Len Elmore has seen a little bit of everything in the law. A three-time All-ACC college basketball star at Maryland and ten-year pro player in the NBA and the ABA, Elmore went to law school when he hung up his high tops in 1984. In the years that followed, Elmore worked for the Brooklyn District Attorney, LeBoeuf, Lamb, Dreier LLP (more on that later) and started his own sports agency.
Unsatisfied with leaving basketball behind entirely, Elmore continues his presence in college athletics, both as a ESPN and CBS sports commentator and as a member of the Knight Commission, an unofficial watchdog group that allows the outspoken Elmore to chime in on the inequalities often associated with college athletics.
Bitter Lawyer wanted to know from Elmore why he became a lawyer, if he ever played hoops with President Obama at Harvard, his connection to the Marc Dreier implosion and his early predictions are for the 2010 Final Four.
Where did you go to law school?
I went to Harvard Law School.
You finished up at Harvard around the time Barack Obama began there. Did you ever meet him on campus and engage in a friendly pickup game?
I was in the class of ’87. The President, I think, is class of ’90, so I never did meet him. But from the glimpses of his game that I’ve seen, he’s pretty good for a law student who simply played high school ball. He’s a decent shooter and ball-handler, and I wish he could translate that deftness in moving his healthcare initiative through. However, even at my advanced age, I might still be able to post him up. (Just kidding, who posts up the President?)
After a great college career at Maryland and 10-year pro career in both the ABA and NBA, you went to law school. Was that always your plan? Why did you want to be a lawyer?
It was pretty much the plan since I was a 7th grader. I am a child of the ’60s and ’70s. Through the power of television (watching Perry Mason, The Defenders, etc.) I thought I saw what the law could do for those who championed the rights of the underdog. The social upheaval that was taking place was not lost on me. I saw the glimmers of hope through change when witnessing the Civil Rights struggle of the late ‘50s and ‘60s. In high school, I saw change in the Vietnam War protests of the late ‘60s. I made up my mind early that I wouldn’t be a bystander or observer in that parade of change. I wanted to march, and being an attorney could give me my marching orders.
You began your legal career as a prosecutor in Brooklyn. What was that like?
I can best sum up my three-year career at the Brooklyn DA’s office as uplifting, eye-opening and, unfortunately in some ways, disillusioning.
I recall coming home one night in 1988 and stating to my wife that the varied events I had experienced in such a short time would make a great TV series. Ha! I guess Dick Wolf was listening through our walls because a couple of years later the Law & Order franchise was born.
Seriously, I learned a lot about trial work, about evidence and compiling evidence. I learned a lot about people through negotiation. I also learned the importance of both toughness and compassion and how to distinguish between them and when to use and apply them appropriately. Prosecutorial discretion is a tremendous duty and burden not to be taken lightly. Out of law school I decided to become a prosecutor in my birthplace Brooklyn, NY—out of a sense that I owed something to my community for the life I led before as a privileged professional athlete.
Why the DA’s office?
I chose the government side because I wanted the pro-active leverage a prosecutor has in doing justice and having a positive impact on the community, as opposed to the important, but often inadequately reactive, nature of defense work.
Why did you switch to private practice? What kind of law do you practice, and where do you work now?
I left the DA’s office because, although I did reasonably well financially as a pro athlete (but made a mere pittance when compared to what NBA players make today), the salary of an Assistant DA in 1990 made it difficult to raise a family in Manhattan, or the whole of New York City. (We were married in 1987 and expecting our first born in 1990). I was drawn to the opportunity television presented, and for a period of time thereafter, I worked solely on my TV career.
I was a sports agent for five years, beginning in 1992. The company I founded, Precept Sports and Entertainment, represented seven NBA first-round picks, several high draft picks in the NFL, an MLB player and several Olympic gold-medal winners.
Why did you quit working as an agent?
I left the agent business because the environment was becoming toxic to my ethics and scruples. I was not going to jeopardize my reputation and license by even being associated with the industry, let alone attempt to remain competitive by conducting my business as many of my competitors did.
