Is a career as a commercial lawyer for you?

The Gateway looks at the deal on offer
Choosing a career

We thought we'd give you the key facts about working as a commercial lawyer so that you can make an informed decision about whether or not you want to find out more.

You will become a specialised commercial solicitor

If you haven't considered whether you'd rather be a solicitor or a barrister, do so. You should also realise that some solicitors work in areas of law and for types of client than commercial firms cannot offer you. Most lawyers in the City work in their firm's corporate or finance departments, and all commercial lawyers spend the majority of their time working on business-related matters.

You don't need a law degree

But if you are doing one, learn all you can - it will be useful. And if you get your legal knowledge at law school instead, remember that you're not just passing exams, but building up a body of knowledge in one year that others have had three years to acquire - pick up as much as you can! But the knowledge you'll obtain while working as a commercial lawyer covers far more than just the law.

You have to market yourself from day one

As a lawyer at a large law firm you generally don't have your own role, a specific boss or designated duties - you're more like a sole trader touting for business. There are structures in place to help you get experience, but ultimately if you want to succeed, it's key that you're prepared to persuade more senior lawyers (and, later, clients) to give you work.

Much of your time will be spent reading and writing documents

If you can't concentrate on large and dense pieces of writing or if you don't spot mistakes in text, choose another career.

Time is money

Always true, but particularly for law firms who charge their clients per hour of lawyer time, with each lawyer's price determined by their number of years of experience. The fact that experience has real financial significance means that there's a strong sense of hierarchy in most law firms. Billing by the hour also means partners will know exactly how much work you're doing - at a large commercial law firm, you'll be expected to notch up between 1,500 and 2,200 hours of client work per year. Hard graft will be recognised and, with luck, reflected in the size of your bonus, but there's no scope at all for winging it.

Your clients will be intelligent and capable businesspeople

This means that they will be stimulating to work with, and you won't have to explain basic points to them. But because they're paying a lot of money for your help with a complex and high-value challenge, they will be demanding.

You need to be organised

Being a lawyer is not just about being a legal expert - it's also about managing projects. You need to be the kind of person who makes to-do lists - and goes on to tick the items off. And because the other lawyers at your firm will have minds which work in this way, you have to not just be efficient and tidy-minded but constantly demonstrate that you are. Even if your work is good and done on time, your colleagues may doubt your abilities if you don't take notes or have a messy desk.

Only a few make it to the top

Most large commercial law firms take on between five and 100 trainees every year, but only a small minority will eventually become partners. But most lawyers don't leave their firms before partnership because they're not good at the job. Rather, they choose other options open to them like moving to a smaller firm, becoming an in-house lawyer, working elsewhere in the commercial world, setting up their own business, changing career direction completely, or being a full-time parent.

4 good things about being a City lawyer

  • *International work. *Much of your work will involve other countries, and you will get the chance to travel. If you like the idea of taking a close look at how many organisations across the world go about their business, being a City lawyer is one of the best jobs you can have.
  • *The money. *It's a lot - you'll be able to pay off your student loan quickly, and buying a flat and significant financial security will soon be within your reach. You'll also get private health insurance, a pension and other goodies.
  • *Meeting the challenges. *The work is often intellectually hard in the same way that your university work is and you'll get plenty of opportunities to use your brain on its maximum setting. It's hard in other ways too - expect to be put into situations where you'll have a level of responsibility that might scare you at the time, but that will make you feel proud afterwards.
  • Camaraderie. You will spend a significant amount of time with your colleagues in volatile and testing situations. You'll see them at their very best and worst, and form close professional relationships with them.

4 bad things about being a City lawyer

  • *The hours. *You will work long and unpredictable hours, though more in some departments than others. Even when you're a partner, how much work you do and when you do it will be largely dependent on decisions made by other people.
  • *You can make more money elsewhere in the City. *Investment banking pays much better. Working "in-house", that is, in a company or bank's legal department, also tends to pay more than working at a law firm.
  • *It's hard to explain what you do. *As you'll be a highly specialised legal and commercial expert, it will be difficult to sum up your job to friends and family - and it may not fit their idea of what a lawyer is or should be.
  • The burden of responsibility. The client relies on you. As their lawyer, you're there to make sure their transaction is legally valid, or that an argument made in court is correct and that the necessary documents to back it up are filed in time. This means that as a junior lawyer, you'll do a lot of double-checking and some administrative work. And the more senior you get, the more important it becomes that you never take your eye off the ball. This isn't a job where you can ever just focus on the big picture, or let something slide.