Lisa Friel; Making a Positive Difference in the NFL

Lisa Friel was hired in April 2015 as Senior Vice President and Special Counsel for Investigations at the National Football League (NFL). Before starting at the NFL, Ms. Friel worked for 28 years as a Manhattan prosecutor and for 3 years as a consultant at T&M Resources as the Vice President of the Sexual Misconduct Consulting and Investigations Division. During her time at the District Attorney’s Office, she was the Chief of the Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit for nearly a decade and its Deputy Chief for 11 years. Ms. Friel attended Dartmouth for her BA in History and the University of Virginia School of Law. It was truly an honor to interview Ms. Friel and find out her path to the NFL. Ms. Friel is a role model to many young girls and women who aspire to work in professional sports one day. Thank you, Ms. Friel, for this wonderful opportunity!

Q: What was the most important or influential class you took during law school?

A: “The most important or influential class I took during law school was Con Law 2 (constitutional law 2). Con Law 1 was so basic and very early in your law school career, so it was not very influential. However, Con Law 2 was a much smaller class and I had a great professor. Lots of the information in the class touched on criminal law, public interest and civil rights, which I was interested in because I always wanted to be a public servant. Originally, I didn’t think about working as a prosecutor. I really didn’t think of them as the “good guys”; this was before all the Law & Order shows came out. I was working at a big New York law firm my 2L summer when another summer intern told me she had a friend at the DA’s office who was young and idealistic and who loved his job there because he really felt like he was helping people.  My main goal was to do something that makes a difference so I ended up interviewing, and meeting lots of similarly-minded Assistant DAs and deciding it was the perfect job for me.”

Q: What advice would you give someone who is interested in this type of work? Would you suggest they start in employment law, prosecutorial (criminal or civil) or go directly into the sports field?

A: “I know very few people who went directly into sports. Start somewhere else like employment law, contract work, compliance. Do something else first. I started as a prosecutor, but then I did something in the private sector before I joined the NFL. At the NFL, we have the Management Counsel which litigates all of our grievances so in order to do that you need experience in labor and employment law.  There are also firms that focus on sports law. Everything has gotten so specialized we now have niche specialties. It would be smart to get experience and exposure to the league through a sports law firm.  I would suggest to look and see who the league and other sports leagues and teams use for their legal issues and then get yourself known by the leagues/teams through completing work at the law firm. Also, send in lots of applications, but the problem with that is how do you get out of the pile of thousands of people who apply? I would suggest you join the SLA (Sports Lawyers Association) and go to the annual meeting. Send emails in advance and look through the directory and decide who you want to connect with. Women like to help other women. We have been underrepresented. I am always happy to meet or talk on the phone with young women lawyers looking for career advice. I answer every email I get, as you know because I answered yours.”

Q: Every time a player has a run-in with the criminal justice system, do you do an independent investigation?

A: “Yes, every time we get information that if true violates our Personal Conduct Policy, we do an investigation. We do an investigation even if it’s just a post on social media. We also do an investigation when we receive calls from the victim, or a family member or friend, if there is a police visit, if there was an arrest, or if there was a media report. Anytime we hear of anything that if true violates our Personal Conduct Policy, we open an investigation. I learned the investigative skills at the DA’s office. I love to investigate and make a list of everything I can think of and then cross it off as we go along. Not surprisingly, I have been called OCD. I also did consulting for 3 years doing investigations in the private sector. The biggest change doing investigations in the private sector is that you no longer have the ability to subpoena. When you are on the public side you get all the evidence because you have subpoena power. You also have a different burden of proof. When you are working in the private sector, for example, for a museum where both sides are employees, you have different sensibilities than as a prosecutor where you represent the State. I’ve also done lots of school investigations and lots of preventative work. My work at the NFL started after the Ray Rice case. I first worked as a consultant and I would run back and forth between my office and the league office which luckily were only 5 blocks apart. One time I got the run down to 4.5 minutes – in sneakers, of course. I helped the NFL to rewrite their policies, procedures, and prevention systems. The group of us who worked on this also suggested that the NFL do an independent investigation and this is how I got my job at the NFL. They said we need someone who has a background in doing these types of investigations. After April 2015, I started working at the NFL full time.”

Q: How do you determine what prevention methods are best for each situation?

A: “Different people hear messages differently. One person will hear the message by appealing to their morality, to the idea that a victim could be someone they love. Another person modifies their behavior because of the fear of punishment. People are all wired differently. In addition to education, we have to have the right personnel and resources for people who have an issue. The coaches and scouts know the players, which helps us to identify a problem early, so we can give the players tools to use when they start full time. We have mental health personnel available for the players, as well as a player engagement director who meets with the players. We must really encourage players who have mental health or substance or drug problems to get help before these issues result in a violation of one of our policies. We can help them find a program or an appropriate professional so they can avoid issues in the future.”

Q: How do you deal with a systemic problem of a toxic work environment?

A: “You have probably heard about the Washington Football Team allegations. The Team had wide spread issues. We hired an outside law firm to do an investigation to find the issue or issues. If it was one person they could just be fired but if it is more widespread than you also have to look at their policies, determine if HR is understaffed and if they have enough senior HR staff. You also have to determine what are their reporting mechanisms? Does the team have multiple lines for people to report to? People need to feel comfortable to report. People need to know there will be no retaliation. With the WFT, The Washington Post article that came out named the main offenders. In the first few days the named offenders retired or were fired. Soon after, new people began to come in. The Team hired a new head coach, Ron Rivera, who is a wonderful person.   He ensures integrity on the football side of things. The Team also brought in Jason Wright, who worked at McKinsey, who also has very high integrity. The change is coming from the top. The change needs to come from the top down. There needs to be a change in policies, procedures and personnel to stay on top of this positive change in culture at the team.”

