Hannah Gordon, General Counsel, San Francisco 49ers

After five years in-house with the San Francisco 49ers, Hannah Gordon was named general counsel in 2016. She discusses the opportunities apparent to affect broader societal change through sport and the law.

My path here was intentional, although the irony is I really was not a huge sports fan growing up. I really fell in love with it in college, and pretty immediately started working in sport. In a lot of ways, I’ve grown up in the business, so part of what I fell in love with was the business of sport as well as the game of football. I worked in sports media and communications before going to law school, and I entered Stanford with the goal of returning to sports.

My 1L summer, I asked the Raiders, for whom I had been a PR intern in college, if I could come back as a law clerk, which they were very gracious in allowing me to do. I went to law firm Akin Gump for my second summer, because I knew that partner Dan Nash did a lot of work for the National Football League (NFL). I worked at Latham & Watkins after I graduated, and then at the NFL League office in New York. The 49ers’ EVP of football operations, Paraag Marathe, got to know me from my work at the League, and he asked me if I would interview for a position they had just created here – which was director of legal affairs. There were a lot of people, including my own family, who said: ‘Oh that’s so nice to hear you’re going to interview – you’re never going to get that job!’

The team’s executive vice president, Patty Inglis, had created the position with a plan in place to groom me to eventually become the general counsel. The role grew as I created our external affairs department. Shortly thereafter, we added a risk management department. Last year, we aligned a number of departments to create our community impact team, which is a conglomerate of the 49ers Foundation, community relations, 49ers Prep (which runs free youth football camps and flag football leagues), our STEAM education program (where we invite in 60,000 kids a year to get them excited about science, technology, engineering, arts and math through football), external affairs, fan engagement, and the 49ers Museum.

My role as general counsel felt like a natural evolution. It was really the beginning of my time at the 49ers where the learning curve was the sharpest. There was so much I was doing on the business side that was unfamiliar to me. My first few months, I didn’t know if I would make it every day. I was here 10 hours a day – but I was growing.

Inglis and I were building the infrastructure of the legal department with things like a contract management system, while working to get Levi’s® Stadium built – so that was a really intense couple of years.

I received a lot of very good advice along the way to becoming general counsel from Inglis and other general counsel, such as to learn the business underlying each contract and therefore draft or negotiate a better agreement, and how to hone those contract-drafting skills.

The struggle is in trying to step back and think strategically for the future.

Like many GCs, the struggle is in trying to step back and think strategically for the future, while not completely suffocating in the fires you need to put out every day. A lot of it is risk management, especially now in the current business environment – looking at the risk profile of various business decisions and determining what’s best for the organization both from a brand and revenue standpoint. As general counsel, we have a particular lens for seeing potential downsides and evaluating their likelihood and severity.

As a general counsel, more of your role becomes about leading other people than about being a really expert attorney in a traditional, technical sense. It becomes more about soft skills and your ability to manage and lead attorneys and non-attorneys alike. My advice to people who want to become general counsel would be to develop the ability to teach and lead others, and to communicate with and influence peer departments in the business. We don’t do a good enough job in training lawyers in those skills.

My proudest moment was during a challenging and difficult time in the business, and somebody who was in a position of power asked me: ‘What would you do if you were me?’ I think that’s ultimately the goal – it’s our role as the counselor, the consigliere, to develop that trust.

Another proud moment would be the opening of the Levi’s® Stadium. We put so much blood, sweat and tears into that, and it was a group effort of literally thousands of people – from architects, to financiers, to construction workers, to lawyers, to salespeople. You have this incredible communal feeling of hard work that pays off in a physical thing that you can actually see.

The difficult moments, when there’s turnover or change, where human livelihoods and families are involved – those are the most challenging moments in football. It can also be tough when public perception does not match the reality inside an organization. Thankfully I enjoy what I do, so it doesn’t diminish my love of the game, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hard days. When you’re having a tough season, it is hard on everyone, although obviously hardest on the players and coaches.

We do a lot of work at the intersection of football and science. One of the things that I didn’t foresee before I came to work here was how many software agreements we would enter into – there are a lot of really interesting companies that we partner with.

When I think about real innovation, a lot of that is just the everyday problem-solving that lawyers do.

Even though the world is moving very fast in terms of technology, I don’t think the skills that we as in-house counsel have to exercise have changed that much. It’s about your skills at client service, at understanding the big picture, and then being able to communicate to others, particularly non-lawyers, what that big picture is and how the pieces fit together. And then, of course, having really excellent contract and drafting skills, strong negotiation skills, and being a good issue spotter.

Legal departments are often viewed as cost centres, but that’s unfair, because the deal doesn’t close without a lawyer doing the contract. We limit losses – both in business deals and in litigation. As general counsel, we struggle on that side of innovation – how do we demonstrate our value in a world that’s very based on metrics? That’s why a lot of us use things like contract management systems, to show how many contracts we’re turning out, and how quickly we’re turning them out.

When I think about real innovation, a lot of that is just the everyday problem-solving that lawyers do. That’s where I think lawyers are actually more creative than often people give them credit for.

Looking forward at the role of general counsel, I expect that, given the brand reputation issues that companies are running into, there will be a greater emphasis on the role of the GC as that internal watchdog. I’m always wary of the word ‘compliance’ because I think it has this connotation that you’re a paper pusher, whereas I think what really is required of the role is excellent judgement and ethics. People are going to be looking for a GC who has a strong moral compass and an ability to read situations and pick up on things – to not just make sure that you’re following things by the book, but that there is not something that is actually ripping at the fabric of the organization, even if you have checked all the technical boxes.

It will be interesting to see how much more independence the GC role ends up having. The extent that it’s subordinate to some other executive roles may limit its ability to be the check in the balance of powers – so it will be interesting to see that evolve.