Introducing a career in commercial law

If you're just starting to think about a career at a commercial law firm, whether you're studying law or not, this is the perfect place to start.

If you're just starting to think about a career at a commercial law firm, this is the perfect place to start.

What is a commercial lawyer?

Commercial lawyers are solicitors who advise companies and governments on business-related issues.

They can either be transactional lawyers, meaning they draw up and review the legal documents that underpin the deals their clients are working on, or contentious lawyers, meaning they help their clients resolve disputes with other parties.

As a commercial lawyer you become a specialist in a particular area of law. For example, you could specialise in finance law and advise on deals such as mergers and acquisitions (M&A) or initial public offerings (IPOs).

The most common practice areas, in terms of number of employees, are described in more detail in the next section of the guide, “What do commercial lawyers do?

What makes a good commercial lawyer?

Regardless of the practice area you specialise in, there are certain personality traits and skills that are important:

  • You enjoy working with words. Legal documents tend to be long, complex bodies of text. You’ll need to maintain your focus on these documents for hours on end and ensure no mistakes get through.
  • You’re interested in the business world. As well as being an expert in law, you’ll need to be a competent businessperson in your own right. Commercial law is about applying legal knowledge to real-life business situations. Understanding why businesses act the way they do and what they are trying to achieve is as important as the legal knowledge you’re bringing to the table.
  • You’re good with people. Commercial lawyers need to be good at forming business relationships. This is a cornerstone of how law firms work: each partner is expected to win their own business, simultaneously acting as a salesperson for the firm and an expert in their field. As a lawyer at any level of the firm you’ll be expected to market yourself.

We interviewed Hammad Akhtar, the partner responsible for graduate recruitment at the leading law firm Ashurst, to find out his views on the skills needed by trainee lawyers.

How do I become a commercial lawyer?

As with any career, your first steps should involve finding out more about the industry. At the same time, this will also help you make decisions about the type of law firm you'd like to work at.

Here’s a quick outline of the the things you should be aware of while at university if you’re thinking about becoming a lawyer – you’ll find more detail on each of them later on in the guide:

  • Law firm open days. An increasing number of law firms hold open days at their offices, which are a great way of finding out more about the firm and commercial law in general, and are open to students of all years.
  • Law firm events on campus. Law firms also visit some university campuses to hold drinks evenings or dinners. These provide an informal environment for you to speak to current trainees at the firm about what life at the firm is like.
  • Vacation schemes. The best way to find out what it’s like to work at a commercial law firm is to try it for yourself. All the firms you’ll find in this guide run week-long internships where you get the opportunity to work alongside trainees and qualified lawyers at the firm. 

Once you're confident that commercial law is the career for you, you'll need to apply for training contracts with a selection of firms you feel you'd enjoy working at.

A training contract is the final, on-the-job, part of your training to become a qualified solicitor – effectively a law firm graduate scheme.

When do I apply for training contracts?

Before you start your training contract, you'll need to complete another 1-2 years of legal education at law school (see below).

However, you should apply for training contracts while at university, as if they make you an offer most commercial law firms will pay for the rest of your legal education.

When you apply depends on whether you’re studying law or not:

  • If you’re studying law, commercial law firms ask that you apply to them in your penultimate year of university.
  • If you’re studying for a non-law degree, you should apply in your final year.

If you don’t get a place on a training contract first time round, you still have the option of going to law school, although you’ll need to finance it yourself.

What is law school?

Law schools such as Kaplan or the London College of Law provide two courses that are relevant to future commercial lawyers:

  • If you’re studying a non-law undergraduate degree, they provide you training called the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). This course condenses the essential legal knowledge contained in a law degree into one year of training, bringing you up to speed with students who have studied law at undergraduate level.
  • For all students, they provide training known as the Legal Practice Course (LPC). In this course you take the legal theory that you’ve learnt during your law degree or GDP, and practice applying it to business situations, learning how to advise a client.

Regardless of whether you are studying a law undergraduate course or not, you apply to law school in your final year of university.