Different types of law
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Think of the law as like a football pitch. Everyone on the field is an athlete, but the jobs they do are very different. The skills needed by a goalkeeper are not the same as the skills needed by a striker, which in turn are not the same as those needed by the referee
The same but different
If you do not like football, think of an orchestra. All the musicians are playing the same tune, but the drummer, the violinist and the guy on the trombone are all doing very different things.
It is the same with lawyers. A typical corporate lawyer might work in a skyscraper, always have a BlackBerry in hand to keep in touch with clients and go through periods of manic activity, working through the night when a deal is about to close. They rarely need to open a legal textbook, unlike their colleagues over in the tax department, who lead a more sedate life poring over the letter of the law.
Criminal lawyers are different from both – you will often find them working on the high street rather than in skyscrapers, and if they are awake at 3am it will not be because there is a deal to close but because they have been called to the police station to represent a drunken or aggressive member of the public.
So it is important to start thinking about the area of law you want to specialise in as early as possible because all firms specialise in different areas.
That said, we suggest you keep an open mind because you will not know whether a certain practice area suits you until you have tried it. That is why you get to spend time in different departments during your training.
Practice areas are typically split into contentious (a situation involving a dispute) and non-contentious. The former includes litigation and other forms of dispute resolution, such as arbitration and mediation, while the latter covers everything else.
Non-contentious areas of law can be divided further into transactional (deals such as the sale of a property or a merger between two companies) and non-transactional. An example of non-transactional work, sometimes referred to as ‘advisory’, includes acting for a client in relation to their tax planning.
These categories often become blurred. For example, some employment lawyers will handle contentious work and act for a company that is in a dispute with its workforce, as well as non-contentious matters such as advising an employer on work permits for its overseas employees.
Other areas where lawyers may handle contentious and non-contentious matters are competition, technology, media and telecoms (TMT), sport, private client and family law.
Find your match
One of the advantages of splitting practice areas into these subgroups is that it will help you identify those that best match your skill set. For example, transactional and contentious work generally has stricter deadlines, so you may have to work longer and more unpredictable hours. This will suit those people who get a buzz out of watching a deal or case unfold.
The other advantage of specialising in transactional work is that if you advise on a sizeable deal or case you are likely to be part of a large team. In contrast, if you focus on non-transactional matters you may have to spend more time working alone or in much smaller teams and at a slower pace.
The amount of law you will have to handle will also differ depending on your area of expertise. Again, transactional lawyers spend less time with their heads buried in legislation or legal textbooks, while those who focus on areas such as employment, environment and tax have to spend a lot of time keeping up with changes in the law.
For example, new employment laws come into force every April and October, while tax specialists will have to get their heads around changes brought in by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his annual Budget.
The economic cycle will have a dramatic impact on some practice areas. Departments that suffer most during a recession include banking, corporate and finance. In contrast, litigation is seen as a countercyclical practice area and typically experiences a renaissance at times of economic upheaval.
Practice area overviews
There are a huge number of different practice areas, but here we cover four major ones that you would expect to find in a City firm: banking, corporate, litigation and property. For more detailed write-ups on each of these and many more, head over to Lawyer2B.com.
Firms do not expect applicants to know absolutely everything about the type of work they handle. However, it will help your job hunt if you are able to demonstrate a basic understanding.
You can do this by reading the business pages and the legal press. This, in turn, will help you to decide whether a career in commercial law is really for you or whether you would be more at home at a high-street firm.
Both Lawyer 2B and The Lawyer publish regular articles on which firms are advising on the deals that are making the national headlines.
Additionally, Lawyer 2B often runs case studies, written by lawyers, on recent deals and cases they have advised on. These articles should help you to keep up-to-date with comings and goings in the City, thereby giving you a better understanding of what lawyers actually do and making you more commercially aware.
Banking & finance
As we all know, banks are in the money business; they accept our deposits, invest them in a wide range of financial products (for example, loans) and make both themselves and us a profit in the process.
Every one of these banking activities is legally documented. For example, when you opened your bank account you will have signed a standard set of terms and conditions setting out both yours and your bank’s rights and obligations. Of course, you will not have had the chance to negotiate any of the terms of this contract, although they will have been scrutinised by a banking lawyer beforehand.
