The insider's guide to working in commercial law

Keely Lockhart explains how to kickstart your commercial law career and what it’s like to work for a City law firm 

Do you have an analytical mind, attention to detail and strong writing skills, but are more corporate than courtroom? Then you might want to consider a career in commercial law.

Get to know the firms

If you want to know more about commercial law, the best place to start is the firms themselves. All commercial lawyers spend their time advising clients on the legal issues that arise in the day-to-day running of their business, and many are split up into practice areas such as corporate, dispute resolution, banking and capital markets. Most firms are located in the City of London, and the premier firms are known collectively as the 'magic circle'. These legal Goliaths are focused on major international and corporate finance work. There’s also a chasing pack made up of US firms and other high profile contenders as well as niche firms specialising in one area of law (such as media law).

Anyone can become a commercial lawyer

It doesn’t matter if you have a degree in Archaeology or Zoology, it’s still possible to become a commercial lawyer. Expect to spend two years at law school learning the ropes studying for your Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) followed by the Legal Practice Course (LPC). You will also need to secure some funding. Don’t despair though; many firms pay for your law school fees if you’ve been organised and secured a training contract before enrolling.

Think positively about training contracts

It’s easy to be negative when all you seem to hear is how hard it is to get a training contract – especially if you’re not an Oxbridge graduate or have a first or a 2:1. Yet with a bit of lateral thinking and proactivity, you can still make yourself stand out. So, if you’re still at university, why not join your law society (they accept non-law students too)? Or do a vacation scheme? If you’re at law school, why not start a blog or set up a commercial awareness group? If you’ve finished your LPC why not try paralegalling?

Know the buzz words

Commercial awareness. These are probably the two words that provoke the most fear and loathing for any lawyer-to-be, but commercial awareness is something all City law firms look for. While you’re not expected to be an expert on, say, Greece’s economic policy, you should be aware of the overall business and commercial climate in Greece. Understanding what’s moving markets and driving business decisions means you are in a stronger position to negotiate deals and advise clients.

Hot seats

Before you qualify as a junior associate, you will have to complete a two-year training contract. During that time you can expect to take a ‘seat’ in a number of departments (corporate and litigation are usually compulsory). Every few months you will change seats and get to see a different side of the law firm, or go work with a client’s in-house lawyers (client secondment), or spend time in one of the firm’s international offices.

The perks of being a commercial lawyer

If you’ve recently graduated, the thought of working 13-hour days is probably enough to give you a cerebral embolism. Yet it’s the perks of commercial law that make it worthwhile. For example, you will have the opportunity to advise some of the most well-known companies on matters that affect the world’s political and economic landscape, spend six months abroad on secondment (how does living in an all-expenses paid apartment in New York sound?) and earn a tidy starting salary of around £30k.

Pay it forward

If you have a charitable streak, you should know commercial law firms dedicate a lot of their time to good causes. Many work within disadvantaged communities in the UK and abroad, offering legal advice that helps people, businesses and even other charities overcome their legal problems.

Keely Lockhart is assistant editor at The Gateway, the business and careers newspaper for students. You can follow The Gateway on Twitter @GatewayOnline

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