Viva Las Vegas! Attorneys bet on Growth of Gaming Law

Viva Las Vegas! Attorneys bet on Growth of Gaming Law

3/24/2008
By: Nora Lockwood Tooher Staff Writer HENDERSON, Nev. - In the hotel casino, bleary eyed players feed the slot machines and line up for the breakfast buffet. Thirty yards away, inside a large, private room, a group of industry pros sip coffee and swap gambling tips. Gambling law tips, that is. They are here for the American Bar Association's gaming law conference, an annual get-together of the nation's top gaming lawyers. The seminar, held last month at the posh Green Valley Ranch & Resort - about 15 minutes southeast of the Las Vegas Strip - is a chance for lawyers to discuss the latest legal and regulatory issues in the gambling industry. Looking decidedly un-Vegasy in their conservative business suits, the lawyers sit through 13 hours of panel discussions over two days on technical topics such as: the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act; private equity financing for commercial casinos; negotiating tribal pacts; and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. None of it is exactly breakfast chit-chat for tourists at the buffet. But the lawyers are happier than a player who's just been dealt a straight flush. "I really enjoy this conference because it's nuts-and-bolts, not academic," says Carlos Alvarado, general counsel for the Little River Casino Resort in Manistee, Mich. Luck be a lawyer Thirty-five years ago, when Las Vegas attorney Robert Faiss told people he was a "gaming lawyer," the reaction was always the same: "They'd think you were in fish and game." Faiss, 73, a partner at Lionel Sawyer & Collins in Las Vegas, has represented many of the major gaming companies in Nevada. He chairs his firm's 16-lawyer gaming practice - the largest in the country - and represented MGM Mirage in its $7.9 billion acquisition of Mandalay Resort Group in 2004. He also helped make the gaming industry respectable. As the lead lobbyist for Nevada's casino resorts, Faiss has been involved since 1973 in the majority of changes to the state's gaming regulations. Strict state gaming controls in Nevada encouraged other jurisdictions to try their luck with legalized gambling. Thirty years ago, casino gambling was legal in only two states - Nevada and New Jersey. Since then, 10 other states have given the green light to casino gambling and 11 more have racetrack casinos (racinos). Massachusetts is considering casino gambling, and there are ongoing efforts in other states to legalize commercial casinos and racinos. Indian gaming is the fastest-growing segment of legalized gambling in the country, with tribal casinos in 28 states. California voters recently approved propositions that will allow four Indian tribes to add up to 17,000 slot machines. With cash-strapped communities legalizing gambling faster than a slot machine can take a retiree's nickels, gaming law is among the fastest-growing niches in the legal profession. "Thirty years ago, if you said you wanted to be a gaming lawyer, you would have to be in Nevada; there were just a couple of firms in Las Vegas," notes Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Now, in every state - with the exception of Utah and Hawaii - there is gambling going on." Robert W. Stocker II, an attorney with Dickinson Wright in Lansing, Mich., and the conference's moderator, agrees: "Gaming is expanding rapidly. We are seeing an increase in the number of people becoming true gaming lawyers." Stocker estimates there are 100 to 150 full-time "gaming lawyers" nationwide - private practice attorneys who represent clients before gaming control boards and deal with licensing issues on an ongoing basis. Other lawyers work for state gaming boards and as in-house counsel for casinos. Now in its 12th year, the conference this year has attracted more than 120 participants from throughout the United States, as well as Canada and the Chinese special administrative region of Macau. Thomas Otesterhold Jr., a partner at Spencer Fane Britt & Browne in St. Louis, Mo., is here to network and pick up some insight into working with commercial casinos. The firm's five-lawyer gaming practice so far has focused on Native American gaming in Oklahoma and Missouri. "We want to try to branch out our practice beyond tribal gaming," he says. Finding the action Several conference attendees started out as state gaming regulators, before making the leap to more lucrative positions. Thomas Auriemma, 58, spent 28 years as a regulator, rising to the rank of director of gaming enforcement in New Jersey. When he retired last year, he was quickly hired by Penn National in Wyomissing, Pa. In his new job, he oversees compliance at Penn National's 19 casinos and race tracks in 15 states. It's been a steep learning curve. "I didn't know the first thing about horses," he says. "I knew they had a head; I knew they had a tail." The pay is better, but the hours are longer. Still, Auriemma says he's excited to be on the inside of the gaming industry. "Yes, it has certain bad sides and dark sides, but it's a legitimate industry," he comments. Despite the economic downturn, several experts at the conference predict continued gaming industry growth. Ongoing technology advancements, foreign investment in the U.S. gaming industry and the possible legalization of Internet betting all bode well for gaming industry growth. "That creates opportunities for attorneys," Faiss says. Rules of the game Responding to demand, more than 30 law schools, including Harvard, offer gaming law courses. Twenty five years ago, not a single American law school had a course in gaming law, according to Jarvis. "There is a need by the industry for gaming lawyers, and law schools are reacting," he says. Faiss, who teaches a gaming law course at the University of Nevada's Boyd School of Law, invited his students to attend the conference. Among those attending is Bret Meich, 25, who hopes to join a firm in his hometown of Reno, Nev., that has some casino clients. "I certainly want it to be part of my practice," he says. Fellow law student Nikki Dupree, 31, agrees: "I would love to be in gaming." But finding a law firm with a full-time gaming practice still isn't easy, especially outside of Sin City. "Vegas is like nothing else," Dupree says with a grin. "But finding firms that do gaming work full-time is hard." Stacey L. Hall, 31, graduated from the University of Iowa's law school in 2003, hoping to get involved in regulatory work. She landed at Lane & Waterman in Davenport, Iowa, which represents numerous gaming properties in the state, and now devotes the majority of her practice to gaming law. Originally from Las Vegas, Hall did not plan to end up in gaming law. But I'm glad I did. I really enjoy the practice," she says. "I would say my roots in Vegas definitely helped give me a leg up in that I understood things about the gaming industry that attorneys from other parts might not." When the session ends, Hall and most of the lawyers grab their cellphones to call their offices. Those heading for their cars pass through the casino without stopping. "Most gaming lawyers don't gamble at all," Hall says. "Our clients are the casinos. We know how they work." Questions or comments can be directed to the writer at: nora.tooher@lawyersusaonline.com
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