Michael Buchwald Runs the Option at the NFL

The NFL’s Michael Buchwald discusses the value of being flexible and building strong relationships

Michael Buchwald, Senior Counsel, National Football League Photo by Rob Buchwald

For the last six years, Michael Buchwald has been surrounded by what he calls a motivated and extremely talented group of lawyers and other legal staff. That his mentors and colleagues in that group are almost all women may surprise some who view the professional sports industry as one typically dominated by men, but it is just one example of why Buchwald says the National Football League (NFL) is such a dynamic and diverse place to work.

“When you come into this office, you find—behind the Shield and the NFL Films music that greets you in the elevator lobby—an incredibly talented and eclectic group of people with all different kinds of expertise and perspectives,” Buchwald says.

The senior counsel adds that while it may seem from the outside like everyone at the organization comes to work in shoulder pads, the various businesses within the NFL run a much wider range than the field’s one hundred yards. Therefore, the range of professionals and staff you come across is broad. “There are diehard fans, casual fans, and people who just want to bring their extensive skill set to a great organization,” he says.

Buchwald’s own path to the NFL is a perfect representation of that ethos. He says he wasn’t a lawyer who went to sleep dreaming of someday working for the most popular sports league in the United States, a probable dream for many a sports fan turned lawyer. Instead, as an associate at New York-based Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the young lawyer found himself drawn to antitrust work. The rest, he says, just sort of happened.

“It turned out that the antitrust group had a robust sports practice, which emanated from a few partners with longstanding relationships with a number of sports leagues and substantial experience in that industry,” Buchwald says. “I wound up doing quite a bit of work with some of the other sports leagues, and as typically happens, I wound up working on a number of client matters that went beyond antitrust.”

“The best advice I can give to younger lawyers is to keep your options open, stay flexible, and make the most of opportunities that come your way.”

The senior counsel says his colleagues at Skadden were huge allies in helping him take on an in-house role with the NFL, a job he wasn’t entirely sure he was cut out for. “I didn’t really see an in-house role in my future, but the best advice I can give to younger lawyers is to keep your options open, stay flexible, and make the most of opportunities that come your way.” The quality relationships he had built at Skadden ultimately bridged Buchwald into his new in-house role, one that he says has proven rewarding in ways he never could have planned on.

One of the challenges from which Buchwald says he derives a lot of job satisfaction is building relationships and trust among the numerous business organizations under the NFL umbrella. “I often find myself as the only lawyer in the room, and it’s important that I’m providing value from a legal perspective,” Buchwald says. “But in order to provide that value, I need to present it in a way that’s understandable and practical. Even more critically, success in this job requires you to remain humble, to listen openly, and to respect the expertise and perspectives of others. This helps build trust and ensure that the legal advice you provide aligns with the broader goals of the business.”

Buchwald’s astute instincts have earned him admiration across the legal field. “Mike has the perspective that comes with a broad range of experiences, strong analytical skills, and solid judgment,” says Mitchell F. Dolin, litigation partner at Covington & Burling. “He is an effective and well-informed advocate for his clients, invariably asking hard questions and seeking constructive solutions.”

In working to distill complex ideas, Buchwald says he’s trying to build relationships one department at a time. “Because of what is often pure happenstance, I have a very close working relationship with some departments and am working to build that same relationship with others,” Buchwald says. “Success to me is that internal network growth; working with a new department is sort of like starting over and building trust with a new group of people.”

As the senior counsel cultivates relationships, he says that he continues to be invigorated by the sheer number of different people and ideas he encounters on a daily basis. Such richness and variety of experience make the NFL a fruitful working environment for any professional.

Pro (Football) Bono

“One of the payoffs in working at a larger firm is the ease of access to pro bono work,” Michael Buchwald says. “In-house, there’s often less of those connections and opportunities unless you really make the effort.” In 2017, the then head of Buchwald’s litigation group reached out to Lawyers Alliance for New York, which helps represent community groups in a multitude of legal capacities. “It’s the type of organization where some of our expertise that we apply on a daily basis can be relevant in a very different way,” Buchwald says. “I think these partnerships are a great path for other in-house lawyers who are looking for these sorts of opportunities.”