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by Vault Law Editors | March 10, 2009

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Corporate lawyers can offer some advice on how to use the law school experience to get your first corporate law job, as well as how to decide whether corporate law is right for you.

"It's important to know how front-loaded law school is," cautions one second-year associate. "If you're into the standard track of working as a summer clerk at a medium or large firm with the goal of signing up with that firm upon graduation, then your first-year grades will be immensely important. That's because the hiring for 2L summer clerkships will be based almost entirely on your 1L successes. And turning that summer clerkship into a job upon graduation doesn't depend much at all on your 2L and 3L performance, since a law firm will make that decision on whether they like you or not during the summer. It's that 1L performance that puts you on track."

The two biggest mistakes you can make as a law student are falling behind in your work, and panicking about falling behind in your work. Make yourself a schedule, commit to it and treat your studying like it's a full-time job. In addition to studying, schedule in whatever you know keeps you sane -- running, sitcoms, dinners with friends or family. Then, if you do fall behind, or if you feel like you're overwhelmed, find the right path back to balancing these two elements.

What classes should an aspiring corporate lawyer take?

At most law schools, your first year consists mostly, if not entirely, of required courses, including civil procedure, contracts, torts, criminal law and property. At some point in your law school career, you'll have to take a class on legal ethics and a legal writing course or a course on lawyering skills that includes writing. Some schools also require participation in moot court, which provides an opportunity to write briefs and prepare oral argument for an appeal.

Attorneys disagree on whether or how much your choice of courses will affect your career. "Don't take any class thinking it will help your practice of law, says one senior associate in a large Boston firm. Nothing I learned in college -- or for that matter law school -- is particularly relevant to my day-to-day job. All learning in corporate practice is on the job. Take the classes that interest you in school -- there's plenty of time for learning your job. I took tax, accounting, corporate law, secured transactions, but I think I would have been fine without all of them. I regret not taking international relations or other courses in their place." Steve McCormick, hiring partner at Kirkland & Ellis, never evaluates a prospective corporate associate based on the classes she takes. He does notice, however that the candidates who really want to go into corporate law do have a "complete exposure to mergers & acquisitions, venture capital and tax" "Business classes," he says, "are always helpful."

Some lawyers, particularly those who have made it to in-house positions, recommend as much exposure to business concepts and vocabulary as possible. Suggestions include contract drafting, corporations, securities, real estate or property law, capital markets, bankruptcy and secured transactions. One big-firm associate discourages students from taking fluff classes. Instead, he recommends enrolling in real transactional classes that will help you understand how the business world works. "Take financial accounting and some sort of financial modeling class," says Daniel Boockvar, an in-house attorney at Weight Watchers.com. "My one regret is that I didn't take these classes in law school. I wish I had studied the area where accounting meets financial planning and analysis. It would have been very helpful to already know how to budget, forecast and write a business case before I became so involved with a corporation's business decisions."

Joint degrees in business

An MBA is not necessary to secure work as a corporate associate, but joint degrees in law and business (JD/MBAs) have become increasingly popular in recent years. These degrees usually take four or more years to earn. Some require you to complete the first-year curriculum of both the law and business program in the first two years, and then allow you to take classes in each of the schools for the two remaining years.

Steve McCormick notes that, while not a prerequisite, a JD/MBA gives a prospective corporate lawyer "a huge advantage" in a law firm setting. Apparently the joint degree is of equal, if not greater advantage to an in-house corporate lawyer. "A joint JD/MBA is very useful if you want to go in-house," says the in-house counsel of a New York media company. "So much of my work is not just pure legal work -- it's also understanding the business side and how the business side works. You're more valuable to your business colleagues if you have good business sense, and an MBA would be fantastic in giving you that. For example, if you have a good relationship with your sales people, a lot of time they'll ask you whether a deal makes sense to you. It's helpful if you can talk to them in a commercial sense and ask questions about pricing and the strategy of how to structure a deal. Business sense is also important when working with the M&A groups, since structure is so important to what they do."

A Boston law firm associate disagrees. "Unless your MBA is from Wharton, Harvard, Sloan or Columbia, don't bother; it won't help you. An MBA is yet another credential and with MBAs there are only a handful of schools that carry any weight. Save your money and time -- you can learn how to read financial statements on the job."

John DeRosa offers yet another perspective. "For a job search," he says, "both your law degree and your business degree have to come from top schools. But for actual work, a business background is always helpful. You'll not only be able to work on that matter you might not otherwise be able to work on, but you'll also have a much better sense of why it has to be done, and what the client's goals are." In the view of one JD/MBA graduate of University Pennsylvania Law School and Wharton Business School, "Some law firms have grown rather skeptical of JD/MBAs so in that sense the joint degree can be a disadvantage for pursuing a corporate law firm job. Many big law firms feel that JD/MBAs tend to leave sooner than other lawyers to pursue opportunities in business and finance, so their training investment is wasted."

Note that several large law firms in New York and other major cities give JD/MBAs an additional year's credit for purposes of seniority, pay and partnership qualification. For these firms, a JD/MBA would enter the firm as a second-year associate, as would a graduate who had spent a year completing a judicial clerkship. If you have pursued a joint degree, check with your prospective employer to negotiate seniority credit for your MBA.

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