Practice makes perfect
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27 November 2013
It is important to start thinking about the areas of law you want to focus on as early as possible because it is likely to influence which firms, or indeed chambers, you apply to. Saying that, we suggest you keep an open mind because you will not know whether a particular practice area suits you best until you have tried it out. That is why you get to spend time in different departments during your training contract.
Addleshaw Goddard trainee Daniel Bluet agrees. Dont be closed minded about things such as the area of law or size of firm you want to work in, or whether to become a s
olicitor or barrister, he advises. Try to get different experiences and decide what suits you.
Within the commercial arena there are an endless number practice areas. Indeed, there are so many there is not enough room in this guide to include every single specialism. We have therefore decided to focus on the larger practice areas: banking and finance; charity; competition; corporate; crime; employment; family; insolvency; litigation; media and sport; private client; property; and technology, media and telecoms (TMT). We have asked lawyers who specialise in these fields to give you the lowdown on their practice areas.
Incidentally, if you are wondering why we have included crime in a guide focusing on commercial law, it is because there are two types of work handled by criminal lawyers general crime and fraud/white-collar crime. Those in the former category work in high street firms or the Crown Prosecution Service and handle anything from petty motoring offences to something as serious as murder. In contrast, those in the latter group act for individuals (mostly professionals such as lawyers, bankers, accountants and company directors) charged with fraud-related offences.
Practice areas are typically split into contentious (a situation that involves 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 can then be split further into transactional (deals such as the sale of a property or a merger between two companies) or non-transactional. An example of non-transactional work (sometimes referred to as advisory) includes the advice a family lawyer gives to their client who is seeking a divorce.
Unfortunately, these categories often become blurred. For instance, 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 staff. On a similar token, a competition lawyer will advise on transactions such as whether a merger will be blocked by the EU as well as on non-transactional matters such as cartel activity or State Aid.
Other areas where the work handled by lawyers potentially overlaps is TMT, sport, private client and family law. Although some specialists in this field might boast A-list celebrities or indeed royalty as clients, their work essentially focuses on principles of contract law. Consequently, some firms may put them all in the same category under the commercial law banner.
Find your match
One of the advantages of splitting practice areas into these sub-groups is that they will help you to identify the ones that best match your skills set. For instance, transactional and contentious work will generally have stricter deadlines so you may have to work longer and unpredictable hours. This will suit those people who get a buzz from 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 then 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.
Believe it or not, the amount of law you will have to deal with as a lawyer will differ depending on your area of expertise. Again, transactional lawyers will spend less time researching the law, while those who focus on areas such as employment, environment and tax will have to spend a lot of time keeping up-to-date with changes in the law. For instance, new employment laws come into force every April and October, while the tax specialists will have to get their heads around any changes brought by the chancellor during the annual budget.
The economic cycle may have a dramatic impact on some practice areas. For instance, law firms corporate departments are benefiting from the boom in M&A deals. This has had a knock-on effect on practice areas that work closely with the corporate department such as banking and finance. In contrast, insolvency lawyers have been less busy as they are only called in when a company runs into financial difficulties. That said, there have been a number of high-profile cases that have kept insolvency lawyers hands full during recent years including the administration of collapsed car manufacturer MG Rover and the mammoth restructuring of Eurotunnel. Last year also saw a slew of retail insolvencies including womens clothing chain Kookai and off-licence Unwins.
History has proven that economic booms do not last forever and with the recent credit crunch it is not surprising that some firms are already gearing up for a downturn and are gradually building up their insolvency teams.
Corporate generally represents the largest practice group in the UKs top 50 firms. Indeed, according to Lawyer 2Bs October 2006 retention rate survey, corporate continued to account for the bulk of newly qualified jobs given to trainees, but has been losing ground to banking and finance. Just under a fifth (19.4 per cent) of retained trainees qualified into corporate in 2006, compared with 21 per cent in the previous year. Meanwhile, 17.5 per cent of newly qualified solicitors joined banking and finance departments, a rise from 16.9 per cent in 2005. Spots in litigation and commercial also rose, with litigation accounting for 14.5 per cent of all jobs and commercial 5.7 per cent. The magic circle accounted for the bulk of banking and finance jobs. Allen & Overy gave 28 trainees places in its finance department; Clifford Chance offered 31, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer gave 14 and Linklaters offered 18.
The popularity of certain practice areas will also fluctuate between different intakes of trainees. For instance, newly qualified retention rates at Nabarro suffered in 2006 because too many trainees wanted to move into the firms employment team. Fast forward a year and the firm was able to offer 13 out of 14 of its September 2007 qualifiers jobs in their first-choice departments. Incidentally, when you are researching firms that specialise in employment law make sure you find out whether they prefer to act for the employee or employer. Most employment practices will not advise both and will expect you to know the difference.
Another practice area that is constantly in the headlines is private equity. Although a number of the larger City firms do have dedicated private equity teams, is it worth noting that many of these sit within the corporate department. Indeed, although the personalities involved in a private equity deal may differ from those on a public M&A transaction, the pressures are very similar as both will be document heavy and move at a pretty fast pace.
We would be lying if we said the work handled by lawyers was simple; it is indeed very complex. But that is exactly why so many students want to join the profession. Weil Gotshal & Manges trainee Daniyal Stantan says he wanted to become a solicitor because he wanted to enter a profession that challenged him mentally. Addleshaws Bluet concurs. I sought an environment in which I was constantly learning and being challenged every day, he explains.
Firms will 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. The Lawyer and Lawyer 2B both run 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 law firms, on recent deals and cases they have handled. These articles should help you to keep up to date with the comings and goings in the City and thereby give you a better understanding of what lawyers actually do.