The Wide Out
Former Gophers wide receiver Lee Hutton III traded in his pads for a thriving and diverse legal practice
Published in 2013 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine
By Dan Heilman on July 8, 2013
Lee Hutton III, of counsel in the Minneapolis office of Zelle Hofmann Voelbel & Mason, has built the foundation of his legal career in areas such as product liability defense, complex commercial litigation and employment law.
But that’s not why TMZ and gossip columnists like C.J. want to talk to him. The most visible area of Hutton’s practice is in the representation of athletes, trainers and others in professional and amateur sports—and one of those clients happens to be Kris Humphries, the former Golden Gophers basketball standout who now plays for the Brooklyn Nets. Humphries, you might recall, happened to be married to reality TV diva Kim Kardashian for 72 days in 2011.
Hutton represented Humphries in his divorce, which settled in April. “We’re pleased that Mr. Humphries is very happy with the result,” he says.
Family law is a new swatch on the crazy-quilt of practice areas Hutton has built since 2002. Was he daunted by the fact that his first family law trial was a national gossip sensation? Hardly.
“We’re seeing it as a case of first impression,” Hutton said prior to the settlement. “A marriage is a contract between two consenting adults, and we intend to show that Miss Kardashian entered the marriage without the requisite intent to stay married.”
The plainspoken way in which the 37-year-old Hutton expresses his strategy is typical of the confidence he brings to his work—a confidence forged from years of top-level collegiate athletic competition and a drive to succeed.
A native of La Marque, Texas, and the son of a nurse and a urologist, Hutton was recruited by the Gophers football team to play wide receiver, which he did through 1998, along with competing on the school’s track team. After a handful of NFL tryouts didn’t result in a contract, he changed his focus.
Hutton passed on pursuing a career in advertising, the field he’d majored in, when friend and former teammate Chris Fowlkes (now an attorney at Bowman and Brooke) asked him to help him study for the LSAT. Fowlkes was a few years ahead of Hutton in school, but when it came to his own post-graduate plans, “I figured I might as well take it, too,” Hutton says.
After earning his J.D. from William Mitchell College of Law in 2002, Hutton’s first stop was Johnson & Condon in Edina, now known as O’Meara, Leer, Wagner & Kohl. There he got his feet wet doing insurance defense, dram shop claims, and automobile liability cases.
“It was a great foundation,” he says. “I was able to take cases to trial within my first year. My mom always told me, ‘You’re well balanced—you have a chip on each shoulder.’ I combined that with the athlete’s mentality of accepting challenges and being competitive.”
Hutton quickly defined himself as a trial attorney. He eagerly took on water intrusion cases, which boomed in the mid-2000s, as a way of building his practice and sharpening his skills.
“I was the young associate who would go out to these home inspections,” he recalls. “That grew from one to several hundred claims over the next couple of years. They were deposition-intensive, and there was a lot of motion writing. It allowed me to hone my skills and observe how other attorneys operated in this new field of product liability.”
Hutton’s sports representation practice began almost as inadvertently as his newfound family law focus. Jack Brewer, another former Gopher teammate—by then an NFL defensive back—was having issues with his agent over fees. Hutton took over as Brewer’s agent in 2004, and a niche was born.
“I looked up to Lee at the U, and he turned out to be a great attorney and a great agent,” says Brewer, who now owns an asset management firm in Minneapolis. “He worked hard for me when I was playing, and more important, he worked hard for me after I retired.”
Hutton found sports representation a natural fit. His athletic background kept him immersed in the tight circle inhabited by players, coaches, trainers and others who make their living in a profession where there’s money to be made, but for most, only fleetingly.
The new practice area made him a fixture at Lommen, Abdo, Cole, King & Stageberg in Minneapolis, which has a specialty in entertainment law. Hired there in 2007, Hutton practiced in a variety of areas, including construction law, professional malpractice and motor vehicle law. But all the while he continued to nurture his sports and entertainment law practice, helping athletes with contract work, negotiating endorsement deals and other legal matters.
Hutton left Lommen to come to Zelle last January. He was intrigued not only by the firm’s scope—it has offices in Boston, Dallas, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., London and Beijing—but also by the presence of a kindred spirit.
Shawn Stuckey, a former New England Patriots linebacker, had established a litigation practice at Zelle that focused partly on representing current and retired athletes in cases against the NFL and NCAA. “Shawn was interested in representing athletes and celebrities,” Hutton says. “We both saw that it was a great fit for us not to compete, but to merge his growing practice and my existing practice.”
Stuckey says he and Hutton had an immediate bond.
“He and I truly understand the need of the athlete,” says Stuckey. “We share a strong belief in a holistic approach to representing our clients, helping them to maximize their professional careers, building opportunities outside of sports for them, planning for the years after their playing days, and continuing to represent them after they finish playing.”
Dan Millea, managing partner of Zelle’s Minneapolis office, helped recruit Hutton and says he felt Hutton’s presence would solidify the firm’s growing sports and entertainment practice.
“He had experience, ability, and frankly, an entrepreneurial skill that really appealed to us,” says Millea. “In every conversation, he’s thinking of unique, new ideas, and he has an incredible array of contacts locally. We felt that if we could plug him into the national platform the firm has, he could really take off.”
Hutton brought an armful of cases with him, including the Humphries divorce case, and two others that were slated to go to trial over spring and summer 2013.
“Zelle has great litigators,” Hutton says. “This allows me to bring over my litigation practice and have other attorneys help me to take my sports and trial practices to a more global setting.”
That expansion is already under way. While his client list has included former Vikings E.J. Henderson and Hank Baskett, it has since grown to contain trainer Travelle Gaines, Olympic volleyball player Lindsey Berg and University of Toledo football coach Matt Campbell.
While branching out to work with athletes in sports and localities beyond the Twin Cities, Hutton is also taking a cue from Stuckey to find a place in his practice for legal advocacy on behalf of athletes. Stuckey is helping represent a number of current and former college student-athletes in cases against the NCAA and video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc., alleging misappropriation of the athletes’ publicity and antitrust rights by portraying their images on the covers of games, among other areas.
Hutton feels that will be a growing issue as the debate over whether and how college athletes should be compensated continues to heat up.
“The money that’s made off of college athletes is tremendous,” he says. “What should the NCAA and the universities do with the college athletes’ rights of publicity? Do you pay them a stipend? A percentage of what’s made? There’s certainly a violation in using these rights of publicity without express written consent to do so.”
When not tending to his growing practice areas, Hutton can be found on the golf course or pressing the flesh at sporting events or legal-biz social occasions. In between, he spends time with his three kids, also squeezing in time during the fall to help coach his son’s grade school football team.
Hutton sees his clients as his second family. “Relationships are more important in a world where remote communication has become so prevalent,” he says. “Clients want attorneys to take on their cause with same emotion that they have—and at the same time, to remember birthdays and children’s names. That personal touch is big.”
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