Interview with Roshan Gopalakrishna, Sports Lawyer at LawNK, Bengaluru

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Roshan Gopalakrishna is a sports lawyer who is currently a partner at LawNK, one of India’s most well-renowned sports law firms. He graduated from the National Law School of India in the year 2008 and in addition to being a partner at Law NK is also the Chief Legal Counsel for Copyright Integrity International, a world-renowned organisation for anti-piracy and rights protection services, and a Senior Researcher for The Sports Law and Policy Centre.

Below is the transcript of the interview conducted with Mr. Roshan Gopalakrishna.

Interview with Roshan Gopalakrishna, Sports Lawyer at LawNK, Bengaluru

Rohan Mathew Therattil: As a young and successful sports lawyer, could you give us a summary of your life journey and educational qualifications that have led you here?

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Roshan Gopalakrishna: To begin with, I am not young anymore! Further, any perceived success is purely the result of having an incredibly supportive workplace with excellent work practices, and outstanding workmates, rather than individual ability.

I was born in the coastal town of Karwar, Karnataka, a place of immense natural beauty. Of Karwar, Tagore said – “The sea beach of Karwar is certainly a fit place in which to realize that the beauty of Nature is not a mirage of the imagination but reflects the joy of the Infinite and thus draws us to lose ourselves in it. Where the universe is expressing itself in the magic of its laws it may not be strange if we miss its infinitude; but where the heart gets into immediate touch with immensity in the beauty of the meanest of things, is any room left for argument?”

As my father was a bureaucrat, we were able to experience life in many districts across Karnataka (notably Uttara Kannada, Mysuru, Mandya, Hubballi, Tumakuru and Chikkamagaluru) which also meant changing schools every couple of years. I graduated from NLSIU in 2008 and briefly worked with an Australian law firm and a management services advisory after graduation. I joined LawNK in June 2009 (I was the firm’s first associate) and have been with the firm ever since.

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Rohan Mathew Therattil: Out of the numerous cases you have been a part of, could you share with us one of your most memorable encounters or a specific case you have worked on?

Roshan Gopalakrishna: I have been fortunate to be involved with many interesting projects over the past 12 years. However, the dream was to be involved with transactional work in football, which turned to reality when our firm was engaged to assist a business conglomerate in setting up a professional football club (Club A).

I remember waking up one rainy Saturday morning about 8 years to a straightforward request for a player contract (player contracts are usually very time-sensitive). Club A wanted to sign a player (Player X) from another club (Club B, which was managed by the governing body itself as a developmental team for U23 players) which had an uncertain future, and Player X’s contract with Club B was in any case due to expire in a month or so. (Under FIFA’s regulations, Player X was permitted to talk to other clubs during the final 6 months of his contract with Club B and to contract with them after the expiry of his contract with Club B.)

Player X then proceeded to sign a contract with Club A. So far so good. A couple of days after signing the contract with Club A, Player X casually mentioned that he recalled signing a contract with another club (Club C, owned by a prominent sports administrator), to join Club C once his contract with Club B ended, and this predated his contract with Club A by a few months. But he felt that he should honour his contract with Club A purely because Club A was offering more money than Club C!

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While Player X was highly coveted, we advised Club A to withdraw the offer and Player X proceeded to join Club C for pre-season training. To clarify, if Club A had gone ahead with registering Player X for the season, it was highly likely that financial/other sanctions would be imposed on Club A for inducing a breach of Player X’s contract with Club C.

The final twist in the tale came a couple of months before the start of the season, when, to everyone’s surprise, it was announced that Club B would indeed field a team and that all players contracted to Club B for the previous season would continue to represent Club B during the forthcoming season as well, only for Club B to be temporarily disbanded a couple of weeks before the start of the new season! Player X then joined Club A on loan, as Club C had signed another player in his position.

This situation was reflective of the wider lack of understanding of contractual stability, FIFA’s regulations and the implications for contravention of FIFA’s regulations among players, clubs and sports administrators at the time.

What then of the protagonists involved in this telenovela?

Player X eventually represented Club A for a few seasons during his career and currently plays in the I-League, Clubs B and C continue to field teams in the I-League, Player X never represented Clubs B or C ever again.

Rohan Mathew Therattil: Sports law is considered to be a very niche and emerging field of law throughout the world. What is your opinion on the scope for sports in India as a field of law and as a career path?

Roshan Gopalakrishna: Well things are different from where they were 15 years ago, and I mean this in a positive sense. The rise of franchise-based sports leagues at various levels (IPL, KPL, etc.) has played a role in sensitising stakeholders in sport to the existence of ‘sports lawyers’. In simple terms, sports law is the application of general legal principles to the sports eco-system, while maintaining a robust commercial model and ensuring that various competing interests are balanced.

