When Michelle Wong-Halabi ’03, became an attorney, “never in a million years” did she think she would become a sports law attorney, working with Super Bowl stars and other professional athletes.
Wong-Halabi came to law school at the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law with an interest in business law. She found her passion while enrolled in a tax law course with Professor Christine Manolakas and a Trust and Estates course with Professor Raymond Coletta. Wong-Halabi went on to complete a Certificate of Concentration in Tax and worked as an intern for the IRS during her time at McGeorge.
To further distinguish herself as a tax lawyer, Wong-Halabi completed an LLM in Tax Law.
“I initially went to law school not really knowing what I wanted to do, but I definitely had a lot of direction once I left,” Wong-Halabi remarked.
Now, Wong-Halabi is a partner at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP in Columbus, Ohio, where she works in the firm’s corporate department. Wong-Halabi’s practice is primarily focused on estate planning, including wills and trusts.
Her stellar reputation in this field led some of her clients to refer professional athletes to her.
“A lot of times, law is a referral business. By thinking about practical solutions for clients, being proactive and responsive, and just doing the best that I can, people felt they could trust me with their high-profile clients or teammates,” she said.
While Wong-Halabi cannot name her clients for confidentiality reasons, she says that the firm has an impressive roster of high-profile individuals. Wong-Halabi’s sports law clients are primarily NFL players — some of whom have Super Bowl wins under their belt. She also works with NBA, MLB, and NHL players, as well as the team coaches from each of these organizations.
Wong-Halabi describes the “vanilla” case: a married couple who want to ensure that their loved ones are provided for.
“In my sports practice, I do a lot of the same things for professional athletes, but on a bigger scale,” Wong-Halabi said. “Issues like privacy and asset protection matter more, and so does thoughtful planning around the nuances that professional athletes might face.”
Wong-Halabi enjoys the distinct challenges presented when representing professional athletes, like forming nonprofits, protecting assets, establishing business entities, as well as managing wealth in retirement.
“Because my clients all have such unique situations, not only is there significant wealth to consider for estate and gift tax purposes, but there are income tax considerations to be mindful of. These are weighed against the client’s personal goals, which may extend beyond strictly tax savings,” Wong-Halabi reflected. “It is a big puzzle, which keeps my practice interesting.”
Wong-Halabi is also making an impact in the world of professional athletics through her involvement in the nonprofit Greater Columbus Sports Commission.
“It is really a collaboration of business owners and local sports teams that have a vested interest in making Columbus one of the premier sports venues in the country and putting us on the map as a great place to host sporting events,” Wong-Halabi explained.
While Wong-Halabi was involved with the organization, Columbus hosted the 2018 NCAA Women’s Final Four and numerous U.S. Olympic sports and amateur sporting events.
Wong-Halabi gives back to her alma mater, too, as a member of McGeorge’s Alumni Board. Wong-Halabi says that she is impressed by McGeorge’s emphasis on student development and preparing students for job placement.
“I really like the direction the school is going in, and it prompted my interest to get back involved,” Wong-Halabi said.
For those interested in sports law, Wong-Halabi wants students to know that there are a variety of opportunities. She recommends that aspiring practitioners stay up to date on legal decisions related to sports, especially in the areas of technology.
“There are a lot of different ways to be a sports attorney,” Wong-Halabi said. “Some attorneys are agents, others represent the leagues, or represent teams as in-house counsel, and some are like me, where we are private practitioners that specialize in particular areas of law.”
Wong-Halabi advises law students to aspire to be the best versions of themselves.
“Be the best in whichever area of law that you practice. You can never be too good of an attorney!” she said.
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