Sports Law Clinic Takes Students Inside the Game

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When Alex Tamin ’95 heads to Dodger Stadium these days, he is not going to gorge on Dodger Dogs or snag foul balls as souvenirs. He is going to work.

As the Los Angeles Dodgers’ director of baseball operations since 2011, Tamin works on salary arbitrations, player analysis, and rules and procedures for the boys in blue. It is a dream job rooted in the semester he spent in UCLA School of Law’s sports law clinic. The course uses America’s billion-dollar sports industry as a foundation for teaching transactional and advocacy skills through mock exercises involving elite athletes and their teams.

“I would not be here today without it,” says Tamin on a bright and warm afternoon at the ballpark.

Looking out over the emerald field a few steps from his office, Tamin traces a direct line to Chavez Ravine from a clinic assignment for which he analyzed a fictional player’s statistics and prepared an arbitration argument with the help of an industry mentor. That mentor, attorney Mark Rosenthal, wound up hiring Tamin, and they went on to develop one of the nation’s go-to practices for player salary arbitrations, where athletes and teams seek to finalize their contracts under baseball’s collective bargaining agreement. Now Tamin returns to UCLA Law each year to advise the next generation of aspiring sports executives.

“The clinic is terrific,” he says, “because it’s a real-world exercise.”

Law School All-Stars

That was the vision of UCLA Law professor Steve Derian, who founded the sports law course — now part of UCLA Law’s Ziffren Center for Media, Entertainment, Technology and Sports Law — in 1989 at the behest of students who saw a gap in the curriculum of a school surrounded by championship teams and the entertainment industry. Ever the competitor, Derian — a former football player and star left fielder at Cal, who had worked as a practicing attorney on matters related to sports — gladly stepped up to the plate.

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UCLA Law's Steve Derian and former L.A. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak in 2008.

The result has been a hit. For nearly three decades, Derian has honed an innovative curriculum that blends negotiation and advocacy drills with traditional lessons on relevant issues including antitrust, labor law, Title IX and compensation for college athletes. “A sports lawyer is any lawyer who has a client involved in sports,” he says. “So the field is very broad, which is reflected in the variety of the exercises.”

Every spring, 18 students engage in a series of assignments through which they get a broad view of the subject. In weekly skills exercises, they practice contract drafting and negotiation. Semester-long projects test students’ written and oral skills as advocates for players, teams or companies, making the many kinds of deals on which sports businesses and leagues are founded. And casebook-based lectures culminate in a standard final exam on substantive law.

But the highlights come when Derian brings in industry leaders to coach students. Along with Tamin, many execs have donated their time and expertise, including former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak and longtime Dodgers general counsel Sam Fernandez. In addition, several top agents have been regular participants: Joel Wolfe; Alanna Frisby Hernandez; Debbie Spander ’95; and Jeff Austin ’80, who represents the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry.

This spring, as his team geared up for another run at an NBA championship, Warriors GM Bob Myers called in to the classroom to offer instruction. A lawyer and member of UCLA’s 1995 NCAA champion basketball team, Myers cautioned students playing the roles of agents and team bosses to have their “player comps” — the salaries of similar stars — available during their faux negotiations and to be prepared for talks to take unexpected turns. “How much are you willing to spend?” he asked them. “Where do you stop?”

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L.A. Dodgers exec Alex Tamin '95 advises students as Steve Derian observes.

Several weeks later, for the first time in the clinic’s history, a pro athlete consulted with his UCLA Law student “agents,” when Oakland A’s shortstop Marcus Semien joined students via FaceTime. They shared their analyses of his statistics, and he offered his insights on the agent-player relationship.

Such opportunities go over big with students, who relish learning “a huge amount of practical skills in a unique and exciting manner,” says Shelby Miner ’17, who leaped at the chance to represent her favorite team, the Warriors. A former competitive gymnast, Miner is entering the Army JAG Corps, where her daily work will not involve athletics, but she expects the abilities she learned in the class to be key. “Many law schools don’t provide a lot of training in transactional skills.”

While some alumni of the course do become agents — Merhawi Keflezighi ’06, brother of the famed marathoner Meb Keflezighi, is one — others, like Miner, continue to follow more traditional paths. For all, Derian emphasizes, learning how to draft contracts or deliver oral arguments is prized, and his syllabus reflects UCLA Law’s focus on clinical training. The goal is to produce skilled lawyers more than sports lawyers. “I’m giving students the opportunity to participate in experiential education using a subject matter that they’re excited about,” he says. “So they work harder and they learn more.”

‘A Childhood Dream Come True’

At Dodger Stadium, Tamin reflects on a path that took him from little leaguer to lawyer at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell to baseball exec.

“My parents have a picture of me when I was 6 or 8, on the floor in an airport somewhere, reading box scores,” he says. “I’m not sure why, but I always loved baseball. And this journey really did continue in and through Steve’s sports law class. It was directly applicable to the arbitration work that I did with the firm, and then the arbitration work that we do here.”

Tamin takes an elevator into the clubhouse and walks past walls decorated with jerseys, trophies and photos of all the greats — Koufax, Drysdale, Lasorda, Valenzuela, Scully.

“It is an amazing feeling to have your office at Dodger Stadium,” he adds. “That’s a childhood dream come true.”