Pepperdine University - B.A. Broadcasting
Oklahoma City University School of Law - J.D.
A career in law doesn't have to be all tax code or malpractice suits. After all, Nona M. Lee found her niche in the field when she combined law with another one of her passions: sports.
As the senior vice president of general counsel for MLB baseball team the Arizona Diamondbacks, Nona manages the organization's legal department, outside counsel relationships and is ultimately responsible for all legal matters affecting the organization. What does that look like in the day-to-day? Well, Nona tackles everything from facility-related issues and ownership transfers to working with lobbyists or assisting with player-related matters. She's also the founder of the Phoenix Women's Sports Association, an Arizona non-profit organization dedicated to helping girls and women in Arizona find their power through sports.
For me, success is measured as much, if not more, by what I give back than by what I've achieved.
Did you always know you wanted to work for a Major League Baseball team? What was your career path like from graduation to your current position?
Working for a MLB team was not always my goal. When I graduated from Pepperdine, my goal was to get a job as a sportscaster. Unfortunately, that didn’t work out and I ended up working on the business side of the entertainment business for several years. I ultimately decided that wasn't what I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing, so I thought long and hard about what career would capture and hold my interest for the remainder of my career. I'd worked in law offices growing up (my mother was a legal secretary) and was always intrigued by the law. I decided to test the waters by first becoming a certified paralegal. I got a job as a paralegal from one of my professors, Walter Losiewicz, who was absolutely amazing. He was the one who encouraged me to go to law school. But even in law school, working in sports wasn't on my radar.
When I graduated, I had an offer to come work as a litigation associate for a firm in Phoenix. So I did. My practice areas were primarily general commercial litigation and personal injury, with an emphasis on medical malpractice and wrongful death claims. After four years of practice with the firm, the WNBA started, and the light came on for me. I knew I had to find a way to merge my passion for sports with my practice, so I researched which firms in Phoenix represented the professional sports teams and got interviews with them both. I received an offer to join one of them -- Gallagher & Kennedy -- as a corporate associate.
A very short time thereafter, the General Counsel for the Suns announced that she was leaving and G&K asked if I wanted to interview for the position. Of course I said yes! I didn't get the General Counsel position, but they created an Associate General Counsel position for me. I was with the Suns as AGC and eventually VP/AGC from 2000 to 2005 when I received the opportunity to become the Vice President and General Counsel for the Diamondbacks and start the legal department there. I've been here ever since and was promoted to Senior Vice President, General Counsel in 2010.
What does your job involve? What are you responsible for, and what types of responsibilities fill your day?
I manage the legal department, outside counsel relationships and am ultimately responsible for all legal matters affecting the organization. One of the things I love the most about my job is the variety of issues I deal with on a daily basis.
In addition to oversight of matters handled by the remainder of the legal department staff, I'm primarily responsible for advising and supporting the organization's executive team, which can include matters such as ownership transfers, building a new spring training facility, complex employment-related issues, facility-related issues (i.e., ADA compliance, construction-related issues, insurance issues, special events), working with lobbyists on legislative matters, managing litigation and other matters being handled by outside counsel, handling legal issues related to operations in the Dominican Republic, assisting with player-related matters upon request and negotiating and drafting other complex contracts.
Was there ever a moment in your career where you’ve thought, “I made it!” What was it?
I'm grateful for each opportunity I've had in my career, so with each significant achievement, I suppose at some level I've thought, "I made it!" -- but only to that next step. I don't think I've made it to my ultimate career goal yet, but I'd like to think I'm getting there! If I had to choose one moment, however, when I thought I made it, it was when I founded the Phoenix Women's Sports Association, an Arizona non-profit organization dedicated to helping girls and women in Arizona find their power -- in other words, build successful lives -- through sports. For me, success is measured as much, if not more, by what I give back than by what I've achieved personally. And I'm so proud that PWSA has been able to made a difference in the community and in the lives of the girls and women we support.
What challenges keep you awake at night?
I don't know that there have been any significant legal challenges that keep me awake at night; at least in recent years. (I had plenty of sleepless nights when I was litigating!) I think because I love my job so much and I make a point to do the best I'm capable of doing every day, I generally go home at the end of the day feeling pretty good about the work that I've done.
Occasionally, finding the best way to deal with difficult people, whether at work or in my personal life, and learning not to take their behavior personally keeps me awake. As I get older, I'm getting better at it, but it's a continuing growth opportunity for me.
Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?
Yes, it has been a problem. I had to learn that my job is what I do; it is not who I am. Knowing that, I've been working to make sure that work -- although an important part of my life -- is not my life.
One of the things I have done is to make a commitment to myself not to work at home, unless it is absolutely unavoidable, which doesn't happen often. I also make sure I set aside "me" time, whether it's just for me or time spent with friends and loved ones.
What are some of the rules you live by?
These are some of the rules I try to live by, in no particular order:
- Always show up. If I make a commitment, I keep it.
- Always do my best.
- Always give back more than I take.
- Accept responsibility.
- Give credit where credit is due.
- Be kind.
- Be authentic.
- Be generous.
- Always maintain my integrity.
- Help others. Never forget I didn't get here by myself.
I am perfectly imperfect, but I'm working on it!
What qualities does it take for someone to be successful in your line of work?
A strong work ethic, passion, teamwork, commitment, a strong understanding of the law and a good business sense. Money shouldn't be the primary motivation, since in-house lawyers in this industry typically lag far behind their peers in private practice firms.
What role do you feel sports has had in making you a strong leader? Was there a particular lesson it taught you along the way?
If I hadn't participated in sports, there's absolutely no way I would be where I'm today. Playing sports helped me develop critical skills, like self-esteem, self-confidence, a strong work ethic, persistence and teamwork, that I needed to build a successful life.
What advice do you have for women who aspire to walk in your shoes?
Go for it!
Prepare yourself; develop the skills you need to do the job.
Network. There aren't a lot of opportunities for these positions in this industry, so be sure you get to know people in the industry and they get to know you so that they think of you when something comes up.
Understand the business. Even if you aren't an expert in a particular sport, it helps tremendously to understand business -- especially the business of sports.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
By that time, I hope to be Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer for the Diamondbacks. Then I can say ... "I made it!" ... again.