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What’s it like to have a legal role in sport? We chat to Rod Findlay

April 3, 2018

In this edition of “Downtime”, Miguel talks to Rod Findlay, Director of Business & Legal Services at England Golf about how he has blended his enthusiasm for all things athletic with his legal role in sport, how a diverse group of mentors have influenced the former rugby CEO and discovers the formula for the optimum number of bikes a cycling enthusiast should have at home…

Before your legal role in sport, what attracted you to being a lawyer in the first place?

I wasn’t sure what to study at university. My school ran a Law Aptitude Test and I got a really good mark. I researched law degrees and I was interested in the subject. I then took a sabbatical during university as President of the Students’ Union. During that year I led on a rewriting of our Constitution; negotiating the management takeover of the union building; and a staff restructure. All legal issues and I decided a career involving law was for me.

What factors made you choose to work in a legal role in sport with England Golf?

I previously held a similar role to my current one, as Head of Legal at the Rugby Football League (RFL). Towards the end, I realised that it would be an advantage for in-house lawyers to have wider business experience. Having obtained that as CEO of two professional rugby league clubs and in Sport England, my current legal role in sport allowed me to use that wider experience alongside my 20+ years as a lawyer.

What particularly positive things keep you engaged there?

The variety of work. On any given day, I can be advising on organisational mergers; our Articles of Association; governance at England Golf or within the sport; employment law; complex commercial contracts; sponsorship agreements; or regulatory matters.

I think that many people have a false impression of the sports industry. I’m not playing golf all day! We face the same legal issues as any business with a £9m turnover and 100+ employees but we also face two other challenges. First, as the governing body for the sport, we also need to regulate an industry with 1900 clubs and 650,000 individual members. Second, this is all done in the public eye. A legal role in sport would equip anyone with excellent experience to move within the sport/entertainment sector, the third sector or into any commercial organisation.

How has the organisation changed since you joined?

England Golf has focussed more on delivering its strategy and has also become more commercial. This has meant more volume legal work and better quality. Similar to my time at RFL, an organisation taking on its first in house counsel is a huge step. I was able to use my experience to make that transition smooth and to identify legal issues that had previously not been noticed. In four years we’ve gone from just me at England Golf, to recruiting a full-time lawyer and a full time paralegal. I also manage the HR, safeguarding and company secretarial functions. I also manage our external lawyers, which has become more important as we face some technical issues requiring specialist support.

How has the organisation helped you in your current role?

The organisation has invested a lot in me. I’ve received executive coaching, which was challenging but hugely rewarding. England Golf also enrolled me as a student member of ICSA: The Governance Institute, and I was able to get partial exemption in my student Company Secretary qualifications. Equally, England Golf has also given me time. They appointed me to the Board at the Ladies Golf Union (LGU) and supported my joining the charitable Mountain Training Trust as a Trustee.

How did the coaching come about and how do you feel you benefited from it?

It was suggested as part of an annual review. I was positive about it from the off as I’ve known a few people get executive coaching and I know how beneficial they found it. I think the softer skills are something most lawyers aren’t trained in. If you wanted to improve your golf swing you’d engage a coach. And it was suggested in a positive way, around improving my effectiveness in a complex organisation. The initial few sessions were tough work – hearing the 360 review – but overall it’s been immensely helpful and colleagues have commented on its impact.

What particular projects have you enjoyed working on most and why?

At the LGU in 2016, I led on the legal negotiations on its merger with the R&A, the world governing body for golf. That was unique, challenging, but hugely rewarding as it will have a long term benefit for the sport, and in particular women’s golf. Closer to home, in 2017, I also led a Governance review at England Golf to be compliant with the Code for Sports Governance, which mirrors the UK Corporate Governance Code. Most recently, I signed off on detailed commercial contracts for our CRM and website builds.

Who’s been the most influential to you in your career?

