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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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One associate explains his decision to go to law school: "I picked law because the option of going to law school is the simplest sort of big-picture planning around. That is, you sign up, then follow the rules and a path is laid out for you to follow. As long as you can work hard and more or less intelligently, signing up for law school resolves the 'what the hell do I do now?' question pretty well."

This associate is not alone in his motivation. If you're looking for a career that will give you status, money and a chance to use your brain for sophisticated work in the private sector, law could be your answer. But corporate law? How can you know whether corporate law is the right direction for your career? There are other kinds of law that will give you the same advantages. How can you know if corporate law is right for you?

Corporate practice versus commercial litigation

Commercial litigators can practice in the same kinds of law firms, work for the same kinds of clients and make the same kind of money as corporate lawyers. So how do prospective lawyers know what type of law will suit them?

Some people are attracted to the idea of advocacy, but feel that they can accomplish more with a field of law that focuses on building structures rather than challenging them. At its best, corporate law finances small companies, helps them grow and provide jobs for people. Some corporate lawyers find litigation reactive and adversarial rather than constructive and preemptive. Furthermore, corporate deal-making has more turn-around and shorter time frames for completing projects, while litigation can drag on for years. On the other hand, according to one associate, "If you want to practice corporate because you think litigation is confrontational, you might want to examine your suitability for the practice of law in general. Any type of law can be contentious and stressful if you're at a big firm or have an important corporate client."

Francesca Lavin, a senior associate at Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton in New York, suggests that law students try to find summer jobs where they can try out both litigation and corporate work. Many students end up in litigation because they have more exposure to it in law school or because they have strong verbal skills, when in fact they might be happier in the corporate arena. Lavin believes that communication skills are just as important in the transactional setting as they are in litigation. The most effective corporate lawyers are those who can communicate persuasively and think quickly on their feet.

Narrowing the field

Once you get past the litigation-versus-transaction decision, there are fewer easy answers. There is no one set of attributes that separates a successful and satisfied real estate lawyer from a successful and satisfied corporate lawyer. All good lawyers must be able to communicate with their clients in an effective manner. This means that they have to be able both to listen and to explain legal circumstances in a clear, precise and personable fashion. Because corporate attorneys often have to consult with accountants, bankers and various employees of the companies they represent, they also have to be able to communicate well with non-lawyers.

Corporate lawyers should enjoy and be good at problem-solving. They must be able to analyze the difficulties of a situation and make choices about what to do to make things best for their client. Corporate attorneys must be comfortable with numbers. Corporate law is about business, and business is about money. One junior associate says that students considering corporate law should know that "you will sit at a desk and be a paper-pusher, probably all your life." You may be on the phone for much of the day and do a lot of negotiating, but you will do it most often sitting at your desk or huddled in a conference room.

Of course, all these attributes are required of other transactional attorneys as well. The truth is that, while you might be able to tell whether you want to do litigation before you try it, you may not be able to discover the area of transactional law you love until you are exposed to it, either in a class or on the job. Your employer may guide you to it. If, for example, you have a real facility with numbers, you might want to consider tax law. In fact, even if you don't consider it, and you show an aptitude, your firm may simply direct you to that area. Not everyone enjoys working with numbers or has such a proficiency, and those that do can find an excellent niche in tax law while still participating in the deal-making aspects of corporate law.

John DeRosa, assistant dean of career services at Cornell, offers advice to the prospective corporate lawyer: "Try early on, ideally before law school, to learn as much as you possibly can about the practice of law, and the practice of corporate law, both to learn what it is you might be spending your work life doing and to learn what to do to be competitive as a law school candidate, and as an associate. If you put in a little effort as a first year, like going to hear alums, talking to faculty, it will be very easy to get information. In fact," he says, "it will be easier before law school and during your first year. Since you're not actually trying to get a job through the meeting, the lawyers you talk to will be a lot more comfortable because they'll be able to tell that you don't want anything other than information. If you can go into your second year of law school having spoken to a few corporate lawyers and some faculty members, you'll be in good shape. You'll not only know whether or not this is for you, you'll have a better sense of what to say in an interview."

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