So, you want to be a lawyer? | The Commercial Law Path

Having the Direction

Choosing to become a commercial/corporate lawyer is easy – pursuing that career choice with the necessary tenacity, energy, and vision, to realise it, is tough. Furthermore, different people can become a ‘lawyer’ – indeed, most City law firms focus on having a ‘diverse range’ of hires, both in their physical characteristics, but also with regard to their personality.

So, how does one decide what kind of lawyer (in this instance, I’m referring to solicitors) to be? And, what industries, if any, do you want to specialise in? One big mistake I see people making is not knowing what being a lawyer entails (as the options are vast), and therefore, not really knowing what they like about the profession.

To extract an idea from Schogger’s ‘Commercial Law Handbook’, the profession will demand a lot of effort, time, and resources from you – although the pay will seem incredible now, you’ll find that, alone, it won’t be enough to keep you going. To succeed as a commercial lawyer, you have to enjoy the career for its own sake.

Knowing Who You Are

Firms are, for the most part, either sector-led, or full service. Either, there is a focus on certain industries (and the practice areas come under them), or vice versa, respectively. Regardless of which firm you join, you will need to consider what practice area(s) and what industry/industries interest you, as both play a role in either kind of firm.

Now, most will argue that you should be open-minded about what practice areas/industries you want to specialise in – especially at this stage (assuming a pre-trainee stage), and for the most part, I agree. But I encourage individuals to consider the specialisms to see what interests them – this should aid you in considering why you want to purse commercial law, and why a City firm is right for you.

Let’s start with the question of which are you most interested in: transactional, or contentious, matters? Start by asking some questions of yourself. What are you looking for out of your work? How does your personality match to the choices? If you like a more consistent timetable of events – contentious work might be for you. If you like the ‘crunch’ of time and pressure when preparing a due diligence report – transactional work might be the one. Do you get a kick out of adversarial intellectual sparring, or do you prefer persuasion and gentler argumentation to work towards an objective? These questions dig into your personality and your experience, and should help you to understand, in the broadest terms, what you would enjoy most out of quotidian legal practice.

To be clear, you don’t have to find a definitive answer that, ‘yes, I only want to do transactional/contentious work’ – but rather, you should be aware of what attracts you, or repels you from those lines of work.

Now, under those two broad umbrellas, there is of course a wide variety of practice areas, and industries to work with. You’ve considered what interests you with regards to the feel, method, and ‘personality’ of the work – but, now you have to consider, what actually interests you?

The World as Your Oyster

In the commercial world, there are a huge number of things going on. You have the ebbs and flows of money, the rise and fall of corporations, the disruption of markets, and evermore. Take a good look at the city skyline and think about where you would like to get involved. Your natural curiosity should be the driver in whatever industry or practice area you choose. Many make the mistake of choosing a path because of the prestige, money, and so forth. But ultimately, your work is going to be tough, so it has to be fully rewarding, not just superficially satisfying.
Of course, finding this interest is easier-said-than-done. This is where commercial interest comes in. I write commercial interest, instead of ‘commercial awareness’, as, borrowing the explanation from Slaughter and May, commercial awareness can be garnered via reading the FT moments before an interview – commercial interest takes time and effort to build up, and should display a real engagement, and enjoyment of commercial and current affairs.

Research, Read, Write

So, how does one build this commercial interest? Well, there are a variety of ways. First, read reputable commercial/business newspapers – whether its online with the BBC, or picking up a copy of The Financial Times, The Economist, and so on, you have to be up to date on the commercial happenings of today. However, simply knowing that ‘supply-chains have been disrupted due to the novel coronavirus’, is not good enough. Use resources such as Khan Academy, Stoakes’ ‘Know the City’, and Schogger’s ‘Commercial Law Handbook’ to actually understand financial, commercial, and legal terms and processes.

This seems like a lot of work, but it should come organically (should you truly have the desire to pursue this career). Every morning, I have the FT app on my phone (free via my university – you should check yours!) and read it over breakfast (and subsequently, when it updates through the day, lunch and dinner). I subscribe to the daily Finimize email briefing which summarises important commercial news in under 4 minutes. I follow ‘The Business Update’ on LinkedIn. And, most importantly, I endeavour to discuss these commercial stories, and developments with everyone who is up for it.

See, the challenge, once you have all this commercial interest, is formulating it into reasonable opinion and forecasting. I might, hypothetically, know how Blockchain will affect future legal affairs, but if I cannot be bothered to form that into an opinion, then I can hazard that specialising in the legal practice surrounding Blockchain and technology, is probably not for me (in actuality, I do enjoy the fundamentals of Blockchain!).

The Payoff

Now bear with me, I know it’s been a long process of accruing lots of knowledge, interest, and direction – but it will now be worth it. When you are faced with application, or interview questions, such as ‘in your view, what will be the greatest innovation to influence the firm in the next 5 years and why?’ – the answer should come effortlessly, and, above all else, you should actually enjoy answering it! And, when the interviewer asks you whether you have any questions for them – your mind will be bursting of things to ask them about their practice areas, approaches, future developments, and so forth.

At this point, you should not just know what kind of lawyer you’re interested in being, and what kind of work you would prefer, but also what in the world interests you, how you want to make a difference, and how you can add value to the legal profession! If you got this far, and can answer those questions, then you’re probably the kind of person who will make a great lawyer and will enjoy the profession to its fullest!

Parting Shot

So, for those who are pursuing a career in commercial law, my advice is summarised here:

  1. Know who you are as a person, and how that fits with your vision for your future career and life.
  2. If you do decide you want a career in commercial law, you need to put in the effort and grind.
  3. Develop your commercial interest to the maximum – love the commercial world and love the career path you have chosen.
  4. Have an opinion, defend it well, and take pleasure in discussing it with others.
  5. Have a growth mindset, and never stop striving.

Best of luck and see you in the City!

Neville Birdi – Feel free to connect with Neville on LinkedIn for any further questions


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