Head & Shoulder shot of Jane Drew

Jane Drew, associate careers consultant

In her latest blog our associate careers consultant Jane Drew explores the plethora of practice areas aspiring commercial lawyers can choose from. 

It is vitally important to start thinking about the area(s) of law you want to focus on as early as possible because this will enable you to make much more targeted applications for vacation schemes, training contracts and other forms of qualifying work experience.

Saying that, I suggest you keep an open mind because you won’t fully appreciate whether a particular practice area suits you best until you’ve tried it out. That’s why most training contracts with larger commercial law firms are deliberately structured to enable you to spend time in different departments.

Within the commercial arena there are an endless number of practice areas ranging from but not limited to: banking and finance: competition; corporate; dispute resolution; employment, insolvency and restructuring; intellectual property (IP); pensions; property (or real estate); regulatory; sport; tax; technology, media and telecom (TMT); and white-collar crime.

Practice areas are typically split into contentious (a situation involving a dispute) and non-contentious. The former captures litigation and other forms of dispute resolution such as arbitration and mediation, while the latter covers everything else. Non-contentious can then be split further into transactional (deals such as the sale of a property or a merger between two companies) or non-transactional / advisory. Examples of non-transactional work include offering tax planning advice to a high net worth client or guiding a bank through the web of complex rules that exist to safeguard consumers.

Some areas, including tax, employment and competition law become blurred as they straddle contentious, transactional (often referred to as corporate support) and advisory. For example, as well as tax planning, a tax specialist might also get involved in advising a client who has got into a pickle with HM Revenue & Customs. Whilst others will support their colleagues on how to make an M&A deal as tax efficient as possible. Similarly, employment lawyers will also handle contentious (eg advising on an unfair dismissal or discrimination case), advisory work (eg advising an employer on visas / work permits for employees with overseas passports) and transactional (advising on the employment law aspects of a merger or takeover).

Other areas where the work handled by lawyers can potentially overlap is TMT and IP. Although some specialists in this field might boast A-list celebrities and household brands as clients their work essentially focuses on principles of contract law. Consequently, some firms may put them all in the same category under the commercial law banner.

Whilst we are on the subject of commercial law – note how this differs to corporate. The former involves advising businesses on legal issues arising of their day-to-day activities such as contracts with suppliers. The latter centres around growth strategies, including advising on M&A, joint ventures and takeovers or exiting an investment via disposal.

Finding your match

One of the advantages of splitting practice areas into these sub-groups is that they’ll help you to identify the ones that best match your interests and skills set. For instance, transactional and contentious work is generally more fast-paced and deadline-driven meaning you may have to work longer and unpredictable hours. This is likely to suit those of you who get a buzz from watching a deal or case unfold. The other advantage of specialising in transactional work is that if you advise on a sizeable deal or case, you’re likely to be part of a large team. In contrast, if your focus is on non-transactional matters you may have to spend more time working alone or in much smaller teams, and at a slower pace.

Believe it or not, the amount of law you deal with as a lawyer will differ depending on your area of expertise. Again, transactional lawyers will spend less time researching the law whilst those who focus on areas such as tax, pensions and regulatory work are more likely to be seen with their heads buried in statues and cases.

The economic effect

The economic cycle can have a dramatic impact on the rise and fall of certain practice areas. For instance, after a period of economic uncertainty caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic during which corporate lawyers downed tools many law firms are now reporting a surge in transactional work, particularly in private equity. In contrast, during the height of the pandemic, employment law specialists were in peak demand as businesses in sectors such as travel and hospitality tried to get their heads around furlough etc. Meanwhile, if you dig up the archives and look into the impact the 2008 financial crisis had on law firms you’ll discover that property lawyers saw their work dry up overnight.

Litigation is often referred to as a counter-cyclical practice area and consequently the impact of the financial crisis on litigators was less severe. The idea being that when things start going wrong parties are more likely to fall out with each other. Another counter-cyclical practice area is insolvency and restructuring. Again, no thanks in part to the pandemic, 2020 witnessed a string of high profile retailers, most notably Top Shop and Debenhams, going bust and resulted in plenty of work for insolvency and restructuring lawyers.

Challenging choice

I’d be fibbing if I said the work handled by lawyers were simple. It is indeed very complex and that’s one of the big draws of joining the legal profession. Throughout your career as a lawyer you’ll be constantly giving your brain a workout and learning new stuff.

Thankfully, law firms will not expect applicants to know absolutely everything about the type of work they handle. However, it will help your job hunt immeasurably if you’re able to demonstrate a basic understanding of different practice areas. As such, be sure to keep abreast of all the latest developments by keeping an eye on the Commercial Awareness section of CheekyLittleCareers, as well as the other usual sources, including listening to relevant law firm webinars etc.

By Jane Drew, associate careers consultant