Houston litigator Tom Ajamie is going to Super Bowl 51, but he’s prepared to spend the entire game working.
“If I don’t see the game because I’m busy with legal issues, that’s okay,” he said. “I’ll be doing my job. I prefer doing my job.”
Maybe if you’re a fan of the New England Patriots or Atlanta Falcons, who will be squaring off Sunday night. But perhaps Ajamie’s fellow lawyers can understand.
Ajamie and others at his firm Ajamie LLP, as well as Winstead PC, are representing the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, the team tasked with making sure everything off the field goes exactly as planned.
After two-years working on the big event, final details are falling into place. Ajamie’s firm has even put the Harris County courts on notice in case it needs to seek an injunction against someone “causing a commotion” or trying to “sell product they’re not supposed to sell.”
Ajamie said he and three other attorneys are doing most of the work for the Host Committee within his 12-lawyer firm, along with two paralegals. Although Ajamie usually bills $900 an hour for his time, he said he’s offering a steep discount as a “value add” while his attorneys are paid at their full rates.
This week, Ajamie spoke with Big Law Business about the challenges and rewards of helping coordinate such a large event (yes, he does expect to meet Lady Gaga). The following interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
Big Law Business: You got this role in part because you went to elementary school with Sallie Sargent, the president and chief executive officer of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee. How important are relationships in the business of law?
Ajamie: Because the president and CEO of the Houston Super Bowl recognized my name from many, many years ago, she researched me, and her staff researched me, and they saw our law firm is a very well-known and well-respected firm, so I was put in the mix. Then it was a committee of people who decided to hire me not just her, of course. But people have to know you exist in order for you to even be in the running for a piece of work, right? So if you’re a hermit or introverted, the odds of getting work are probably very slim. If you are involved in the community, which I am, then at least they know your name, and you are in contention.
Big Law Business: But a grade school connection doesn’t pay off very often, I imagine.
Ajamie: It’s never happened to me until this time. This was a case where a unique name actually helped. Normally my name is quite difficult because it’s hard to pronounce and hard to spell, but I have noticed over the years that if someone sees my name and learns it, they normally never forget it.
Big Law Business: You’re a litigator — has this been a big change of pace?
Ajamie: It has, in some ways, but we have done contract work; we can do it and we’re very happy to do it here. But our litigation expertise has been helpful in advising regarding risk management, what to look out for in terms of liability issues. We have, for example, a ride in the Super Bowl Live area where you go up 90 feet and it kind of does a fast drop — so what the potential liability would be for that. What the liability would be for performers on stage, what the liability is for food trucks coming in and out, for mass numbers of people. We worked with the NFL in putting together risk assessment charts, all the way from someone coming in with a gun, to a performer pulling out at the last minute.
Big Law Business: What has been the most interesting part of your work for the Host Committee?
Ajamie: The most interesting part has been learning the ins and outs of the multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. Tier one, mega events require years of planning and hundreds of people, and it’s a massive undertaking.
Big Law Business: What have been the biggest challenges?
Ajamie: The biggest challenges have been really trying to anticipate everything that could possibly go wrong — all the way from large contract issues to security issues to issues as small as a vendor with a food truck in the Super Bowl Live area that has tires that aren’t made by the official NFL tire corporate sponsor. The NFL is very good to their corporate sponsors and, if you’re a sponsor, everything within a certain “clean zone” will be your product.
Big Law Business: Did you have to have some conversations about tires?
Ajamie: We did. And then we go and either replace them or cover them up.
Big Law Business: What’s the atmosphere in Houston like this week?
Ajamie: The atmosphere is electric; it is charged; this city is very excited to host the Super Bowl. Super Bowl Live, which is outdoor entertainment providing free concerts and interactive games and food carts and rides, is packed every night; there are 10,000 volunteers working around the city to help people find where to go, and probably 10 to 12 city blocks are closed down for all the festivities. It’s a lot of fun.
Big Law Business: What was the most Super Bowl-like moment of the work? The Hail Mary or the perfectly executed play?
Ajamie: I think that’s to come frankly. As we speak, we have a lot of celebrities coming down. It’s just amazing how many simultaneous events are going on. You’ve got Taylor Swift one night, Bruno Mars; it just goes on and on forever. We had designated over 130 restaurants and venues for activities that we had already locked down a couple of years ago, and, as best I can tell, all those have been taken over by companies that use the Super Bowl to entertain.
Big Law Business: Official Super Bowl events include everything from a Gospel Celebration to community revitalization projects. How do you handle that range?
Ajamie: Well, it’s really no different from us handling a multi-billion dollar case where you sometimes have literally hundreds of witnesses, and you’re coordinating schedules, and you have graphic artists, and motions that have to be drafted and presented at certain times, and witnesses’ direct examinations and cross examinations, and practice runs of testimony. In a major piece of litigation, there are a lot of moving parts, so we’re somewhat prepared. Although I think these major events (laughs) make even multi-billion dollar litigation look a little easier. Not easy, but a little easier.
Big Law Business: There have been calls for Lady Gaga to pull out of the Super Bowl as a way to protest a proposed measure that would restrict bathroom access for transgender people in Texas. And this week protests over President Trump’s executive order on immigration took place in Houston. Did any political issues like these affect your work?
Ajamie: Only in this regard: We have worked with the city to have zones where people can protest. We definitely believe in free speech, but we don’t want it to interfere with other people just trying to have fun.
Big Law Business: Will your firm be having a Super Bowl watch party to celebrate their work?
Ajamie: I think that most people will probably be at the game one way or the other. We’re assisting on a lot of things. There are certain people who need to be escorted around—celebrities and other dignitaries, political people. A lot of our people will participate in the game in some working capacity.
Big Law Business: Everyone knows the halftime show is at least half the fun in a Super Bowl. Were you involved with the Lady Gaga work?
Ajamie: We did not do the Lady Gaga contract. We did meet with Lady Gaga’s lawyer to tell her that everyone involved in the Super Bowl would be very excited to have her participate. This was early on. Her voice is stunning.