The Ball is In Her Court

Raquel Libman, Executive Vice President & General Counsel

The rise of the Miami Heat reveals that a great NBA team takes more than great players. How Raquel Libman keeps tabs on the legal operations for the biggest team in basketball

Raquel Libman is at the top of her game. Libman, who serves as the executive vice president and general counsel for the Miami Heat, has worked with The HEAT Group since 2001. Libman credits her “liberal upbringing” with her unfazed entrance into the “boys club” of professional sports. “It wasn’t until I entered the workforce in the 1980s that I consciously thought about the fact that women generally operated under the assumption that we had to be better than our male counterparts in order to be offered that promotion or a plum position,” she says. “Fortunately for me, that same liberal upbringing prevented certain mental barriers from developing too early and therefore it enabled me—and even encouraged me—to take risks and not shy away from competitiveness in the workplace.”

MENTOR MOMENT WITH RAQUEL LIBMAN

What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?
You’ll be happiest and most successful if you learn and work in ways that make the best use of your natural strengths and abilities.

Who do you recommend young female professionals listen to or read?
Madeleine Albright. Most recently she was interviewed for TED Talks—a terrific resource in and of itself—on being a woman and a diplomat. Also, there is a 2007 interview by Laura Liswood, who spoke at the Salzburg Global Seminar, called “Women and Power: Mechanisms to Advance Women’s Leadership,” which is really excellent.

What is one lesson that you share with younger colleagues?
Don’t be in too big of a rush to develop professionally, because the higher up the proverbial food chain you move, the harder the job, the greater the pressure, and the higher the expectations. Telling yourself that you are ready to have the buck stop with you is one thing, really being ready is another.

The drive that landed Libman a job at a top position with one of the NBA’s most exciting teams first earned her an undergraduate degree from Yale University and ultimately a juris doctorate from the University of Miami. Before considering law school, Libman worked in international trade and project development in the Middle East, Europe, and China. It was then that she received a nugget of wisdom that has stuck with her throughout her career. “The CFO of a huge multinational corporation told me that he always preferred to partner with a female colleague when conducting business negotiations—no matter what the subject matter—because the diversity of perspective always proved an advantage,” Libman recalls. “That statement gave me a tremendous amount of confidence that I have always carried with me … He convinced me that I would always have something to offer and that my perspective mattered.”

Libman’s confidence, first instilled by her parents and reaffirmed in her career in international business, led her to being a regular at tables in which she was one of only a few women. The experience taught her how to harness a perceived disadvantage to her benefit. “I learned not to assume anything,” Libman says. “Without meaning any disrespect—since I’ve had the job and understand the challenges that come with the territory—when I first started working in management and would meet with folks from other companies, it was almost always assumed that I was the secretary until I opened my mouth and started participating in the conversation as one of the business associates. That taught me a lot about human nature and the propensity to make assumptions that are, frequently, totally off base, and can lead to really bad decisions.”

Libman considers herself a generalist. For her, being a general counsel is similar to being a hospitalist—those physicians who focus on the broad care involved in hospital medicine, minimizing the number of hospital visits required by other physicians—in that one needs to know a little about a lot of different areas. “As in-house counsel you have to be mindful of budgets and the fact that your role is not simply to inform your colleagues when there is a problem, but to have a workable solution or compromise to recommend as a means of moving the business forward,” Libman says.

To that end, Libman’s role with The HEAT Group touches all aspects of the organization. “There’s a legal component to everything: advertising, promotion, facility management, employer relations, intellectual-property elements, a lot of coordination with the NBA, basketball operations, the season-ticket-holder department, finance, sales, market research, human resources,” she says. “I work with everyone. Lawyers are always involved.”

It’s a big job, for the Miami Heat have consistently been one of the hottest teams in basketball. However, Libman is happy to stay out of the limelight in order to let the public-facing elements of the Heat shine. “My role within the company is by its very nature the antithesis of ‘front and center,’ and that’s fine with me,” she says. “The truth is that there is a tremendous amount of preparation involved in putting on a game or a show, managing a facility such as the [American Airlines] Arena and everything in between. The trick of it is to make the end product look effortless.”

That’s easier said than done. Libman’s role is a balancing act: weighing competing business interests and legal pressure points. To assist her in all the matters that cross her desk, she has the help of her associate general counsel Eve Wright and a strong network of outside counsel, who all understand the dynamic nature of The HEAT Group’s business needs. “The complexities of our business offer a special challenge in finding resources that truly provide the intended added value,” Libman says. “Therefore, the outside counsel relationships I rely on are successful because the individuals I continue to work with understand that this business is hardly ever as two dimensional as one might otherwise wish, and that over time they have come to appreciate some of the unique intricacies that arise on a regular basis—especially now, when this organization is under such a constant microscope.”

With 12 years working behind-the-scenes at The HEAT Group under her belt, Libman’s passion for the job remains unwavering. Her self-imposed standard of excellence involves more than just hard work; it has necessitated she change the status quo within the organization, notably in how other leaders value her counsel. “When you enter such a male-dominated industry as a woman, you know you are going to have to work hard to earn the respect and confidence of your colleagues,” Libman says. “However, when [my colleagues] transitioned from primarily contacting me after there was already a problem to contacting me on the front end of a deal or a potential issue, I knew that my counsel and input were valued as a result of having demonstrated that I do good work.”