firms, diversity and inclusion, and (of course) basketball.

We’re publishing the interviews in three parts, but we won’t be keeping score: after going down two games to none on Sunday, the Cavs face an uphill battle as the best-of-seven series heads back to Cleveland for Game 3 on Wednesday, but both GCs are winners here.

Below is an edited transcript of “Game 1" of the interviews.

Big Law Business: What are the big legal issues an NBA team typically faces? What challenges are you facing this year?

Hillman: I think a lot of it depends on whether or not you’ve got operational control of your arena, as we do. Certainly if you’re in that position, you’ve got a different set of challenges and issues that come up day-to-day than if you were simply a tenant in a building for example.

I would say for us, and this is probably not unique to us, but looking at technology and data, and the increasing use of data and what we have the ability to learn about our customers, and making sure we us that data responsibly, is probably one of the things that I’m focusing on most heavily.

Kelly: The biggest issue that I have is probably different than most general counsels: the construction of the new arena in San Francisco . For the last couple of years I’ve been dealing with, first, the purchase of the land, then getting entitlement for the arena, now dealing with an environmental lawsuit trying to slow down or delay the arena. That should be resolved in next several months. That’s a significant chunk of my time: clearing all the legal hurdles associated with the arena.

Big Law Business: What’s the single most important attribute in an outside law firm?

Hillman: I think at our level, we know folks are going to be qualified in their respective skill area. For us, because of the type of operation that we have, there’s a heightened sense of urgency, so I think the single biggest characteristic that I look for is to make sure firms are going to be responsive, and responsive with a sense of urgency, when we have something come up.

Kelly: Being prompt with your response, even if it’s just to say, “Hey, I got your email and I’ll follow up when I have the answer” — I think that’s the biggest thing. A lot of times you’re trying to manage expectations on your side. I want counsel that’s going to be very prompt, that’s always going to respond, even if it’s just to tell me, “Cool your jets. I’ll get you a response later.”

Big Law Business: What’s the best thing about being an NBA GC? What’s most challenging?

Hillman: I think the best part about it for me, particularly as someone who loved sports growing up, is the notion of being on a team, literally and figuratively, and being in a competitive environment. It’s not to say that everything we do from a business perspective is necessarily marked by competition, but we’re in a competitive environment by nature, and so I think that’s enabled me to, quote unquote, stay in the game.

I think the most challenging aspect to it is the notion that so many of the things we do are public-facing, so the microscope is a little bigger, particularly for us, being a team in the finals the last couple of years. You know, the lights shine very brightly, so the stakes are enormous, and you just can’t make a mistake, because there’s too much exposure, too much at stake.

Kelly: The most rewarding thing is being part of the business decisions, and seeing part of the implementation of the advice that you give, and being able to live with it and see how it’s applied practically. I think that’s the most rewarding thing, in addition of course to the tickets.

The most challenging is probably the same thing: having to live with the advice that you give, and knowing that you have to be thinking from more than just a pure legal standpoint — truly from a practical standpoint of how it’s going to be implemented, knowing the personalities of the people you’re giving advice to, and knowing that sometimes it’s going to impact negatively the bottom line. It’s challenging having to give that advice and sometimes shut down or tweak something somebody wants to do.

Big Law Business: What’s the biggest “win” in your legal career?

Hillman: I’ll go off the board a little bit and say our city being awarded the [2016 GOP Convention]. While it maybe was not core legal, I was part of our team here at [Quicken Loans Arena] that worked on the city of Cleveland’s bid. The week that we were awarded the convention, that happened on a Tuesday, and the city was already on a major uptick. We got the convention, and you just had this sense of taking the evolution of the city to the next level.

Three days later LeBron announced he was coming home, and so having worked on that project, which is now almost 30-something days to fruition — that was probably one of the most satisfying projects that I was a small part of.

Kelly: I would say the StubHub lawsuit , which is on appeal, but we feel confident. Getting that resolved on a motion to dismiss was big, because it was big for us as a company, but was also big for the industry. As a corporate attorney, having to be involved with litigation that’s affecting the entire industry was a big deal.