Q&A With Mark Aarons

V.P. and Deputy General Counsel of Modell’s Sporting Goods

What did you want to be growing up?

An electrical engineer. I was a ham radio operator and built a linear amplifier when I was 13. My high school guidance counselor said there was no future in electronics. It was probably one of the worst pieces of advice given to a student. This was in the 1970s, and the counselor thought that soldiers coming back from the Vietnam War with that training would take all the jobs. It was mostly TVs and radios in those days; there were no personal computers yet. But the counselor had no foresight into how the world might change. The guidance counselor should have said, “Follow your passion.”

So, any regrets about becoming an attorney?

No regrets because I wound up using electronics and math as I practiced law working alongside architects, contractors and engineers doing construction defense. I also worked with IT shops in the burgeoning computer world representing IBM business partners (VARs) that developed software.

Your father’s best friend and your father’s only brother were attorneys – your Uncle Jonas Aarons was a distinguished arbitrator. But you also got introduced into the legal system in a more unusual way.

I was a high school senior when I witnessed a triple fatal car crash. As two guys were drag racing down Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens, NY, a Ford Pinto started crossing the boulevard and was broadsided at more than 100 MPH by one of the racers in a Pontiac GTO. I had a clear view and the crash created a small mushroom cloud like a mini nuclear bomb. I went over to the Pinto driver, who had intense internal injuries but outwardly, only a gash on the leg. I lifted his hand and there was no pulse. He died as well as his female passenger, whose body was split into pieces. A passenger in the back of the GTO also died. It stays with you forever.

The GTO driver and a front seat passenger survived. I remember the district attorney explaining the legal concepts to me and I appeared as a witness in court twelve times over two years. There were, of course, proceedings such as the preliminary hearing. Although looking back, even as a lawyer now, I can’t figure out why it was 12 times.

But in the end, I heard the GTO driver was convicted of criminally negligent homicide.

Did that experience give you faith in the legal system? Or not?

I don’t think I exited with faith – or a lack of faith – in the legal system. But I was inspired by the experience because I am driven towards justice. I hate to see injustice at any level.

You’ve got a Brooklyn trifecta going.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn, went to CUNY Brooklyn for undergrad (economics major), and Brooklyn Law School. Apparently, I wasn’t allowed to leave. And by the way, my first legal job was in Brooklyn.

There is no such thing as a typical day at work, but having said that, what is a typical day like at Modell’s?

We have 160 stores and the bulk of my work is contract review, litigation oversight, marketing, trademark/ licensing, and HR issues.

What is the key to overseeing outside counsel?

Other than staying in regular contact with them, there is no secret sauce. But one of my pet peeves – one thing I think is effective – is to actually get on the phone and not count on email for everything. Not everything needs to be in an email, and I find things fall through the cracks with email. You know, you think you said one thing, and the reader thinks you said another. The problem is, our society has gone email crazy and I think the world has lost the art of communication: Drop the keyboard, get on the phone!

You arguably have another, unusual aspect of your job.

I first became familiar with merchandising as general counsel for Candie’s shoes. At Modell’s, our merchants decide what colors, cuts, fabrics, and patterns to buy and I handle the relationship with the licensees from the legal side.

But I do check for quality to make sure that products fit into our clothing line. They don’t teach you the weight of a denim fabric in law school, but I’ve learned to look at, and feel, fabric and know what a 13.2 ounce jean feels like. And when the licensee is showing you something, you learn. Whoever thought that I would know what a wicked fabric is.

How did you connect with Magna?

Pete Hecht, Magna Executive Vice President Sales, cold-called me several times trying to get me to his events. I kept turning him down because you get asked to so many events as in-house counsel. You often feel like the red meat at these events.

Then Pete invited me to the event at Naples, Florida. I love the town. My wife and I have a house down there. So I checked out the event. I was impressed; impressed by who Pete is, and the people around him. Two of the law firms I was already engaged with were at the event. Then Pete invited me to talk at one of his events. Now I’m a regular.

I feel a kinship with the people at Magna and like working with them. There is a collegiality that is very enticing and everyone seems on board with the mission statement of making lawyers comfortable and providing exceptional service.

I use Magna for my depositions, and all the law firms I work with – I oversee about 12 firms – are asked to use Magna.

Magna is also known for innovative events such as their CHOPPED mock trials/CLEs.

Magna events are incredibly well-produced. Their multi-media is unrivaled. When most seminars give you a fact pattern, it is written out. Magna has an actor play a newscaster and they come on screen to deliver the fact pattern. Magna has also had a great Donald Trump impersonator at the past couple of events.

Pete delivers events in a method unlike anybody else. It’s incredible. He is one of the great marketers of all time. He gets branding. I am an admirer of his.

And the biggest compliment I can pay Pete is this: He makes being a lawyer at one of his events fun.