Do you have to start at a firm?

by | March 10, 2009

Most corporate lawyers start at large law firms. Some work for government agencies, investment banks or exchanges, or corporations, but corporations typically hire lawyers with a few years of experience behind them. Even smaller firms tend to hire lawyers with some big firm experience. Easily 90 percent of students who want to practice corporate law go to firms of 100 or more attorneys. If you don't get a job with a large firm, you have a very narrow job market as a corporate lawyer.

"Given that corporate law is about transactions, and transactions are about business, the best place to get the most training is at a big corporate law firm" says Boockvar. "However, you can acquire relevant experience from government work at the SEC or FTC [Federal Trade Commission] or any other government lawyer position that requires you review business transactions. Basically, if you don't start out in a corporate law firm, you have to distinguish between experience with the substance of a transaction and the process of a transaction. The substance consists of the commercial law and the terms of the deal. The process includes sourcing, due diligence negotiation, closing a deal and executing the deal. You can learn a lot about these process skills in other areas of the law. As a district attorney, you certainly learn to negotiate. As a commercial litigator, you probably learn to negotiate a settlement agreement. In a lateral job search, you need to stress those pieces. You might say, "I've negotiated 500 settlement agreements between corporations in litigation." And if those settlement agreements involve commercial agreements, you can point out what you've learned about the substance of corporate law."

"If your goal in corporate law is to be general counsel of a corporation, you really need a couple of years of big firm experience," Boockvar explains. The corporate decision-makers who have the power to hire you are looking for that. They aren't expecting you to have broad experience from this time as a big-firm corporate associate. They are expecting you to have narrow exposure to certain complicated merger and acquisition transactions, and maybe some exposure to securities. They know that both of those areas provide generalist insight into a lot of other areas, which is much more valuable and necessary for an in-house position than a specialization in ERISA.

Other than this substantive training, Boockvar sees two very important assets gained from big firm experience. "The first is discipline," he explains. "Surviving in a big firm means having the big firm work ethic beaten into you. If you embrace the expectations placed on you, you will leave the experience beaten but stronger. This prepares you for your life in a very demanding profession. It prepares you for having to work a lot of weekends and being at the beck and call of your clients and their investment bankers and other lawyers. And it can be a real asset when it's 7:00 and you think you're leaving work early, and you're the last one there other than the CEO. You've been trained to leave at 10:00 so when you leave at 7 you feel happy."

"The second advantage," Boockvar continues, "is the network available to you. When you get into a firm, meet as many people as you possibly can and make friends with as many people as you possibly can. Because it's one of the few times in your life that you'll have an instant network. You'll know between 400 and 600 people, each of whom will have connections in the business world. When I left my firm to join the internet startup Craftshop.com, I kept in touch with all of my colleagues and superiors at the firm, and when the internet company went bankrupt, those firm contacts got me my current job at Weight Watchers. And that's because I kept people up to speed on what I was doing."

Filed Under: Job Search


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