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Mets Elevate Two Veteran In-House Lawyers to Co-General Counsel

Aug. 3, 2021, 9:31 AM

The New York Mets have named James Denniston and Jessica Villanella as co-general counsel after the departure of former legal chief David Cohen.

Denniston has been senior counsel for the team since 2013. The Mets hired Denniston, a former sponsorship and licensing contracts employee for Major League Baseball, as a legal counsel in 2008, the team’s final year playing at Shea Stadium.

Villanella joined the Mets as a legal counsel in 2014 after she spent nearly a year as an associate at Jackson Lewis in Melville, N.Y. She had previously interned in the general counsel’s office at the National Hockey League in New York.

The Mets appointed the legal group co-leaders after David Cohen, no relation to new Mets owner Steven Cohen, left the organization amid an internal inquiry into the club’s workplace culture.

The team hired the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, which has become a popular firm for corporate investigations, after several former Mets employees were accused of inappropriate conduct with different women—some who worked for the organization and others employed in sports media.

Harold Kaufman, a Mets spokesman, confirmed to Bloomberg Law that Denniston and Villanella took on their new roles as of July 9. The Major League Baseball franchise, sold last year to Cohen, a hedge fund mogul, in a $2.4 billion deal, currently sit in first place in the National League East.

Denniston and Villanella both work from the Mets’ corporate offices in Flushing, N.Y., site of the team’s home ballpark, 42,000-seat Citi Field. Neither lawyer responded to requests for comment about their new in-house legal roles.

Villanella, who the Mets promoted to senior counsel in 2016, is married to Alessandro “Alex” Villanella, a Melville-based labor and employment litigation partner at Jackson Lewis. The latter is a firm that employs of counsel Randy Levine, who is also president of the Mets’ crosstown rival New York Yankees.

In March, ahead of MLB’s Opening Day, the Mets hired ex-Katten Muchin Rosenman associate Ennis Coble as counsel and former Barclays Capital Inc. director of banking legal Jane Son as a director of community engagement and the team’s foundation.

David Cohen, who began working for the Mets as a law school intern in 1995, spent years as the club’s general counsel before being promoted to chief legal officer in 2019. That same year the Mets promoted longtime deputy general counsel Neal Kaplan—he spent nearly a decade in the role—to general counsel.

Kaplan, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, became vice president of strategy for the Mets in February. He’s spent nearly 19 years with the team, which hired Kaplan as a legal counsel in 2003 and promoted him to senior counsel in 2007.

The Mets, whose new ownership has improved the team’s finances while making some big-name player acquisitions, had for years been known for making disastrous deals and floundering on and off the field.

The club from Queens owes its very existence to late New York lawyer William Shea, who worked to secure an MLB expansion team in 1962 that incorporated the respective blue and orange of the Dodgers and Giants, teams that fled for California.

In May, Shea’s grandson, F. Scott Shea, scored a new legal job of his own. The former partner at New York’s Duval & Stachenfeld left his role as a managing director and legal chief for Pasadena, Calif.-based real estate investor CMR Capital Group LLC to become general counsel for Hong Kong’s Hopson Development Holdings Ltd.

To contact the reporter on this story: Brian Baxter in New York at bbaxter@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes in Washington at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com

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