The challenge before any sports lawyer is of ensuring that the client sees the services of a sports lawyer as being valuable, and not just as an additional cost centre. This is particularly a challenge when leagues/teams are loss-making, and ‘legal’ is seen as a role that is capable of being performed by any lawyer. At the other end of the spectrum, very often interact with a sports lawyer is the first time that some stakeholders are even dealing with a lawyer (usually for athletes, start-ups, etc.). ‘Nicheness’ comes with its own drawbacks.

While we hope that this situation changes over the next 10-15 years, that change is going to be gradual, and will also rely on each stakeholder being aware of their rights and choosing to exercise them. Currently in India, the number of entities with an interest in sport is limited. To illustrate, an entity investing in multiple sport-related businesses will use one set of lawyers (in-house and/or external) for all its sports-related projects. There will be opportunities, unfortunately, I personally feel (given the current pandemic and overall economic situation) that these opportunities will be limited for the next 2-3 years at least.

Rohan Mathew Therattil: Within the realm of sports law itself there are various categories or specialities sports lawyers move into, could you give us some insight with regards to these different specialities within sports law and what they entail?

Roshan Gopalakrishna: As with most other careers in law, the broader conventional categories for sports lawyers are – transactional and advisory, and dispute resolution. Transactional and advisory work involves drafting and negotiating agreements (sponsorship, endorsement, representation, licensing, employment, transfers, etc.), other documentation (guidelines, advisories) and advising clients on general commercial and legal issues which aims to ensure that the client’s legitimate business objectives are met. This can range from issues such varied as statutory compliance, IP protection, ticketing, to NFTs. In sport, dispute resolution practices centre around representing clients at different fora – specific dispute resolution bodies (such as AIFF PSC or NADA anti-doping panels), show cause proceedings (such as the BCCI Ethics Officer/Ombudsman) or the traditional court system.

Rohan Mathew Therattil: What guidelines or recommendations would you give to our readers in terms of how niche areas of law can be explored and additionally the potential for growth in such fields?

Roshan Gopalakrishna: Try and understand the opportunities, pros and cons of each area before deciding, gain first-hand experience through internships, get advice from seniors who have had a similar career path and do not hesitate to take timely corrective action if any decision does not work out as you had hoped. In particular, higher education in sports law (especially abroad) may not necessarily translate into a job (in the Indian market at least) unless it is backed up by demonstrated interest in the field (internships, etc.)

Above all, understand your personal motivations and the price that you would be willing to pay to excel, and do not fall for the ‘glamour’ associated with any field of law. The ‘glamour’ will inevitably fade. In any career, one must be particularly good with the basics to ensure progress and there is no other way of doing this than to be willing to put in the grunt work for the first few years. Finding a mentor, and/or a workplace that is supportive and shares your ethics is crucial.

Rohan Mathew Therattil: When did you realise that you had an interest in sports law, additionally did you engage yourself in any activities or work specifically to help you in regards to getting recruited by a sports law firm?

Roshan Gopalakrishna: LawNK is a firm with a vibrant sports law practice, and not just a “sports law firm”. To clarify, in sport, our firm offers transactional, advisory and dispute resolution strategy services. The firm also has formidable general corporate, commercial, healthcare, policy and gaming related practice areas.

I have always had an interest in sport, but the larger realisation that an area such as ‘sports law’ existed happened only around 2003. This was the year that Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea FC, and the subsequent transfer window was quite unnerving for a Man Utd fan who was also trying to come to terms with the culture shock that was NLS. A chance conversation with a senior who was attending a 5th year seminar course in EU Law led to a bit of reading on the Bosman case, and its impact on the football transfer system.

It still took a couple more years for me to be convinced that my interests were in exploring a career in sports law, and to accept that I would be responsible for the consequences of my decision to seek this career. This decision was made easier by the fact that neither did I have to repay a study loan, nor did I have to support my family once I graduated. Luck also played a huge part in things working out the way they did.

I looked for opportunities to intern with celebrity management companies, advertising firms, FMCG companies and law firms with a sports-related practice. Further, I was also able to convince members of the faculty at NLS to include sports-related topics in the list of project topics allotted to students (IPR, ADR, Business Contracts, etc.). I was also lucky enough to find mentors who advised me of the pitfalls of my approach – i.e., seeking to specialise too early and being “pig-headed” about a career in sports law without focussing on being a trained lawyer first. When I made the decision to join LawNK, I had doubts about whether I was employable. Luckily, I ended up joining a firm (and a mentor) who were very understanding and accepting. It was wonderful to recognise that I could be part of the firm’s journey and could contribute to creating a sustainable and balanced work culture. Over the years, my colleagues have only made the firm an even better place to work at.


 

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