JoAnn Neale

Karen Leetzow


Chief Legal Officer
U.S. Soccer Federation

  


FIELD  
LEGAL

JOINED  
2020


 

Please share a bit of background about yourself.

I am an Army brat who was born in Hawaii, lived in Alaska as well as 15 other states and Germany. I am the mother of two amazing daughters and wife to one of the kindest and funniest people I know. I went to high school in Vermont and graduated from the University of Vermont with a degree in Political Science. I received my law degree from American University’s Washington College of Law in D.C., the first law school to be founded by women and the first to graduate an all-female class(!), though it was co-ed by the time I got there. I spent eight years working in government and private practice before becoming a sports lawyer when I joined NASCAR in 1999. I stayed there for 21 years before heading to Chicago and ultimately joining U.S. Soccer as Chief Legal Officer.

 


All pathways are different; how did you get to where you are?

The year after I graduated from law school, I was derailed by a family tragedy when my brother was murdered in a carjacking. That event made me think very differently about my original career goal to be a criminal prosecutor. My best friend at the time steered me toward areas of law that were less negative and would instead feed my creative side. I was lucky enough to quickly land a job in the government at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and later moved to a law firm trademark litigation practice. Ultimately, I was recruited into NASCAR to help manage its trademark portfolio and launch an international trademark registration plan. Over the years, I was asked to oversee more and more of the legal department’s activities including sponsorship, licensing, litigation, and media. With an amazing team and the support of a supportive boss and mentor, I was ultimately named the company’s first female General Counsel. I left in 2020 after 21 years there to follow my husband to Chicago where he had himself taken his dream job as General Counsel at the Chicago Cubs. When the position of Chief Legal Officer at U.S. Soccer opened during the pandemic, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to step into this amazing organization. It’s clear to me that my success is one part my own, one part luck, and one part all of the wonderful people who helped me along the way.

 


What advice would you give to women seeking a position in the sports industry?

My experience being recruited into sports – as opposed to having focused my original career goals on sports - perhaps gives me a different perspective on hiring. In fact, in all my years as a hiring manager in sports, I would say that only 50% of my hires have come from a sports background. There is such a misconception out there that working in sports is somehow different. But sports organizations have many of the same needs as other companies such as marketing, communications, legal, human resources, finance, etc. It is much more important that applicants have a great work ethic and an expertise at the underlying skill set rather than having specific experience in sports. So apply! Sports will always welcome talented people.

 


Who or what inspires you the most, and why?

Travel inspires me. I love to explore, discover, and experience other cultures. There is so much going on in the world and I really believe that it is hard to understand it unless you can get out there and see it for yourself. I’ve been to 6 continents and 38 countries. I have been amazingly fortunate to travel to places like Rwanda to see endangered gorillas, to Bhutan to hike up to the iconic Tiger’s Nest, Morocco to ride a camel in the Sahara and Italy where, if I could’ve only learned the language, I might not have come back. I still have a running bucket list and post Covid, I will be right back out there!