The advice below is from Jacob Russell, Assistant Professor at Rutgers Law and expert on financial regulation.
Business lawyers are trusted counselors. They advise entrepreneurs on starting companies and raising money to do business; they negotiate deals between companies that want to merge; they provide advice on corporate governance, compliance, and any and every problem or question that might arise in the course of doing business. Business law—sometimes called transactional or corporate law—takes many forms and has many specialties. In all cases, business lawyers are called upon not just to use their legal skills, but to understand the business, strategic, and financial goals of a company, and to help advance those goals through their advice.
Like litigators, business lawyers are advocates for their clients, but corporate practice is very different from litigation. Transactional law is not typically conducted in the shadow of an adversarial court process, and the work is often more collaborative. When two companies merge, for instance, each side's lawyer zealously represents its own interests—but a successful merger will almost always involve collaboration, cooperation, and give-and-take. This attracts many people to the practice. Transactional lawyers, whether at firms or in-house, often are utility players, called on to help a company with a new or unanticipated issue. At the same time, corporate lawyers often develop deep substantive knowledge of the law in a particular area—like securities regulation, which governs how companies raise money, or mergers and acquisitions, the law and tactics relating to how companies combine or purchase other companies.
What do business lawyers do?
Jay Mitchell, who wrote an excellent short book called Picturing Corporate Practice, puts it this way: "Corporate lawyers do basically two things. First, we look at situations and offer our thoughts. A client seeks advice; we study the problem and report back. Second, we create plans (for a transaction, or new corporate structure) and then help document and carry out the plan. In each case, we facilitate decision-making about complex situations, and we create tangible products that reflect and implement the decisions. In each case, we help clients get from (current) state A to (better) state B."
Because corporate practice typically isn't the subject of TV dramas, law students may be less familiar with the rewarding opportunities available.
How can I learn more?
- Read the business section of a newspaper—the business section of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or the Financial Times. The New York Times DealBook section (and in particular its "Deal Professor" column) will give you a taste of many of the types of issues corporate lawyers are engaged in today. In addition, learning to read business news is a valuable and important skil—the best business lawyers are able to anticipate coming trends and issues and proactively advise their clients.
- Take courses in business law subjects. The law school offers a Certificate Program in Corporate and Business Law; whether or not you decide to pursue the certificate, the description of that program will give you a list of the types of courses you should consider. Many students start with Business Organizations or Securities Regulation. The law school also offers clinics that might be relevant.
- Consider a joint JD-MBA, or at least taking business school courses (or law school courses when offered) on subjects like basic finance and accounting. Although business lawyers are called on for their legal and analytical skills, not their financial or accounting acumen, the best lawyers will understand the business context in which their client operates. You’re absolutely capable of learning more than enough about those subjects to set yourself apart from most lawyers, and firms and clients will take note.
- Attend events on corporate law at the law school; the Center for Corporate Law and Governance puts these on throughout the year. In addition to being a good networking opportunity, the events will give you a sense of prominent current issues in corporate practice. There is also a student group, active on both the Newark and Camden campus, for students with an interest in the area.
- Speak to practitioners and to law school faculty in the business law field. Ask them what they like about the practice area, what skills and personalities make someone suited to that area, and what courses were most helpful to them.
- Read resources on careers in the field. A good overview to the types of skills business lawyers need is Jay Mitchell's short career guide called Picturing Corporate Practice. For descriptions of specialty areas within business law—like project finance, securities regulation, investment funds, corporate governance, mergers and acquisitions—an excellent resource is Major Lindsey & Africa's "Law Firm Practice Area Summary". The MLA guide will also give you a sense of the types of personality traits that may incline you to a particular area.
- Ask to work on a project. If you go to a law firm following your 1L or 2L summer, even if you are primarily there to do litigation, consider asking if they have a corporate project you can work on. Many thriving corporate lawyers entered law school without really knowing anything about transactional practice, but after trying a few assignments, realized it was a much better match for them than litigation. The best way to find out is to give it a try.