Quarterbacking Complex Legal Issues, Business Decisions and COVID-19 with Bill Heller, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the New York Giants
Today, we’re going on record with Bill Heller, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the New York Giants. As the Team’s Chief Legal Officer, Bill is involved in all aspects of the Giants’ business, running the gamut from labor and employment, to sponsorships, naming rights, licensing, entertainment and other contracts, to assistance with the legal aspects of the football operations.
Prior to his tenure at the Giants and throughout his legal career, Bill practiced at major law firms based in New Jersey and handled cases nationwide. He tried federal and state court cases involving intellectual property, commercial and employment matters, among others, for clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to family-owned entities.
Bill frequently appears as a guest on Bloomberg TV and Radio in the fields of intellectual property, information technology and data privacy, and frequently serves as a guest lecturer at law schools in New York and New Jersey.
Bill graduated from Rutgers University with High Distinction and Phi Beta Kappa, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: Welcome. I feel very fortunate to have been introduced to you by a mutual friend, Leslie Wolfson. For our listeners, Leslie Wolfson is the executive director of the Association of Corporate Counsel, New Jersey chapter. And, as you know, Bill, I’m very grateful that you’re joining me today on the show to discuss your experience as a general counsel.
Bill Heller: Well, my thanks to you. I’m happy to do this.
Could you tell our listeners about your background and your journey to your current position?
I grew up in Hackensack, New Jersey, a graduate of the fine institution called Hackensack High School, and then left there to go to Rutgers University where I majored in economics with the intent to go to the University of Pennsylvania to get a joint JD/MBA degree, but life interfered. My primary goal was to become a lawyer. I was putting myself through law school and I just didn’t have an extra year of tuition. So, I stuck with a law degree and never went for the MBA degree. From there I joined a very old law firm in New Jersey that at the turn of the 20th century had incorporated US steel Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, which became Exxon. And it was a very, very fine law firm. I became a partner there, switched to another firm shortly thereafter, and spent 12 years there. Unfortunately, that firm ceased conducting business.
In 1999, a college friend called me and said, “Please come over to our law firm,” which is McCarter & English, a regional law firm based in Newark, New Jersey. I had no idea at the time that McCarter & English represented the Giants. I will now segue to saying that I was and I am a lifelong Giants fan. I idolized Y.A. Tittle when I was about 10 years old. And, right now there is an autographed Y.A. Tittle jersey hanging above my head. But back to the main story…
Soon after I reached McCarter & English, the chairman of that firm actually walked the talk of cross-selling his partners and said, “We represent the Giants and they could use what you have to offer.” He introduced me to the Giants. I, of course, remained cool and calm, but inside I was so happy to be representing the Giants. The big pile of work on my desk got pushed aside whenever the Giants called.
Soon after that first or second assignment, they started giving me more and more work to do. Then, the perfect storm happened in about 2005/2006.
The reason that was the perfect storm was because Wellington’s son, John Mara, now the president and CEO had been serving as general counsel. Because his dad passed, he assumed the role of president and CEO. And for a short time, he kept the general counsel title, but the general counsel work started falling off pretty steeply while he undertook his new responsibilities.
About 2007, my work really increased for the Giants until one day I concluded the negotiations for a naming rights deal for the new Giants practice facility. It had gone exceedingly well and it was a tremendous deal for the Giants. We were in the conference room signing the deal when one of the longtime Giants employees said, “We should have you around here more often.” At the time, I said, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “Oh, come on. You’re a big fancy partner in a big fancy law firm. You don’t want to come here.” And I repeated, “Well, what are you talking about?”
Soon thereafter, I started discussing a job with John Mara and I met with John at a restaurant on April 1. The date is important because as we sat talking about hiring a new general counsel, I said to him, “John, I’m the first person you’re speaking with. Why don’t we get some resumes, interview some people, and we can see where we stand after that.” He said, “No.” At that time, I was there in my lawyer uniform and I said to myself, “Keep cool, keep calm. Don’t say a word. Just say, thank you.” And I did.
I then went to my car and called my wife and two sons, both of whom were young adults. The boys said, “Yeah, right, dad. April fools!” They didn’t believe me, but it was true.
On October 1, 2010, I became the senior vice president and general counsel of the Giants.
I must say that I talk to a lot of lawyers and especially young lawyers and law students, and they often ask me, “How do I become the general counsel of the New York Giants?” I tell people it’s a lot of luck. If you think about the path that I took to becoming the general counsel of the Giants, it was a lot of luck and a lot of circumstance along the way. I consider myself very lucky to have been put in the position where I could be asked to join the Giants.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s an incredible story.
Bill Heller: And it’s true.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: I can imagine it was almost like a dream come true, to be a lifelong fan, and then have an opportunity to serve in such a wonderful position for the organization.
Was there anything that you found surprising, after such a long tenure in private practice, when you transitioned to in-house?
Yes. I can illustrate that best by a story. I was just about to begin my full-time tenure when I was negotiating the team’s contract with Amtrak, which the team takes when we play Washington and Baltimore. Amtrak dug its heels in and basically said, “We don’t change a word.”