In contrast, consider the example of a large multinational corporation needing to access hundreds of millions of pounds in debt to carry out a major takeover. It would need to approach one or more international investment or commercial banks to arrange and underwrite the debt, and would need to grant (or ensure that its subsidiaries grant) guarantees and asset security in favour of the banks.
The commercial terms of the deal are negotiated between the banks and the borrower, and it is the task of banking lawyers to document what has been agreed between the parties and ensure the documents work from a legal perspective.
The term ‘dispute resolution’ encompasses a range of procedures used to resolve disagreements.
The most familiar type is litigation, which involves lawyers duking it out in court – although many cases do not actually get that far.
However, other less adversarial methods of dispute resolution have also become popular. Alternative solutions include mediation and arbitration. One key advantage of these alternatives is that they often resolve matters quicker. Time is money, after all, and in areas such as construction disputes a speedy resolution can be very important. Another big advantage is that they take place in private, avoiding the publicity associated with the courtroom. Becoming a litigator is a notably different career path from becoming, say, a transactional lawyer.
The key differences between litigation and transactional law are:
- The subject matter varies widely from case to case, even if you specialise in a particular type of client.
- The work is adversarial in nature. Unlike in transactional departments where there is a common goal, in litigation the interests of your client are directly opposed to the interests of the other side.
- Clients are more likely to be nervous, emotionally involved or reluctant than in a transactional department, where they are generally motivated to complete a deal.
Typical tasks in the dispute resolution team include taking notes at client meetings, drafting correspondence, drafting witness statements, attending court hearings, conducting legal research, producing notes of advice, reviewing documents and instructing counsel.
Corporate lawyers provide legal advice to companies on significant transactions affecting their business. Such transactions are of the kind that you typically see detailed in the business pages of the national press and can take several forms:
Mergers and acquisitions (M&A)
This is where one company acquires another or where two companies merge to form an enlarged entity. There are many reasons why a company should want to do this, but the two main ones are either to grow its existing business (by buying a competitor) or to diversify (by acquiring a business in a different area from that in which it currently operates).
There is also a distinction between public M&A and private M&A deals. A public deal involves the buyer acquiring a company listed on a stock exchange, and therefore whose shares can be bought and sold by individuals, known as retail investors. In a private M&A deal a buyer acquires a company that is owned privately by a number of individuals.
Therefore, one key difference between public and private M&A is that a private deal requires a willing seller whereas in a public deal the directors of the target company may reject the offer from the buyer but the buyer may try to buy the company anyway. This is known as a ‘hostile takeover’ and such deals usually attract a lot of publicity.
Another distinction is that private deals tend to be less regulated than public ones.
Initial public offerings (IPOs)
An IPO involves the owners of a private company selling some of the shares in it to big financial institutions (such as pension funds) and to retail investors by listing the company on a stock exchange, as a result of which it becomes known as a public company (or plc).
Again, there are several reasons why the owners of a private company would want to do this, but the two main ones are to enable them to raise money for themselves or to raise money to expand the company’s operations and hopefully become more profitable as a result. Once a company’s shares are listed on a stock exchange investors can buy and sell them at a price determined by the market.
Joint ventures (JVs)
A JV is where two or more parties enter into a form of business partnership. Both parties will contribute assets to the JV and run it together as a separate business.
A party might enter into a JV because it believes the business will be more successful if it is run in partnership with another party if, for example, the two parties own different but complementary assets that can be contributed to the JV.
Property – or real estate – lawyers deal with much more than bricks and mortar. They are involved in a wide range of work, including buying and selling commercial properties, landlord and tenant matters and site developments. Clients range from corporate real estate investors and developers to government and public sector bodies.
The diversity of clients and transactions means that life as a real estate lawyer is never dull. A day can involve drafting leases for shopping centre units, visiting a redevelopment site or working on the sale of an office block.
Whatever you do, the work will involve drafting and negotiating documentation for transactions.
However, you will also have the opportunity to visit the buildings on which you are working and have a lot of direct contact with clients.
Being a real estate lawyer is about more than just knowing the law. Clients expect you to understand their businesses and the wider real estate industry and be able to provide them with practical and commercial advice.