How did you get involved in BigLaw?
Over the last several years, my focus changed from litigation to a more transaction/business oriented practice with strong emphasis in sports. I was Senior Counsel at (legacy) LeBoeuf Lamb, et. al Among the clients I represented were an amateur sports governing body, a professional sports association, a sports/entertainment organization and a sports-oriented charitable organization.
Most recently, I was a new income partner at Dreier, LLP, where I sought to join forces with several other highly competent and creative attorneys to open a sports practice. I began in September 2008, but by December 2008, our sole shareholder and name partner, Marc Dreier, was detained on charges that ultimately convicted him. Needless to say, the walls came tumbling down.
So, what are you doing now?
Currently I am not practicing with a firm, opting to pursue a few viable opportunities and deals on a solo basis. I am gun-shy of Big Firm practice, particularly in this economic environment. I also sit on several public boards of directors as well as the Knight Commission and the University of Maryland Board of Trustees. I am not lacking for something to do.
This is not to say I wouldn’t entertain the right fit in a law firm. However, right now, my goal is to bring to market one of several sports ventures and ideas brought to me over the last year.
What’s been your worst moment as a lawyer?
I guess I could say the Dreier debacle and the helplessness I, along with my colleagues, felt.
What’s been your best moment as a lawyer?
Those moments are wide-ranging. I guess I have had a number of rewarding moments, ranging from victories in court as a prosecutor (including convictions for violent offenders and violent law enforcement officers), to negotiating deals for sports clients that should have set them up for life, to helping jumpstart a time-honored sports brand under new ownership.
Does your status as a former pro athlete give you an edge as a lawyer? Do you think people find you intimidating because of your physical prowess? Or, perhaps, do you find that other lawyers sometimes underestimate you as a “meathead jock?”
I don’t perceive my status as a former college/pro athlete as a particular edge or hindrance. Sure, from a business development perspective, being a former athlete and current TV analyst might offer name recognition and open doors, but I don’t believe I am that intimidating. Maybe my size has an initial intimidating impact on some. Maybe my voice (when I choose to use it that way) and some mannerisms give me a slight advantage, but they also bring out the lawyer competitiveness in adversaries, particularly in trial work.
When I was an Assistant District Attorney, I felt that adversaries believed they had to find a way to blunt my court presence. That made trial work all that much more interesting beyond what was normally at stake.
As for being a “meathead jock,” I only ran across that perception once and it was as a prosecutor. I overheard an ex parte bench discussion between an “old school” attorney and the judge, who was a former law colleague. Fortunately, the judge, with whom I had history, put that notion to rest, and I suspect that my conduct during the remainder of the proceeding spoke for itself. That attorney’s dive into stereotypes was representative of a small vestige of practitioners of those times clinging to their evaporating elitism.
You do some TV analyst work for college basketball. How do you manage to balance that work with your schedule? Who will you be working for this season?
I am pleased to say that ESPN and I are completing a new agreement that will continue my work for the network. I will also continue doing the NCAA Tournament for CBS.
Traveling as a basketball TV analyst, practicing law and building a law practice, were time-consuming and hectic. But in the digital age, I was able to stay abreast of work regardless of where I was. It was also a grand effort in time management, where often I’d return to New York from a telecast and head to the office, or I would schedule an out-of-town client meeting to compliment my TV schedule. At times it was difficult, but never impossible to take care of business.
Of the three major American sports (basketball, baseball and football), basketball has probably made the greatest international gains both in terms of global popularity and developing NBA-caliber players around the world. Why do you think basketball translates better than other American sports?
Basketball has an ease of play that allows it to be played anywhere there is a hoop, and sometimes where there is no regulation hoop. Minimal equipment or expense is needed, and one can play with as few as one other person on the playing surface.
Baseball is heading into the playoffs, football has begun another season, and college basketball is a long ways off. Care to go out on a super-early limb and give us your prediction for the Final Four?
At this juncture I am hard-pressed to give anything but a gut feeling. But I’d initially have to predict Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina and a surprise team—say Michigan. Of course, I reserve the right to change…frequently.
