Sports specialist Liz Coley brings over 20 years of in-house football experience to her clients at Level. We chat with her about her journey to the firm, and find out what day-to-day life is like as a self-employed lawyer.
What gets you up in the morning?
Well, apart from being stood on by my dog who's probably found his way on to my bed... I'm really lucky because my house looks onto the beach, so in the summer mornings I'm woken up about 4am by the sun streaming in, reflected off the sea. Later in the year I love to be on the beach with my dog, Red, to see the sunrise. So it’s the sunrise one way or another!
So how did you get started in the world of football?
As a teenager I was a huge football fan, supporting Woking home and away each week. I completed a Sports Science degree in London and started applying for jobs but not really knowing what I wanted to do. A job came up in the Evening Standard working for The FA so I applied for it, but I didn't get it. What I didn't realise though, is they kept my application on file.
Later that same year, I got a call from their HR guys saying they were looking for a graduate trainee and asking if I would be interested. This was just the most amazing opportunity for me. I had two interviews at The FA's old headquarters at Lancaster Gate and I was really late for one of them as the train I was on broke down... this was before the days of everyone having mobile phones so you couldn't ring and let them know. I think they just thought I hadn't turned up for the interview, but I got there 2 hours late and I got the job. That was in 1995 - it was an absolute dream for someone who's a huge football fan!
How did your career progress?
I started off at The FA dealing with player contracts and transfers. We used to use the fax machine an awful lot! I worked with player's agents and was involved with interviewing them for their licencing by the FA, and then I gravitated towards the organisation of fixtures - I loved my time there. I got to go and watch FA Cup finals, England matches and matches at all levels of the game throughout the season. The fact that I had an interest in non-league football probably set me apart from other candidates who most likely were only interested in the higher levels of the game.
I left The FA in 2001 to join Fulham. Through my time in club football, I became more familiar with the individual league rules and regulations. When I was working at Southampton, my boss said to me - "Why didn't you study law?" I went to a comprehensive school where people didn't talk about going to university or studying law (in fact, people didn't even really talk about A Levels as my school didn’t have a sixth-form) but he got me thinking about it. I completed a Masters in International Sports Law and when I left Southampton I completed my GDL and LPC part-time, mainly while working for another couple of clubs, until I qualified as a lawyer in 2014, with nearly 20 years of football experience under my belt and went to work in private practice.
Are there any defining moments from your early football club experiences?
One stands out for sure. Early in my time when I was working at Southampton, we played in the UEFA Cup against Steaua Bucharest. There was a UEFA regulation that said you must charge supporters the same amount for an equivalent area in a stadium regardless of whether they were home or away fans. Our supporters had been charged around £20 for their tickets, but the local supporters were charged around £1. We took the case to UEFA, with the support of the FA, Premier League and Peter McCormick and successfully argued a rule breach and managed to get a £19 refund for all of our supporters who went to the game.
The Masters led on from that - I had felt passionate about the case from our supporters’ perspective, even though some of them were not that interested in a refund, so it really piqued my interest in sports regulatory matters.
What about overall career highlights?
Career highlights... In terms of working in football administration at clubs, being able to go and watch the club I worked for playing overseas is definitely up there! I love travelling. Also getting to the FA Cup Final when I was at Southampton.
From a legal perspective: when I joined my previous firm as an NQ in 2014, I quickly became involved with one of my more senior colleagues in a Managers’ Arbitration Tribunal acting for Crystal Palace. A lot of work went into preparing for an intense 11 days before the Tribunal at the start of 2016 and we came out of it with a fantastic result for our client. Being involved in a case like that is amazing as a junior lawyer and I learned such a lot from Ian Mill QC and David Lowe over that period of time.
How did you make the move from private practice to self-employed lawyer at Level?
Dan (Lowen) approached me quite some time before I actually joined and said, "Look, I think you've got a really unique skill set here... I think this would work well for you. We'd love to have you on board."
I thought about it over a long period of time and then had a further chat with Dan about it and we took it from there. What really moved it all forward was thinking about my work-life balance - the level of work at my previous firm was unsustainable at times, although I really enjoyed what I did there and had some great colleagues. I needed more control, and the Level model offered that to me.
The Level model also allows me to continue working from home which is really important to me; you save so much time (and money) not having to travel into an office!
We've got to ask you this... you love sport - do you take part in any yourself?
I run regularly (albeit rather slowly)… I am a regular at parkrun each Saturday morning. I am also the Volunteer Coordinator at my local parkrun and try my hand over a few longer distances too.
I am a run leader and part of a local running club, Sunderland Strollers. I also cycle and swim - but I haven’t played football since I was at college. Sadly when I was growing up, girls didn’t have much opportunity to play football at school; I am so glad that things are different today.