I wouldn’t like to say one person as I’ve worked for and with some brilliant people and I try to learn from all of them. My formative years were at Mills & Reeve, where I owe a debt to every supervisor I had and to my Training Principal, Justin Ripman, whose approach I tried to adopt when I supervised trainees. Gay Wilder at Beachcrofts taught me the importance of integrity and the need for accuracy. I’ve also been very fortunate to be able to learn from great organisational leaders, such as Richard Lewis (then at the RFL and now at Wimbledon) and Jennie Price at Sport England.

What piece(s) of practical advice would you give to someone looking to join the legal profession?

The law is a huge field and you should take the time to find out which bits of it really interest you. And don’t be afraid of this changing. All I wanted to be was a litigator when I was training but I deliberately evolved my career into a more rounded practice after 12 years of Court work. Most importantly, the legal profession is hugely competitive and you need both to be proactive in your career and to take new opportunities when they come along.

What do you like to do when you’re not in the office?

I really enjoy sport although I wish my sporting talent matched my enthusiasm! Cycling and running are my main sports and I enter several bike races and the Great North Run every year. I love the outdoors and, after speaking to you, I’m off to the Lake District. I also play golf, naturally. Also, where I live, I can enjoy its different cultural festivals and music/theatre on offer in the town or nearby York and Leeds.

What song was No1 when you qualified?

I finished my training contract on 3 October 1993, with ‘Boom! Shake the Room’ by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince as number one. But I didn’t get admitted until November, by which time Meat Loaf’s ‘I’ll do anything for love (but I won’t do that)’ had taken the top spot. I can be forever grateful to the Law Society for the speed of processing my application so that I didn’t have to answer Mr Blobby!

What was your first non-legal job?

Unlike some, mine came after I qualified as a lawyer. I went into sports club management, being approached by a club owner to become CEO at a rugby league club in the second tier of the sport. My success there led to the RFL recommending me for the CEO position at a Super League club.

If you could spend an hour with anyone the world of business, politics or entertainment, who would it be? What would you ask them?

As a student I really admired much of Lord Denning’s Judgments and the consequential development of the common law. That would have been a fascinating hour. I’d also like to spend an hour with Lance Armstrong to get the real story on doping at the Tour de France, the side of the sport that spoils the enjoyment.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Bikes. I struggle to walk past a bike shop without calling in. Every cyclist knows that the number of bikes you need is N + 1, where N is the number you have at the moment!

What’s the most interesting/enjoyable book you’ve read in the last year.

I’ve just finished ‘The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto’ by Mitch Albom, which was definitely a page turnover. A fictional biography weaving in real musicians.

Do you have a hidden talent?

Too well hidden… even from me!

Favourite film or play.

I’ve probably seen ‘When Harry Met Sally’ more than any other film. I also love ‘Casablanca’.

Favourite book.

I don’t know how people choose just one book for Desert Island Discs. I’ve joined an online book club and get sent a new one every month.

Favourite gadget.

My iPhone X. I was given a Compaq Ipaq many years ago by our IT supplier and I’ve been addicted to electronic gadgets ever since.

Favourite restaurant.

Nando’s judging by my expense receipts! But probably William & Victoria or Jinnah – both in Harrogate – or Den Anker in Cape Town.

Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?

I love Cape Town. I used to go every March for the Cape Town Cycle Tour (“the Argus”) or the 8 day mountain bike race, The Cape Epic. Next is the Lake District, which I love.

Your default tipple is…?

South African Sauvignon Blanc. I’ve been to a few of the vineyards there too.

Top 3 things on your “bucket-list”?

Probably one more tilt at the Cape Epic. Machu Pichu. One of the world’s great train rides.

Most embarrassing moment?

As if…

What would you do if you won the lottery?

I could do an interview solely on my plans for when I win the Lottery. Amongst the things I’d like to, I’d probably establish a charitable sport foundation, akin to a fantastic programme for the benefit of the children in the Kayamandi township in Stellenbosch. A few years ago, I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with Songo Fipaza and then mountain bike riding with him and the children in his squads. The dedication he puts into his work is inspiring.

What 3 things would rush to save if your office was on fire?

I’m trying to be paper free, so my MacBook Pro. Having said that, my other two things would be my Mont Blanc notebook and pen! The other influence Justin Ripman had on my career was a brand affiliation with Mont Blanc.

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