Lawyer of the Month: David Winnie

Lawyer of the Month: David Winnie

David Winnie

When Gilson Gray LLP appointed David Winnie to lead its sports offering in May this year, he arrived with a distinct advantage.

Heading up the firm’s new sports and immigration specialism and working alongside its corporate team, Mr Winnie is not only a solicitor with 15 years’ experience specialising in sport for firms in the City of London, but also had a head start in having been a professional footballer with a career that included spells in Scotland, England, Australia and Iceland while also representing Scotland at under-21 level.

Mr Winnie explains that the highly unusual change of career had been impelled by a combination of desire and necessity. “Initially at St Mirren, Alex Miller, the manager of the team, was keen for me to come and become a full-time football player and start my career there,” he says.

He was torn between that course of action and going to university. While he had the necessary Highers to go on to tertiary education, he was also looking at career possibilities after playing and coaching in an era in which the wages were not as substantial as they currently are and did not permit footballers to retire with a substantial investment portfolio to fall back on.

“But I always had the hankering a to go back to studying when my career was finished, whenever that was,” he says.

Meanwhile, his initial instinct for football had led him to play for St Mirren, Aberdeen, Dundee, Hearts and KR Reykjavik in Iceland and Canberra Cosmos in Australia.

He won Icelandic player of the year when in the country and met Heida, his future wife. Meanwhile, he was considering life after football. “I still wanted to go back to studying, and went to my local university, the University of the West of Scotland, then the University of Paisley.”

He admits that, at that stage, law was not at the top of his wish list: “I had no preconceptions as to what I wanted to do. I just picked up the prospectus, looked through it, chalked off all the subjects I didn’t want to study and was left with law and economics, so I thought, I’ll give that a go.”

It was a felicitous choice. Four years later, studying part-time, he graduated with a first-class BA honours degree in Scots law and economics. “Though at that point, I didn’t know what to do with it, because I couldn’t see any openings in Scotland,” he recalls.

“So, I decided to take a leap of faith. I was coming toward the end of my playing career and my wife was moving to London through work.”

He took the rather dramatic course of selling up everything in Scotland and going to London. “Owing to the differences in the English legal system and the fact that I had only a BA, I had to start again and took a fast track to an LLB in 10 months.”

This, however, led to something of a fast track that has continued. He qualified as a solicitor in 2009 obtained a training contract at local firm in St Albans.

Though he qualified just as the financial crash hit the profession and all the trainees told they were to be let go, he could at that point see that sport was becoming a major factor in the legal sector.

“So, I thought to myself, that’s great – I really don’t need to throw away my little black book of contacts in football and sport but can make use of it,” says Mr Winnie.

He was encouraged by the fact that in the City of London the role of law in sport was really beginning to take off and moved through a succession of jobs, gaining exposure to high-level sports transactions and disputes across the full range of sports, not just football but motor racing, cricket and boxing.

“I thoroughly enjoyed it, he says, and moved through other City law firms getting more experience in the wider legal sector including Blaser Mills which wanted to set up a sports team which they asked Mr Winnie to head up and saw him again based in the City.

“At the time I could see the development of various forums and arbitration bodies being set up because of the growing demand for dispute resolution in sport such as the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne.”

Sports law, in effect, was becoming mainstream and like a footballer anticipating the perfect pass he had discovered that niche at precisely the right time.

“Sports law is now something of a misnomer,” he says. “The law is the law and that sits above everything. In reality, my job is about how sport interacts with that,” he says.

“Beneath that, and within each individual sport, you have regulations and the interplay of those regulations with whatever particular element of law – for example employment, commercial, dispute – you’re dealing with.”

Mr Winnie qualified as a solicitor in 2009 and was partner and head of sports at Burlingtons Legal in London’s Bond Street when he spoke to Glen Gilson, managing partner at Gilson Gray.

“I immediately clicked with him and with what he wanted to do,” he says. “It’s important to be a doer, not just a talker and when I talked to Glen I could tell straight away that he had an enthusiasm for getting things done.

“You can draw some analogies from the football pitch where you need to make a quick decision and execute it.”

With a presence in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee, East Lothian and now Lincoln, the firm is looking to expand its footprint UK-wide. Mr Winnie travels to Scotland twice a month while still living in leafy Welwyn Garden City with his wife and two young children.

“Travelling back and forth to Scotland works fine for me and since joining Gilson Gray I have taken on several new clients, all Scottish and all in the sports sector.”

He describes Gilson Gray as having developed a reputation as a “disruptor in the legal market … the firm’s leadership, ambition and culture struck a chord with me.”

He serves as an arbitrator for the Football Association (FA) and Scottish Football Association (SFA) and was recently appointed to the panel for Sport Resolutions – an international dispute resolution service dealing with high-profile cases.

The former footballer and coach from Paisley, now based in the south of England, has two young sons who are Arsenal fans and he accompanies them to occasional matches at the Emirates Stadium – and while he admits to keeping an eye on the progress of the clubs he has played for, his real passion, he says, is for the national team.

As when we talked Mr Winnie was about to embark on a family trip to Munich to watch Scotland kick off the Euro 24 Championships against Germany, this is a suitably diplomatic and lawyerly answer – if, as the outcome proved, an optimistic one.

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