By John Rosengren
From the Penn Law Journal Summer 2013 issue.
Bill Heller found a back door to the NFL. His consuming passion as a young Giants’ fan growing up in Hackensack, New Jersey, had been the pursuit of a Y. A. Tittle card. Later, when he was throwing touchdown passes himself at Hackensack High, small colleges pursued Heller. No one in his family had gone to college–his father owned the candy store where Bill bought football cards–but as a young teenager Bill had met a distant cousin dressed impeccably in a three-piece suit. “When I found out he was a lawyer, I suddenly became interested in what lawyers do,” he says.
He had dreamed of being the next Y.A. Tittle, a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback and Hall of Famer–or Earl Morrall or Fran Tarkenton–for the Giants, but he eventually realized his skill set would not land him a spot on any NFL roster. So he picked Rutgers University, about the only school not recruiting him to play football. ”I wanted to get good grades and get into a good law school,” he says.
That happened, and, four years later, after he’d applied to all of the Ivy League law schools, he was delighted when a fat envelope arrived from Penn Law, his top choice. “That was one of the most exciting days of my life when I got accepted into Penn Law School,” he says.
Fast forward 35 years. Heller’s at home in Wyckoff, N.J., on a Sunday afternoon in 2010 preparing for a trial and wondering when he and his wife, Natalie, a 1976 Wharton graduate, are ever going to find time to travel now that their two sons are out of college. He had developed a successful career as a generalist but the demands of private practice had increased rather than decreased over the years. It seemed time for a change of pace and a new career. He was about to discover his hard work had put him in the right place.
Meanwhile, when Wellington Mara, the longtime owner of the New York Giants, passed away in 2005, his son John Mara, the team’s executive vice president and general counsel succeeded his father as president and CEO. The demands of running the team amidst the evolving legal complications of the NFL made Mara realize he needed someone else to fill the general counsel role. Impressed by the work Heller had done for McCarter & English, the firm the Giants had hired to oversee the details of naming rights for the Giants’ new state-of-the-art training facility, the Timex Performance Center, Mara invited him to lunch on April 1, 2010. Heller was so excited about Mara’s offer to work for the team that he could hardly contain himself in the restaurant, but when he called his sons immediately afterward from his car, they tamped down his enthusiasm. “ ‘Yeah, right, Dad,’ ” they chuckled. “ ‘April Fool’s.’”
But the offer proved to be no joke, and on October 1, 2010, Bill Heller became the New York Giants’ general counsel. He had not made it to the NFL as a QB but he had as a J.D.
The perceived perks of the position are sweeter than the actual job description. Heller’s former partners picture him arriving at the office on Monday morning to hash over the weekend’s game with head coach Tom Coughlin then strolling down the hallway to discuss draft strategy with general manager Jerry Reese. “That never happens,” Heller admits. “I’m in my office practicing law.”
He’s in his Meadowlands office with a Penn Law coffee cup on his desk–the mug’s blue and red colors serendipitously matching his current employer’s–where he covers a variety of areas as the sole member of the team’s legal department. His duties range from licensing and marketing arrangements to labor and employment issues. He oversees the legal aspects of operating MetLife Stadium, recently completing a green energy initiative, and Timex Performance Center. There is not a lot of litigation, but when there is it is of significant magnitude. He finds the rewards of his current work the same as those when he was in private practice. “Tackling an issue, being involved deeply with the client, finding solutions and successfully signing that big licensing agreement or resolving a dispute–I always found all of that very satisfying,” he says.
The Super Bowl ring in 2012, the same as the players’, was nice, too. Yet working for a professional football team presents unusual challenges where the power structure is not always top down and company decisions are not always based on his sage legal opinion. For instance, Heller expressed concerns when the coaches wanted to give players electronic tablets with highly confidential information–playbooks, game plans, access to team networks–on them. Those tablets could easily fall into the wrong hands. But the coaches wanted tablets, so the players got tablets. “That’s one example of how football operations trump our legal experience,” Heller says.
Still, he’s a member of the New York Giants and, while his job, like any job, has its shortcomings (including lower pay than private practice), he recognizes it’s a great job. When the team was invited to the White House after winning Super Bowl XLVI, the front office staff waited outside the Oval Office while the players and coaches met with the President. Heller spotted Eric Holder Jr. and introduced himself. The attorney general of the United States jokingly asked Heller if he’d like to switch jobs. No thank you, Heller replied seriously. I’m happy living this dream
John Rosengren is the author of Hank Greenberg: The Hero of Heroes.