How does an average workday look like for a corporate lawyer. And is it what you expected?
Matthew L.’s Answer
Hi Maarij. Good question.
My father is a lawyer and until I went to law school and got a job as a lawyer I never really knew what he did every day.
Your question has several potential answers. I have worked as a litigator, as a corporate attorney and as an assistant general counsel, so I have a pretty good idea of what each specialty involves.
Strictly speaking, a "corporate lawyer" is an attorney who works on the business matters for a company. This usually (though not always) involves tasks like reviewing and drafting contracts, working on mergers and acquisitions, negotiating agreements, handling employment issues, managing corporate filings, responding to government inquiries, etc. Corporate lawyers can work directly in the company (known as "in-house" or "corporate" counsel) or at a law firm working on matters corporate clients have.
Most corporate lawyers do not go to court or get involved in litigation, though some do. Much corporate litigation is done by attorneys, but usually this is handled by outside litigation attorneys who work at law firms (i.e., not working in the company's own legal department) and who specialize in commercial or other types of litigation. Commercial litigation, which is much of what corporations get involved in, frequently involves breach of a contract, patent infringement, stockholder issues, product liability, employee/labor, government agencies, and other money matters. Either the company decides to sue another entity (person or company) or the company gets sued by someone.
Usually it is the "General Counsel" (GC) for a company (the company's head in-house lawyer) who determines that a lawsuit needs to be filed, or that the company needs to defend a suit filed against it, and he hires and manages the outside firm that actually does the litigation work. At companies that get sued a lot (like big tech companies, banks, auto companies, etc.), a lot of the in-house corporate work can be just managing the many litigation matters that are going on. The GC (or another more junior attorney in the company's legal department who are called "Associate General Counsel" or "Deputy Corporate Counsel") will usually act as the point person for the company on the litigation. The GC will identify witnesses, help gather records needed for the case, review legal bills submitted by the outside law firm(s) and communicate the status of the case(s) to company management. The GC also usually helps advise the company on legal and other strategy for the company's managers, who are usually not lawyers.
So, if you want to be a traditional corporate lawyer and work on contracts and negotiating deals, you need to be good on details. You may have to make 100 revisions to a contract before it's done. You will be spending a lot of hours at a desk drafting, reading and revising agreements. In-house corporate attorneys tend to work fewer hours than attorneys doing corporate work in a law firm setting, but they also usually make less money than corporate attorneys at larger firms. Corporate attorneys in large law firms, particularly those who work in mergers and acquisitions, or other large matters, can work very long hours.
Litigators who work in a firm and who work on commercial litigation matters also tend to work a lot of hours but they also get paid more (usually) than in-house attorneys. Most firms have "minimum billable hour" requirements, meaning you must submit a certain number of hours of work each month that can be charged to a client. Usually 1500 to 2000 hours per year is common, While that may not sound too bad (2000 divided by 50 weeks is only 40 hours a week, right?). Not exactly. To actually bill 40 hours a week, you may have work 60 hours (or more). Big firms really like worker bee associates who can bill a lot of hours. That's how firms make money. Many associates at big firms work 12 hour days and even weekends, depending on the firm.
As a new associate working in the litigation department, you likely will be doing a lot of research, writing, document review, and LEARNING. Each firm has its own training process. It likely will be a few years before you get to go to court and actually argue a motion or help out at a trial, but it depends a lot on the firm. More senior litigators take lots of depositions (sworn witness statements), meet with clients, and go to court. Large firms can be very competitive. Big firms pay more than smaller firms and only the top students from the best law schools usually get a chance to work for the big firms. Smaller firms pay less but you get a lot more experience more quickly.
The first, best step to getting a job at a big firm is landing a summer internship at the firm you like or would want to work at after you get out of school. But here again, you usually need a connection of some kind to the firm or really good grades to get offered a summer internship. Usually internships are reserved for the top 10 percent of students. Summer internships at the big firms is the way they get to know you, figure out if you can write well, and if you're a good fit with the firm's culture. If you do well on your internship, some, but not all, summer interns will get an offer from the firm after they graduate from law school.
So, here is how to become a corporate lawyer or litigator. Generally, each stage of your education builds on the next. If you want to get a job at a large firm, you have to get top grades in college. It helps if you go to a well-respected college as well, but that is not as important. Top grades from less well-known college will still get you into a good law school (big fish, small pond idea). You should also get a high score on the LSAT (the law school admission test), though increasingly law schools are also using the GMAT, which is the test used for graduate business school admissions.
To work at a large firm or get a job at a large corporation in the legal department, you need to get good grades in law school. Here again, it's best to go to a very good law school. But if you don't get into a top school (it's very competitive), good grades from a lower rated law school is almost as good. It's also a good idea to get on the law review (a scholarly magazine published by law schools). This highly competitive and reserved for the students with top grades or who can write really well. Having law review on your resume is huge plus. Another plus is moot court experience. Moot court is like a mock appellate court competition within the law school or even nationally against other schools. Winning or placing in these competitions is good as well. It shows you can think on your feet. Judicial clerkships during or after law school are also a huge plus on your resume, particularly federal clerkships or state appellate court clerkships. Network like crazy during law school. Connections are just as important as grades, law review and clerkships.
As to your undergraduate studies, it is good to have business degree to go into corporate law. If you understand accounting and finance, you are more valuable to corporate work assignments or commercial litigators staffing projects. Knowing software or biology or chemistry can also be valuable if you want to go to work as house counsel for a company that makes software, chemicals or medicines.
To sum up, to maximize your options you need to get the best grades you can, get into the best law school you can, get great grades in law school, and network like crazy. You never know who might have an "in" at your dream firm or dream company.
Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:
- No matter what kind of attorney you want to be, you need to get really good grades in college to get into a good law school. You also need a good score on the LSAT. Take a prep course and practice a lot. Take a lot of writing classes in undergrad because there is a ton of writing in law school and better writers get better grades. Law firms want and need great writers.
- Get into the best law school you can and get great grades. This will give you a shot at the best law firms, judicial clerkships and the most opportunities. Try to get on law review, do moot court and judicial clerkships.
- Begin researching firms before you apply. Try to get a summer internship (usually during the summer between your second and third year). Network like crazy with lawyers while you're in law school. If you get an internship at a good firm and you do well, they likely will offer you a job at the firm.
- If you want to be a true corporate attorney, make sure you like writing, drafting and negotiating. If you think you like litigation, do a lot of moot court in law school. To get into the court room sooner after law school, join a smaller firm.
- It is helpful to have a good major in undergrad that will be valuable to a firm. Sciences (biology, chemistry) and business (finance, accounting) are good choices.