Q: What does a typical day look like?

A: “There is no typical day.  It depends on the time of year. In the spring, I meet with the rookies from May to June. I go to each team and talk with all of the rookies face to face. I want it to be a personal conversation. I don’t bring a PowerPoint or anything like that; we just talk about difficult situations they might face and how best to navigate them so they won’t have a problem. If we are doing an investigation, we go to the people.   No one comes to us. We fly to the alleged victim and then we interview them. Then we go to our player and interview them. Usually on Monday mornings, my colleague and I like to go over all of our open cases. We tweak the to-do lists. We want to get all of our cases, if possible, closed before the season starts so the coaches and teams know who can play. The majority of my time is spent either doing an investigation or developing training. We have two people out in the field that work with us on our investigations. Connected to each team we have a contractor who is the league security representative with 20 plus years of experience in law enforcement, who has retired and obtained a private investigator’s license. When there is an issue, I will call up the security representative in the area the incident occurred in and find out more about what has gone on. I will ask him or her to file a public records request, go to the place the incident occurred at, for instance a hotel, and ask for security footage; do the boots-on-the-ground work. Each of the teams also has hired their own security director. However, the security director’s first loyalty is to the team because they are hired by the team, so it is more appropriate for us to use our security reps because we have hired them.”

Q: What do you think are the most effective methods that will help the sports industry access more talent from diverse backgrounds?

A: “We just need to hire them. Tons of people want to work in sports. People need to be intentional in their hiring practices. We want a diverse hiring pool. Diversity is not just a moral imperative but also a good business strategy. Numerous studies have shown that better decisions result from a diverse decision-making group. The League has been working hard to diversify our business offices and work with our teams to do the same.”

Q: When you graduated law school, what type of career did you aspire to?

A: “Something that helped people. To get into college and law school I wrote application essays about wanting to help people. I had pictured myself at some place like the ACLU. Then I heard about the DA’s Office and it perfectly fit what I wanted to do with my law degree.”

Q: What are the ramifications of work-life balance in employment law vs. prosecutorial work as opposed to working in the sports industry.

A: “My daughter worked as a paralegal throughout law school and gained great skills from that. My son currently works as a litigator and he is getting great experience doing that. The top law firms will pay you a lot, but you work incredible hours, not that we didn’t work hard at the DA’s Office, but nothing like my friends who started at big private firms. You will have no babies the first few years. People tend to change their careers after 4 to 5years to get a better work life balance. At the DA’s office, I worked tons of hours. At that time, we had no cell phones, at some point we had beepers.  I started in 1983 and I did not have my first child until 1990. I had an established career when I had my first child. People knew who I was and I had my work ethic by that time. Also, between my second and third child, I became a boss, a deputy unit chief, so I had a more supervisory role which meant I spent more time in my office going over cases with people and less time going out to police precincts on call which was much more manageable now that I had children. Cell phones definitely made work a lot easier. Working at the DA’s office is a 24 hour job and I didn’t mind that; I loved what I was doing. In my family, we always joke that a job at the DA’s office or a similar public service entity, is taking a vow of poverty; very emotionally rewarding but not so much financially so.”

Q: What is your best advice for a law student who would like to work in the sports law field?

A: “Develop a skill that a team or the league needs, such as investigative skills, labor and employment skills, litigation, contract work. Sports is a business. An MBA puts you in a good position because, for example, every time there is a new stadium or a team wants to move, there are lots of business transactions involved. I suggest getting experience in some area that the league or teams need.”

Q: Can you share with us your favorite team(s)?

A: “We love all 32 teams at the NFL. But I will say I grew up in New York and my dad was a rabid Giants fan. My family has generations of Giants fans. I have been to a couple of Bills games as I have close relatives who are from Buffalo. Part of my job is building good relationships with the teams so I try to go out and visit teams not just when I am doing an investigation there and since I love watching football, I will often schedule my visits to a team when they have a home game that weekend.”

Q: Did/do you play a sport? Which ones?

A: I was a real jock when I was younger. In high school I played tennis, basketball and softball. In college I played tennis and basketball. I had to have my second major knee surgery in my junior year, so I could not play during my senior year. I ended up being the assistant coach for the varsity women’s basketball team and I also coached the JV women’s basketball team that year. I stayed at Dartmouth and coached basketball another year between college and law school. I really recommend taking a few years off before starting law school.”

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job? What do you find most challenging?

A: “The most enjoyable part of my job is the rookie training. You have a room full of kids who are 20-22 who are excited to start their careers. I talk with them about behavior off the field that can hurt their career, however, I try to make it a very personal conversation.  There is no PowerPoint. I act like their Mom.  I am really pulling for each one. The most challenging part of the job is the public vilification. The NFL is in the public eye and we are dealing with sensitive issues. People are really polarized.  No one is happy all the time. People are going to publish their opinions. This was a rude awakening for me. I was trying to do the right thing and people were very tough on me. I needed to learn not to take it so personally; just do the investigation, call it the way you see it and give the results to the Commissioner who is ultimately responsible for deciding what happens after that.”

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