LIV Golfer’s Lost Sponsorship Shows Risks of Law-Firm Endorsements

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A day after LIV Golf announced American golfer Jason Kokrak was joining the nascent league, Kokrak lost an endorsement deal with international law firm Cozen O’Connor. The swift sequence highlights the unique and chancy arrangement of an athlete as a law firm endorser.

“In light of Mr. Kokrak’s affiliation with the new LIV Tour,” a Cozen O’Connor statement from July 21 read, “we have mutually agreed he will no longer be an ambassador for Cozen O’Connor.”

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Five years ago, the firm—which has more than 800 attorneys spread out over 32 offices in the United States, Canada and England—announced it had signed American golfer William McGirt to a sponsorship. Two years later the firm publicized a similar deal with Kokrak, who is currently ranked No. 36 in the world. The deals called for the golfers to wear Cozen O’Connor’s logo on their shirts during tournament play and participate in client events, among other duties.

Athlete endorsements of law firms are rare, especially in the United States. Firms usually tout their attorneys’ accomplishments on their homepages, which Cozen O’Connor also does. Some feature client testimonials; others advertise on social media and on billboards. Firms are also known to distribute free pens, umbrellas and assorted other swag that prominently depict their logos. But athletes are not obvious picks to hype a firm, given they seldom possess formal legal training and they may have limited, if nonexistent, familiarity with any particular group of attorneys.

American golfer Harrison Frazar, American golf coach Colin Swatton, English cricket player Alastair Cook and Australian cyclist Anna Meares are part of a fairly small group of athletes and sports professionals to have law firms as sponsors. Their advocacy is designed to expand the firm’s recognition with both businesses and consumers who might seek legal services, including for sports law-related matters. The sponsorships also provide value to clients of the firm who are interested in meeting famous athletes and other celebrities.

“For any law firms with sports law practices,” Foley & Lardner partner Jon Israel tells Sportico, “sponsoring an athlete could make some sense if the firm provides services to individual athletes, maybe less so for firms that represent teams, leagues and organizations.”

Israel is co-chair of Foley & Lardner’s Sports Industry Team and previously served as the NBA’s assistant general counsel. He adds that “any law firm might get some business development or brand traction and showcase its sports law practice by creatively using a celebrity sponsorship through events and appearances for clients or prospects, e.g., at a golf or other outing.”

Like any endorsements, those with athletes come with risk. An athlete could be accused of breaking the law—not a good look for the sponsored law firm, unless, of course, the firm can mount a successful defense. Market changes supply another risk. With golfers bolting the PGA Tour to join the Saudi-backed LIV Golf, some companies have cut ties with endorsing golfers. In February, KPMG and Amstel Light were among brands to let go of Phil Mickelson. Law firms are like other businesses. They tend to steer clear of controversies that could damage relations with clients and prospective clients.

The same opportunities and risks are present with other types of celebrities. Actor William Shatner, who played attorney Denny Crane in the hit TV show Boston Legal, has endorsed a personal injury law firm, starring in an ad where he appears with law books behind him, looking every bit the seasoned litigator. The late actor Robert Vaughn, whose credits included appearances on Law & Order and the law enforcement thriller The Man from U.N.C.L.E., was also a recognizable endorser in law firm TV ads.

Whether dealing with athletes, actors or influencers, firms need to be mindful of advertisement restrictions. In Florida, for example, celebrity endorsements usually violate the state bar association’s rules. Those rules prohibit attorneys from “engaging in unduly manipulative or intrusive advertisements,” a term defined to include advertisements that contain “the voice or image of a celebrity.” Last year the Florida Bar Association concluded that a YouTube host with 25,000 subscribers counted as a “celebrity.”

Kokrak’s situation notwithstanding, expect to see additional athlete endorsements of law firms. Israel eyes the possibility of law firms sponsoring a team or league. “While perhaps not so prevalent in the United States,” he notes, law firm sponsorships of teams happen elsewhere. “Many U.K. rugby teams have official law-firm partners.”

Hagens Berman, a U.S. based law firm that focuses on class actions and plaintiffs’ litigation, sponsors competitive cycling teams.

Israel stresses that law firm partnerships with leagues or teams need to reflect a firm’s “core values” and require assessment “under applicable ethical/professional responsibility rules concerning attorney advertising and solicitation.”

Still, the former NBA attorney admits, “I would love to see the Foley & Lardner logo on an NBA team jersey patch.”

Maybe one day we’ll see that.

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