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What it takes to succeed as a woman in sports law

Women sports have reached inspiring new levels of popularity and support in Australia, and behind that meteoric rise are dedicated and passionate women lawyers – but what does it take for them to succeed in a position that not only barely existed two decades ago but has also historically been known to be a male-dominated area?

user iconNaomi Neilson 30 January 2024 Big Law
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For more than two decades, Football Australia’s general counsel, Mel Mallam, witnessed the change in not only the status of women athletes on the field but the role of women behind the scenes, too – including the legal practitioners who create and execute major deals.

“I think something we as a nation of sports lovers should be really proud of is that we have not just Football Australia with a female general counsel, but Tennis Australia has a female general counsel, and so does Cricket Australia,” Ms Mallam told Lawyers Weekly.

“To have three women in the most senior legal positions in three pre-eminent and iconic sports for Australia is incredible.”

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At 16, Ms Mallam said she scored her first sports role as a public relations manager with her local surf club. She was the only woman on a committee for what was a very male-dominated sport.

From there, Ms Mallam would go on to work at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, see her first Women’s World Cup in Germany as a FIFA employee in 2011, and then take part in the success that was the Matildas’ in the 2023 World Cup back here in Australia.

At the time of the Olympics, Ms Mallam’s first professional sports job, this area of law “wasn’t really recognised as a standalone profession”.

“I got many questions when I first started studying, like ‘why would you do that? Why not do something like business and law, economics and law, arts and law?’ Then, in 23 years’ time, it’s absolutely a recognised and standalone profession and career,” Ms Mallam said.

Mel Mallam said that being part of the Matildas’ success was “indescribable”.

Much like Ms Mallam, partner and head of Lander & Rogers’ sport and leisure group, Amelia Lynch, said sports law was not a big career pathway until several years into her career – and had even been told at university that sports law “was not a real law subject”.

Hearing about the Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association (ANZSLA) – which not only promoted job opportunities but arranged networking opportunities – had a hand in changing Ms Lynch’s pathway, as did her professional connection with a former partner of Landers who had worked within the sports law team.

“Luckily, the perception of sports law has changed significantly since then, and the pathway to practise has become much clearer, which has been wonderful for attracting new talent to the field,” she said.

Now, 15 years later, Ms Lynch leads the team.

“The people who work in sports are generally passionate, hard-working and respectful,” Ms Lynch told Lawyers Weekly.

“We work hard, and so do our clients – it’s great to be able to make a contribution to the objectives of the organisations that operate sport at all levels throughout Australia.

“It’s an industry that’s all about relationships, connection and sharing our mutual passion, which is a wonderful thing to be a part of.”

Working within a law firm, Ms Lynch said she spends the bulk of her day speaking to and spending time with clients – her favourite part of the job – in addition to coordinating with administrations and board members of organisations and advising on sports-related issues.

“I am also lucky that I get to attend sports events and call it ‘work!’,” Ms Lynch said.

Over on the in-house side, Ms Mallam said there are a lot of the same pressures – and it is “not the glamour that I think people imagine it to be” because lawyers are expected to not only work hard but meet tight deadlines enforced by kick-off times and television schedules.

“While it is absolutely exciting, there’s an added sense of pressure and expectation,” Ms Mallam clarified.

Being part of last year’s Women’s World Club, however, was a “life-altering and out-of-body experience”, Ms Mallam explained.

“To see where I’ve come from, to know where we are now, to have followed the Matildas and been part of their rise and the rise of women’s sport and women’s football, it’s indescribable.

“I have had a triple whammy in that I’m working in sports, which is male-dominated; in law, which is male-dominated; and in football, which is male-dominated,” Ms Mallam said.

Ms Mallam explained that to succeed in this area, it came down to an “incredible” network of supportive men and women who became mentors and her willingness to take risks with her career.

Having also had great support from men and women in the field throughout her career, Ms Lynch said she now ensures she can provide that same support to other young lawyers coming through.

“There are a lot more women sports lawyers and administrators, and we can all play a part in supporting that growth,” Ms Lynch said.

This networking component has been a huge assist in Ms Lynch’s career, and it is something she has recommended younger lawyers pursue by telling people and making their interests known.

“There are many wonderful women to connect with, and I’ve found they are always prepared to make time to share their insight and experience, which helps me to continue to learn about the industry, develop myself and support others.”

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