A Day in the Life of a Corporate Lawyer

Corporate lawyers ensure the legality of commercial transactions. They must have a knowledge of statutory law and regulations passed by government agencies to help their clients achieve their goals within the bounds of the law. To structure a business transaction legally, a corporate lawyer may need to research aspects of contract law, tax law, accounting, securities law, bankruptcy, intellectual property rights, licensing, zoning laws, and other regulations relating to a specific area of business. The lawyer must ensure that a transaction does not conflict with local, state, or federal laws. In contrast to the adversarial nature of trial law, corporate law is team-oriented. The corporate counsel for both sides of a transaction are not strict competitors; together they seek a common ground for their clients. They are, in the words of one lawyer, “the handmaidens of the deal.” Facilitating the business process requires insight into the clients needs, selective expertise, flexibility and most of all, a service mentality. Corporate law requires an incisive mind and excellent communication skills, both written and oral. Through the negotiation process, lawyers constantly write and revise the legal documents which will bind the parties to certain terms for the transaction. This process is lengthy and typically corporate lawyers work extremely long hours. As a deal moves towards its closing, it becomes an exercise in stamina as much as skillful negotiation. As one person observed, “The most important trait a lawyer can have is a leather-ass. You’ve got to be able to put your butt in a chair and do the work.” The upside to this profession is the compensation is good and you usually work with smart people. One corporate lawyer remarked that she liked this side of the law precisely because the transactions take place among peers: There is no wronged party, no underdog, and usually no inequity in the financial means of the participants.

Paying Your Dues

In law, the pressure starts early. Law school admission is extremely competitive-the top twenty-five schools have an admission rate of about 10%. You can get tracked early: The kind of school you attend affects what kind of summer job opportunities you may have, which in turn affects the kind of permanent job you secure. The starting salary and kind of experience you have as a corporate lawyer can vary greatly depending on the size of the firm and geographic location. In a smaller firm, you will have more responsibility and more client contact early on, but the salaries can be tens of thousands of dollars lower than in a large firm. The content of your practice will be different too: A small town lawyer may take care of a house closing, drafting a will and a divorce settlement in a day; big city lawyers can spend months negotiating one commercial transaction.

Present and Future

Thomas Jefferson introduced the first academic law program to the United States when he created a professorship in law at William and Mary in 1779. George Wythe, a Virginia judge at the time and, later, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was the first to fill the post. Harvard was not far behind, and was already producing lawyers of repute in the mid-1700s. The number of corporate lawyers grew exponentially in the 1980s when commercial activity was at its peak. When the economy slowed down, so did the need for attorneys. The practice of corporate law is less cushy now; the days of the endless expense account are gone. The state of the economy always shapes the nature of corporate law; changes in the interest rates, the tax code, and other regulations affect the kind of transactions being done and how they are structured.

Quality of Life

PRESENT AND FUTURE

New associates spend their days reviewing documents and doing legal research. They gather information on statutes that affect their clients’ transaction to insure that it can be done legally and keep track of the paperwork needed for the closing. The work is hard. Expect to put in long hours and work weekends.

FIVE YEARS OUT

By five years, lawyers are negotiating and drafting the major operative documents for their deals. Senior associates are the primary client contact, and run deals and closings by themselves. They have increased responsibility and are trying to develop a reputation in their specialty. Often they supervise the training of new associates. At the five-year mark associates decide if they want to be on a partner track. Those who do put in very long hours before their review (which usually takes place around seven years). Others leave for a related position in business or become an in-house counsel at a corporation.

TEN YEARS OUT

At ten years, corporate lawyers are structuring their own transactions. They have developed keen judgment and create “big picture” strategies. They know what issues will likely arise for a particular case and which experts to call to resolve them. As one lawyer said, “I’m a highly experienced generalist who knows all the right specialists.” Usually, associates have made partner by this time. With partnership comes management responsibilities. Partners must recruit and train new associates of the firm, manage the work flow on client transactions, and oversee the internal affairs of the firm. All this work is on top of their normal billable hours. In addition, partners must put in time cultivating clients and selling the business. Firm partners are usually involved in bar association activities, write for professional journals, and speak at national conferences. The compensation at this level is quite good.