"It definitely doesn't feel like new at this point," Elhai said recently, joined by Heller at MetLife Stadium. "It feels like we've known
each other for a really long time."
Heller, general counsel for the Giants, spent three decades in private practice before joining one of the NFL's oldest and most exalted franchises. But Elhai, his 36-year-old counterpart, has known nothing but Gang Green, spending his entire legal career with the upstart team known for its boisterous coach and an owner who doesn't shun the spotlight.
Yet the two attorneys see their differences as assets to one another, and they are as mutually deferential as two colleagues who have spent decades together in the legal trenches. For Elhai, Heller's experience in private practice "really helps me understand how the other side thinks … which, I think, makes it a lot easier to negotiate these deals, because we're always prepared for what's going to happen next."
For his part, Heller, 59, said he "learn(s) from Hymie all the time." And his Jets counterpart brings the institutional knowledge of having worked with the NFL for so long.
Their close relationship has helped Heller and Elhai during a critical time for their employers. Since the teams opened the stadium in 2010, there have been several high-profile legal assignments involving both clubs, like sponsorships and stadium contracts. That's not to mention that both men have acted as co-counsel for the stadium since the spring, when the position became vacant. And even for projects that don't overlap, "we're pretty careful to be sure that we're in sync on important business and legal terms," said Elhai, the Jets vice president for business affairs and general counsel.
A milestone in their partnership came early on, in 2011, when they negotiated the stadium's naming rights deal with MetLife Inc. Elhai recalled the "immense amount of pressure" that was placed on those working on the deal — particularly from the Jets' perspective, after the team spent some 25 years as tenants of Giants Stadium.
The deal, he said, was time consuming, but gave them a chance to forge their partnership while there were many different interests at stake.
"We had a table filled with business people and lawyers, which on the one hand was necessary, because it was a tremendous deal with a lot of details," Heller said. "On the other hand, when you have that many people involved, progress is slow and tedious. And one of the things that Hymie and I like is efficient."
Heller came to the Giants to fill a role held by John Mara, who shifted from the franchise's general counsel to president and CEO after his father, co-owner Wellington Mara, died in 2005. Much of his time with Newark-based McCarter & English included service as an outside general counsel for the team.
Still, he said, "I never thought I would leave private practice." So it came as a thrill when Mara offered him the job in April 2010. He recalled that "I was wearing my lawyer costume at a fancy restaurant, and inside I was jumping for joy. But outside I was saying calm things, like 'Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity.' "
Elhai's rise to his own post was perhaps equally unexpected. The lifelong Jets fan had planned to pursue a career in sports and entertainment, perhaps as an agent, when he started with the team as an intern in 2000, he said.
"If you told me 10-plus years later that I'd be sitting here as general counsel of the team, I would have thought you were crazy," Elhai said.
But his performance and the ties he had built with team executives landed him a job as a manager of legal affairs and business development, he said, paving the way for his rapid ascent. He noted the marked growth of the NFL "from even 10 years ago," conceding that such a career path would be less likely today.
"But from my standpoint, if I took a different path, I wouldn't have been thrown to the wolves as quickly as I was, and I would be at a different stage in my career," he said. "So I do feel fortunate that was happening at that point."
Aside from sharing some legal duties for the region's two NFL franchises, Heller and Elhai now share the perks of working for a professional sports team: attending home games and "living and dying" with the team as an entire organization.
They also share the quirks, they said, like the steady stream of midgame messages from friends and relatives.
"I'll get texts that say, 'What the matter with Eli (Manning) today?' " Heller said.
As for any rivalry between the organizations, Elhai and Heller leave it to the players — and the fans.
"That has no place in what Hymie and I do," Heller said, though he acknowledged that there are sometimes disagreements between the Jets and Giants businesspeople.
"But when that happens, Hymie and I talk separately and we get it resolved," he said. "This is a little private law firm we have going on here, and it's working real well for the teams."
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