I was talking to the CFO of the Giants with whom I work closely. I said to her, as I had for all those years as an outside lawyer, “Here’s the risk. On the one hand … on the other hand.” She said, “Oh no, no more. The first part of your title is senior vice president. You have to make business decisions now. What do you think?”
That was an awakening because as outside counsel, we often presented risks and options to clients, but never had to come down and say, “Let’s do this.” That was a big change in thinking. To this day, over 10 years later, I’m still not used to it in some respects.
What legal issues keep you the busiest and are the issues different during the season versus off season?
Let me answer your second question. Interestingly, during the season, I am less busy than the off season because by that time, everything is in place for the season and it is when we stop playing football that I become very, very busy. What was the first part of your question?
Jennifer Simpson Carr: What legal work keeps you the busiest?
Bill Heller: I can’t begin to list all of it. During the off season, there are a tremendous number of employment issues. Some people, especially on the football side, leave the employment of the Giants, and HR reports to me. We hire a lot of new people, including coaches, and we are reorganizing, so that labor and employment issues are a huge focus at this time of year. As an example, we happen to have, as I speak, four employees who are expecting children and we realized that we needed to update our parental leave policy. It is very important to have an updated policy that is fair to all parents.
During the off season, the football people evaluate all sorts of technologies because football today is a data-driven business. I probably am working on three to four technology acquisition agreements now ranging from trial tests to full blown contracts where the biggest issue is data privacy and data security. We are obsessed with that in the NFL. We have to comply with a very lengthy and complicated set of standards that the NFL puts out. All the clubs have to comply with these standards. I work closely with the IT department on the legal side of privacy and compliance.
COVID didn’t help things. Over layered on everything I do, and I just gave you a very short list, I was on the small team responsible for our legal and NFL COVID compliance. It was a monster. The NFL is the only sport that started and completed its full season and playoffs since the pandemic started. It took enormous team effort. I was on that team and it took many, many hours. One of my jobs was to send an almost-daily report out to the entire organization because there was a lot of fear and uncertainty. I would spend a few hours each morning researching the latest news and reporting it to our organization to calm people down. It was actually very gratifying because a lot of people said on the days that I missed, “Where’s today’s entry? I missed your email this morning.” I would say, “No, there was nothing new to report today.” So, on top of everything else, and I am the only in-house lawyer, there is normally a lot of work to do, but COVID doubled or tripled the volume of work.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: During a time of crisis and uncertainty and knowing that we didn’t know what was going to happen in the world, I can imagine how gratifying it was to be able to share some news that gave comfort to the employees of the organization.
Bill Heller: For sure. We had very few outbreaks because we complied so well with the NFL and government protocols. But on occasion, we had a couple of small scares. Other clubs that had scares shut down their facilities and had to postpone games. We never had to do that. We’re really very proud of that.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s excellent. Speaking of COVID, you mentioned that you researched information each morning. I know that as businesses transitioned to a remote working environment, and the world tried to find information during a time of uncertainty, it felt like there was exponentially more information – articles, webinars, podcasts – everything was coming out at once.
What resources do you value right now to stay abreast of legal developments, and particularly news about COVID-19?
One, the New Jersey and New York Departments of Health put out a daily newsletter or update to their websites, or at least did during the last winter. They were a huge source of information.
Two, as a bow to our friend, Leslie Wolfson, I am a member of the Corporate Counsel Association and the New Jersey chapter. It was providing tremendous resources about COVID, including the daily blogs that many in-house counsel shared.
Three, the ideas, questions and answers coming out of those blogs were numerous and extraordinarily helpful. Counsel sharing information was probably 50% of the information I was collecting and using to communicate to the organization.
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s wonderful to hear. In our role, we help our clients, who are law firms, with these communications. It’s gratifying for me to hear that communication coming from law firms was valuable to someone in your position.
What advice would you give to a new general counsel?
I’m going to give you as an answer to the advice I received.
When I arrived in-house, I asked John Mara, “Which of the NFL lawyers would be helpful to me in transitioning to in-house?”
I met with a fellow named Gary Gertzog, who at the time was in a very senior position on the commercial side of the NFL legal department. He said something that was really important. He said,
“As an outside counsel, you can do a project or an agreement or litigation, and you can dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘T’ and then proofread it six times to be sure you’ve got it right. As an in-house lawyer, you have to be able to move quickly, take risks, and sometimes live with the imperfect agreement or the imperfect letter, because the expectation, especially in a football organization, is get it done.”
The best advice I could give to anyone going in-house, whether it’s football or anything else, is learning that we have to put the business first and not our legal training first. Remember the example I gave you earlier: “No more on the one hand, on the other hand.” It’s, “Here’s the path we should take.”
Jennifer Simpson Carr: That’s an interesting concept. I’m glad that you shared that surprising and unexpected element of transitioning from private practice to in-house. Bill, thank you so much for joining me today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation and thank you to our listeners as well for joining us for this episode.
Bill Heller: Thank you, Jennifer. I really appreciate this opportunity.
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