Richard P. Slivka, general counsel for the Denver Broncos of the National Football League, says you, too, can be general counsel for an NFL team—just as soon as you get a handle on the nearly 30 different legal disciplines involved. That includes contracts, litigation, intellectual property, government law (federal and state), labor, antitrust, real estate, tax, securities…and the list goes on and on.
Slivka, JD ’69, earned the “best job in the state” by winning a major piece of litigation for the Broncos’ team owner, he says. But his legal know-how, and his career connections, started at GW Law.
Born in Connecticut, Slivka moved to Arizona for high school and attended Arizona State University, where he earned an undergraduate accounting degree. Although he began his law education at the University of Arizona, Slivka was always drawn to Washington. Slivka thought the best place to start his intended career as a tax lawyer was at the Justice Department, so he transferred to GW for his third year of law school and took an internship at the Department of the Interior.
Once at GW Law, Slivka quickly realized he was on a different playing field. The year was 1969. Although he didn’t start protesting, making tie-dyes, or staging sit-ins, “GW and D.C., the whole package combined, elevated my excitement about the legal profession,” he explains.
“The quality of the professors was great. The students were more serious. Their focus on the issues of the day and the proximity to government made it feel like you were at the center of the nation. People were focused on more important things than just law school. People were working for senators, people were working for justice,” he says.
After graduation, Slivka went to work in the criminal section of the tax division of the Justice Department, at times climbing over anti-war demonstrators to get to his office. During his five years there, he traveled around the country prosecuting tax cases. It was then that he really learned how to analyze and prepare a case, he says.
Slivka could have stayed in Washington to continue his tax career, but many of his D.C. friends were Colorado natives who were going home. He had been to the state many times before and liked it, so he tagged along. He worked at the U.S. Attorney’s office in Denver, and in the two years he was there, he was in trial every week. His cases ranged from drugs to insurance scams to securities fraud.
Armed with a firm knowledge of how to prepare and try cases of all kinds, as well as a litigator’s instinct for trouble spotting, Slivka then went into private practice with a colleague, doing tax, criminal, and eventually corporate litigation. One day in 1987, one of his real estate partners walked into Slivka’s office with Pat Bowlen, a wealthy businessman who was co-owner of a bank that had failed. Since Bowlen had initially acquired the bank from the FDIC one year earlier, Bowlen and his partner were looking to sue the government, a costly and daunting proposition. Quickly identifying the most relevant issues, Slivka informed Bowlen this was not an asset acquisition case but rather a securities one. Slivka told Bowlen the government would make a motion for summary judgment, and, if it was denied, Bowlen would eventually win the case. The government made the motion, it was denied, and the government settled the case very favorably to Bowlen and his partner. The next day Bowlen transferred all of his personal, real estate, banking, tax, and corporate legal work to Slivka.
Bowlen, Slivka discovered, was also owner of the Denver Broncos.
When the time came for a new stadium for the Broncos in 1998, Slivka was heavily involved. That was when he and Bowlen realized operating the stadium would require an on-site legal staff. While he loved private practice, Slivka thought the new challenge was appealing. He wasn’t sure exactly what a general counsel would do every day, he says, but he quickly found out.
“It takes 25 to 28 different legal disciplines to represent Pat and the Broncos on a daily basis. Every day I am doing something new and learning something new,” he says. And Slivka doesn’t even negotiate the player contracts. Thanks to the collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union, player contract terms are fairly standard, so the only thing left to negotiate is the salary, which is handled by the team’s general manager and his team of salary cap experts. The biggest challenge Slivka faces is issue spotting, he explains. “Obviously, you can’t be an expert in all of these areas, but you need to have enough knowledge to recognize the issues,” he says.
What’s Slivka’s advice for snagging an NFL gig? It’s necessary, he says, to have a broad background. He also explains that the litigator perspective is more helpful than a business background because it trains you to quickly identify potential problems and focus on the most important issues. “The best business lawyer should have a high working knowledge in litigation,” Slivka says. Slivka also says that intellectual property is “the thread that runs through all of sports law because sponsorships are what drive sports.”
While he enjoyed his time in private practice, Slivka admits he wouldn’t trade his current job for any other in the world. That’s a good thing. With his dedication and expertise, Slivka has earned his spot on the team.