New Vikings stadium is Super Bowl for law firms

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 3, 2012 - 11:13 AM

The project is expected to yield millions in attorneys' fees; 16 law firms vied for the contracts.

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March 1, 2012. New rendering of Vikings stadium, after stadium announcement.

At the height of Target Field's construction, the legal tab for the stadium's oversight body, the Minnesota Ballpark Authority, ran in the neighborhood of $400,000 to $500,000 per year.

Hennepin County, another player in the development of the $545 million home for the Minnesota Twins, spent $2.7 million for counsel to sort through a maze of property records, handle easement issues, and interpret the legislative language that made the project doable. And that doesn't include the undisclosed legal fees paid by the Twins' owners -- the Pohlad organization -- to the five firms it retained for the project.

So when the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority sought applications for legal help in the construction of a new $975 million stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, it was not surprising to see 16 law firms toss their hats into the ring for a project that's likely to yield several million dollars or more in legal fees.

That's good business for lawyers in an economy where many privately funded construction projects have stalled for lack of financing, where mergers and acquisitions are down and where clients have cut back on legal spending in general and rely more on in-house attorneys.

"It's reasonably steady work and a great high-profile project to tell prospective clients about," said legal consultant Roy S. Ginsburg.

"It's a significant amount of legal work, no doubt about that," said Michele Kelm-Helgen, chair of the facilities authority. "We were looking for a very broad array of services."

After a round of presentations in the summer, the Sports Facilities Authority selected two firms to assist it between now and the Vikings' season opener in 2016.

For the complex construction issues, the authority hired Fabyanske, Westra, Hart & Thomson, a relatively small Minneapolis law firm with a long history of doing big projects, including the Mall of America, the original Metrodome and the Minneapolis Convention Center.

For its other legal needs, including issues involving labor and employment, intellectual property and real estate, the authority chose Dorsey & Whitney, a venerable Minneapolis firm with a broad range of legal capabilities and a long history of doing business in Minneapolis.

The Minnesota Vikings have assigned their legal work to the Minneapolis firm of Briggs & Morgan, which was also retained by the Pohlad organization on behalf of the Minnesota Twins in the Target Field project.

The Vikings also are using the New York firm Proskauer Rose, which has a close relationship with the National Football League and other professional sports leagues and teams. The NFL is providing $200 million in the form of loans and grants for the Vikings project.

The Vikings' choice of firms surprised some in the Minnesota legal community because Faegre Baker Daniels, formerly known as Faegre & Benson, did not make the cut for the stadium legal team. Faegre has done legal work for the football team for many years.

Kevin Warren, Vikings vice president for legal matters, said in an interview that the team remains a client of Faegre (and several other Twin Cities law firms) on nonstadium matters.

"We believe in Minnesota firms," Warren said in an interview last week. "Faegre still does legal work for us and we have an ongoing relationship with a multitude of Minnesota firms."

Warren said Briggs & Morgan and Proskauer have deep experience in stadium construction projects with sufficient breadth to handle a wide array of legal matters affiliated with a stadium, including bond counsel, public finance, banking, real estate, litigation, entertainment law and tax issues.

"We view Briggs & Morgan as a strategic partner, not an outside law firm, that does excellent work with a reputation of integrity and experience," Warren said. "Proskauer will handle NFL-related issues. We have a marriage of the best firms."

Both the Vikings and the sports facilities authority will pay their attorneys on an hourly basis and do not have a firm estimate yet of just exactly what their legal budget will be.

The Dorsey firm, in its proposal to the authority, offered a 15 percent discount on its fee structure. Still, hourly rates will range from $200 an hour for a less experienced law firm associate to $647 an hour for a senior partner.

Hennepin County Finance Director David Lawless said the legal fees paid on Target Field were "money well spent" because of the size of the project and the complexities of the issues, which included relocating railroad tracks and building over an interstate highway.

The Vikings stadium will be built in a fishbowl of public and taxpayer oversight, and that could have a downside.

"The legal work is most likely to become high profile if it gets screwed up," said Herbert Kritzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law. "Something going wrong in the legal work on a high-visibility public project is likely to be more damaging than in a project where the issue may stay behind the senes."

David Phelps • 612-673-7269

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