Lyman Bullard's Wide World of Sports
A man who never stopped playing games
Published in 2004 Massachusetts Super Lawyers magazine
on August 14, 2004
Updated on December 7, 2015
Drop a tourist in the middle of Boston equipped with only a 1997 street map, and he’d have no trouble finding three things in less than 12 minutes: a coffee shop, road construction and a pack of lawyers. And not just a pack of lawyers, but a pack of young lawyers hoping their work will not be filled with endless briefs and time sheets, and just might involve some personal interest and, perish the thought, be fun.
They should check out Lyman G. Bullard Jr. on how to manage that.
He’s got a corner office with a decent view. He doesn’t always have to wear a tie at work. Most important, he gets to center his practice around sports. And he doesn’t have to be an agent to do it.
As a partner at Choate, Hall & Stewart, Bullard’s focus is financing and acquisitions. In that role, he’s become the go-to guy for major-league sports organizations needing financial work. He led the negotiations that built the Fleet Center and the new football and baseball stadiums in Philadelphia, helped restructure the Baltimore Ravens ownership and helped structure a $1.5 billion pool of television baseball revenue for 20 teams to draw from.
Stadium deals, however, weren’t his goal after he left Boston College Law School and joined his current firm 20 years ago. He was an associate/grunt, working on general business deals. He always loved sports — he played varsity soccer and hockey at Harvard — but he didn’t see a way to make professional sports his day job. Then in 1991, a friend who worked at Shawmut Bank was trying to land the Boston Bruins as a customer and asked Bullard to help.
So Bullard began learning NHL financing rules, negotiated documents and helped his buddy land the team. Bullard also got to know people in the league and the CFO of Delaware North, the Bruins’ parent company. A year later, Delaware North hired him to work on the deal that would turn into the Fleet Center. And in an example of work begetting work, the sports work has kept coming for 12 years.
Bullard’s work may be with sports, but it doesn’t have the star quality that a sports agent might have. It doesn’t put him into contact with Bonds or A-Rod or Shaq. He doesn’t have stories about trying to make Steinbrenner squirm. His job is to pore over financing details and league rules and sit in offices with other lawyers poring over much of the same details, all in the hopes of finding common ground. To most people it may look like he could just as well be working on a strip mall or office park.
“The technical legal work is very similar,” Bullard says. “But you cannot help but have a lot more fun and enjoyment because of the context.” By “context,” Bullard is referring to how his work puts him into the sports world. He gets tickets to the World Series and to All-Star games and he’s invited to the openings of all the new stadiums.
Bullard enjoys not only the context of his work, but the work itself, particularly that he is involved in negotiation as opposed to litigation.
“In litigation, there’s very much an ‘I win, you lose’ kind of mentality,” Bullard says. “In business, you have to come up with solutions. What I think is the most fun part is looking at the problems, looking at the issues and trying to be the person who comes up with the solution that gets as much for everybody as possible.
“At the root of it all is your relationship of trust and confidence with your client,” he says. A relationship, he says, is based on more than letters of intent and interest rates. Bullard also keeps up his relations with fellow laywers. He’ll ask about the other lawyers’ families. He’ll check out the other firm’s Web site and pick up any facts that will color in a picture. He’ll see their law school class and find out if they know someone in common.
But Bullard’s relationship building doesn’t stop with other lawyers. He builds relationships with … everybody. Everybody on
his side. Everybody on their side. Everybody in the hall and in the building and on the phone. It’s a lesson that he learned early when partners told him not to focus on getting to know the higher-ups but the lawyers on the other side who were at his level, because they’ll be in charge one day.
Now that’s he a big cheese, he still follows that advice, interacting with everybody in a deal. The last thing he wants is to be seen as just a lawyer for other big cheeses. Otherwise, he’ll seem as relevant to the next generation as VCRs.
“If you don’t establish relationships at all levels of these institutions, your relationships can kind of wither away as people move on,” Bullard says.
Part of building those relationships is establishing trust. And a big way to do that is in the approach to negotiations. Bullard isn’t one for saying he wants $10 million in the hopes of getting $3 million.
“What you want to do is come out with a proposal where you can defend every single point. You’re not going to get every single point, but you haven’t thrown just ridiculous things in the air. I think you actually show the greatest respect when you come in and immediately can establish a relatively narrow gap in a transaction,” Bullard says.
It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a team owner. Four years ago, he bought the Portland Pirates, a minor-league hockey team. It’s fun, he says. He gets to bring his kids to the games. He goes to owners’ meetings, where potential NHL rule changes are debated. He also is trying to get a new arena built, so, maybe in a bit of comeuppance, he gets to taste the other side. And he thinks that helps him with his work. He knows that new stadiums aren’t going to be an eternal well. Five years is when he sees the stadium building glut petering out and the focus of his work changing.
But work will still be there, he says, in more acquisitions, particularly with the NHL and people buying multiple minor-league baseball teams, and “they’ll all need financing.” He knows the work won’t be the same — different league rules and people will be involved. But Bullard believes that he at least will have a head start, already knowing people in the leagues and being the guy to sign the checks and take abuse from outraged fans.
“Me being a minor-league owner helps. People perceive that I understand their business,” Bullard says.
Bullard’s knack with people helped with the Fleet Center negotiations. Lots of things were bogging down. The Legislature pulled the money at one time. There wasn’t just one bank to negotiate with, but three, and they were trying to merge … and “they were not fond of each other.” Bullard says it was the relationship with his opposing counsel that saved the deal.
“We said very early on, you and I have got to be the back channel on this, because we have very strong personalities involved. The only way that’s going to work is if we can maintain an offrecord dialogue and explore ways to break impasses,” he says.
After tight negotiations, they’d be on the phone with each other at the beginning of the day. Bullard says one thing he does that he finds effective is to offer an idea that the lawyer can sell to his client as his own that Bullard can persuade his client to take.
“The only way that works is if you’ve established that bond with the other lawyer.”
But sometimes nothing seems to work. Sometimes he can’t use an inside joke to break the tension. Sometimes everyone hasn’t invested six months in the project and doesn’t know every brutal detail of every brutal detail.
It’s those times that Bullard has to remind himself to think before he reacts.
Such was the case with the Major League Baseball deal last year. Bullard was in charge of structuring a $1.5 billion pool of TV revenue. It involved 20 teams and required figuring out a way to allow each of them, regardless of size, to borrow the same amount of money on the same terms. It was a few days before Christmas and 11 p.m. on the night before the deal was supposed to close. Then the deal hit a snag and was getting hung up by one team that happens to be immensely not loved in the Boston area.
Bullard was told by the lawyer that the team had to get approval of its shareholders, which would mean at least 72 hours. A delay would have also meant “millions and millions of dollars at stake.” His initial reaction, he says, was to pick up the phone and scream at the lawyer. He decided against that approach, went into his office and figured out a better plan. It involved an explanation of the consequences to the lawyer and the fact that a vote wasn’t needed, all based on an assumption that, “as smart as this guy is, he may not understand this.” He didn’t. He called Bullard back 10 minutes later and said everything was all right. Bullard sat in his chair and realized he had just ducked a fastball.
“I’ll tell my principal client this,” Bullard says. “But basically no one else will ever know how close this deal was to having a really horrible consequence take place.”
Well, they do now.