Won’t Maryland, your alma mater, be in the Big Dance this year?
Maryland has a good chance of making the tournament this year. They will have a nice mix of experience and size, something last year’s tournament team didn’t have. Gary Williams’ teams always find a way to display his attitude: Grittiness, competitiveness and a “Don’t give up the ship,” never-say-die attitude.
You mentioned that you’re a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. What is the Knight Commission all about, and how did you get involved?
I like to think of the Knight Commission as the conscience of intercollegiate sports. Our mission is to collect and compile data and other information to provide recommendations on how to keep intercollegiate sports in perspective: An integral part of a student’s education experience. While the commission has no real authority in executing positive change, it has a high degree of credibility represented by its commissioners. I was appointed several years ago, in large part due to my outspokenness on a variety of germane issues.
What’s the biggest concern you and your colleagues at the Knight Commission have today about college athletics, and what do you think the solution is?
Again, the greatest concern is that college sports remain a part of the dog rather than the tail that wags the dog. Unchecked, there are so many issues (commercialism, academic integrity and athlete exploitation, among others) that have the potential of making college sports indistinguishable from the professional model.
There are lots of complaints about the lack of black head coaches in college football. How do you feel college basketball is doing in this regard?
College basketball has set a commendable example, and the future of minority football coaches may rest in the success of minority basketball coaches.
However, the football situation is far more complex than common variety racism. Social and value systems must change, even on the most progressive campuses. Football and basketball have two different sets of values and traditional places in a campus community. The barriers in college football are higher and more deeply entrenched.
One thing that’s really odd about college sports is that there’s still no playoff system for football. A common argument has been that there’s just too much money in place that keeps the Bowl System going. But you’re there for March Madness every year, and there certainly doesn’t seem to be a shortage of corporate advertising. Does the money argument hold water?
I would agree that those who are directly benefitting from the current system subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” theory because their interests are served. The cries for change in the system, no matter how well-intentioned, are no match for public thirst for these games and the resulting largess. When the system ceases to present a hugely lucrative opportunity and the public demonstrates their desire for change with their pocketbooks, there will be change.
Will the NCAA ever permit colleges to pay athletes? Should it?
I doubt the NCAA will ever get into the business of outright paying students salaries for performance. Again, doing so makes college sports no different than the pro model.
However, in a balance of the equities, there must be a formula that better subsidizes student athletes for their extraordinary sacrifices and struggles when compared to non-athlete students. The cost of education exceeds the full grant (tuition, room, board and books), and we owe it to student athletes to make up the difference, preferably based on need. It is a difficult formula to figure out, but we’ve put people on the moon, so surely we can find a solution here.
Is the NBA’s one-and-done rule [that requires draft eligible players to be one year out of high school and at least 19 years old before they go pro] a good or bad thing for college basketball?
I would like to see young athletes led to education rather than creating exits along the education superhighway. Playing professional sports is not a right, but a privilege. For the greater good, we need to make college an aspirational goal for all young men, particularly young men of color upon whom the ravages of failure fall so heavily—unlike those who pursue baseball, hockey or tennis (the most often used comparisons to create room for playing professionally without going to college.)
The prodigies will succeed, regardless. It is the large numbers of those who think they are prodigies, but are not, that fall by the wayside when they pursue hoop dreams for which they aren’t prepared or gifted enough to succeed.
Again for the greater good, and against a back drop of high school dropouts and black male incarceration rates, I don’t believe that it is too much to ask the future LeBrons, Kobes and Kevin Garnetts to, along with their less-gifted counterparts, spend more time in college before going pro. What real damage will that do to a prodigy’s prospects of success? Balance that against the number of those young people who will feel compelled to do what it takes to get to college in pursuit of their pro hoop dreams. Consider that higher education provides at least a chance to develop skills—a Plan B, if you will—that will serve them going forward. Nothing is more pernicious than to mislead these kids by intimating, and sometimes outright declaring, that they have a right to drop out of school.