Lightfoot, Franklin and White is a name that keeps resonating through the halls of Auburn University. Within the past two months, the school has called on the Birmingham-based law firm at least three times to investigate incidents involving athletics.
But Auburn has a long history with the firm, which has a team of lawyers who specialize in, among other things, NCAA compliance.
“Over the past decade, Lightfoot has established itself as a national leader in NCAA compliance and collegiate institutions,” the firm’s website reads. “Since 2008, the firm has handled several matters before the NCAA Committee on Infractions and Infractions Appeals Committee that received national attention.”
Lightfoot, Franklin and White has an extensive list of clients from multiple industries, including Oprah Winfrey, Exxon Mobil Corporation, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., The Boeing Company, Walt Disney Pictures and Television and ESPN. In 2016, Business Alabama magazine listed LF&W as the 10th-largest law firm in the state. But who is this firm, and what influence does it wield over the world of collegiate athletics from its office on 20th Street in the Magic City?
“Lightfoot is and has always been a litigation firm, and helping our clients resolve disputes is all we do,” according to the firm’s website. “Our work can take the form of an investigation, pre-lawsuit advice and resolution, handling a lawsuit or arbitration through settlement or trial, or handling an appeal. But in the end, our mission is the same – we are here to solve our client’s problems.”
At Auburn, at least some of those problems recently have revolved around the athletic department.
The firm began investigating Auburn’s softball program in August, following a Title IX complaint filed by a former player. The complaint stated that former head coach Clint Myers, who retired Aug. 23, “knowingly let his son Corey Myers have relations and pursue relations with multiple members of the team.”
Last month, Auburn confirmed LF&W is investigating the men’s basketball program after an FBI investigation led to six counts of federal corruption against associate head coach Chuck Person.
The university again referred to the firm earlier this month, when allegations surfaced that an academic support staffer took an online final exam for at least one former football player.
“Auburn has called on the Lightfoot firm from time to time through the years,” a university spokesperson stated in an email to the Opelika-Auburn News. “The firm has a specialized athletics practice, specifically in NCAA compliance, and is used by major athletics departments across the country. They have a national reputation for integrity, knowledge of the issues and conducting thorough, independent investigations. Because they know Auburn, its lawyers can hit the ground running when needed.”
Auburn has employed Lightfoot’s services since as far back as the early 2000s, during a two-year-long NCAA investigation of the men’s basketball program. Auburn faced allegations of offering cars and thousands of dollars to two prospects, but was cleared of the most serious rule violations in 2004.
LF&W defended Auburn in 2010, when the NCAA questioned whether quarterback Cam Newton violated amateurism rules. The college athletics’ governing bodyeventually decided that Newton was, in fact, eligible to compete in the SEC Championship Game and he was eligible to compete during the 12 regular-season games. Auburn went on to win the BCS Championship later that month, and Newton was awarded the Heisman Trophy.
When the Opelika-Auburn News called the law firm this weekand asked to speak with someone about the relationship between Lightfoot and Auburn, a spokesperson for the firm responded with an email.
“Lightfoot, Franklin and White LLC is representing Auburn University in this matter,” said the email, sent by the firm’s director of marketing and attributed to partner Henry Gimenez. “We will not be making any further statements.”
Beyond blue and orange
The Auburn University Department of Athletics is the only collegiate affiliation listed on its website, although other schools across the country have employed the litigation-only firm for its services involving athletics. An article published by The American Lawyer magazine earlier this month states, “Over the years, the firm has built up a practice of guiding institutions of higher education through various legal issues.”
Lightfoot has clients in the SEC, Pac-12, ACC, C-USA, Mountain West, Big 10, Big 12 and American Athletic conferences, according to its website.
After the success the firm had on Newton’s behalf three years earlier, Texas A&M hired Lightfoot in 2013, when Johnny Manziel was accused of accepting money in exchange for autographs.
Penn State University paid at least $50,131 in attorney fees to Lightfoot, Franklin and White in 2012, according to The American Lawyer. Lightfoot was one of several firms Penn State consulted in connection with child sex abuse charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
The law firm has also been connected to state politics as a LF&W attorney, Jack Sharman, served as special counsel to the Alabama House Judiciary Committee for former Gov. Robert Bentley’s impeachment investigation. And that connection goes through the Auburn board of trustees where Elizabeth Huntley, an Auburn alum and a LF&W attorney who focuses on child advocacy, is a member.
Huntley was appointed to the Auburn board in 2012 by Bentley and confirmed by the Senate.
“Auburn has a history with the Lightfoot firm that predates Ms. Huntley’s selection to the board,” a university spokesperson said in an email this week. “Now, as a trustee, she has no involvement in any decision at Auburn regarding the firm. Furthermore, she is separated fully from any work the firm may conduct on Auburn’s behalf.”
The firm expanded to the Lone Star State in January, opening a second office in Houston.
“Lightfoot, Franklin and White has represented a broad range of clients in matters across the United States,” its website reads. “Currently, we have been there when it matters in 40 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia, and we stand ready to answer the call anywhere our clients need us, nationwide.”