Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 7
Listen to Choosing Between Corporate and Litigation Practice Areas: Which Is the Better Choice for Your Legal Career? Podcast
- Corporate law entails business and business-related issues.
- Litigation involves writing, reviewing documents, and arguments
- Choose wisely when considering your practice area. This decision will determine the future of your legal career.
When attorneys choose a practice area, they often do not give a lot of thought to their futures.
- Some attorneys choose corporate because they like working on business-related matters.
- Other attorneys choose litigation because they enjoy writing and arguing.
In this article, you will learn the pros and cons of being a corporate attorney or a litigator and also gain valuable tips for deciding which career path is most suitable and offers more options.
Choosing between corporate and litigation practice areas is an important decision because the practice area you choose could have a major impact on your future. This article discusses each of these practice areas from the standpoint of your future employability. However, choosing between these two practice areas is an important decision because the practice area you choose can have a major impact on your future.
i) Corporate Is Very Good When The Economy Is Strong
When the economy is strong, corporate is among the best practice areas out there. Corporate attorneys with experience doing deals can live in any part of the country and are in demand in all of the largest cities. Unlike litigation, where understanding local rules and state law is important, this is much less the case with corporate law.
When the economy was very strong in the early 2000s, for example, it was not uncommon for a corporate attorney practicing at a 3-person law firm in a suburb of New Jersey to get moved across the country to work in a major law firm in Silicon Valley. These attorneys, who might have been making $50,000 in New Jersey, were suddenly being wooed by huge firms all over the United States despite having graduated from lower-tier law schools.
During this period, it was not uncommon for graduates of schools such as Pace Law School who had corporate experience to get positions with the most prestigious New York law firms. The demand for corporate attorneys was so great at this time that many attorneys all over the country were trying to switch practice areas.
Because corporate is so good when the economy is strong, it can be a ticket to working in a large firm even if you do not have the most prestigious credentials when you get out of school. If you like business, it can be among the best choices out there because it can provide you the opportunity to move to a more prestigious law firm as your career progresses.
ii) Aspects Of Corporate Can Be Quite Specialized Giving You Employment Security In A Niche
There are some aspects of corporate law (certain types of securitization, for example) that are so specialized that you could be among a handful of attorneys in the entire world with this expertise. I run across attorneys from the largest New York firms with very niche experience all of the time. These attorneys generally gain specialized experience working for huge institutional clients. Because of this specific expertise, they are usually in demand, even when they get more senior.
iii) It Is Easier To Build A Book Of Business As A Corporate Attorney
Corporate attorneys typically are very involved with their clients, often speaking regularly about various matters. Because they are constantly in contact with their clients, they are privy to upcoming issues such as:
- A real estate lease
- A litigation matter
- A taxing matter
- An intellectual property matter
Corporate attorneys are uniquely positioned to refer work to different departments within their firms (and get credit for this). In contrast, someone who is a litigator may only represent a client once in a great while when that client is sued. Corporate attorneys (generally) have more work and clients to draw from than litigators.
iv) Credentials Are Less Important Than Experience For Corporate Attorneys
Firms hiring litigators are quite concerned with law review, judicial clerkships, order of the coif, the quality of the school the attorney attended, and other resume builders. In contrast, when firms are hiring corporate attorneys, the attorney’s experience is the most important criteria. While the quality of education does still matter, it is much less important for corporate attorneys than for litigators. Some firms will not hire a litigator who was not on law review.
v) It Is Easier To Go In-House As A Corporate Attorney
The majority of in-house related positions are for corporate attorneys, not litigation attorneys. It is much more difficult to get an in-house job as a litigator than a corporate attorney. After a few years of practice, most attorneys, in my experience, want to go in-house. Thus, if you want to leave this door open, you are much better off being a corporate attorney.
Most companies will hire a firm if they are involved in any form of serious litigation. They rarely handle this work in-house. The work of an in-house attorney in the litigation sphere is often reduced to reviewing legal bills and assisting with small legal matters. In contrast, corporate attorneys are often involved in the day-to-day operations of companies.
vi) Corporate Attorneys Are Not A Dime A Dozen
Compared to litigation attorneys, the skill of being a corporate attorney is much more specialized. You can find litigation attorneys in every small town in America, but there are far fewer corporate attorneys. This specialization means, all things considered, that a corporate attorney has a more marketable skill than a litigation attorney.
vii) You Are Often Involved In Strategic Decisions Concerning The Running Of Companies
Many companies rely on their corporate attorneys to assist them in making decisions related to running them. They will seek their advice and counsel regarding acquisitions and sales of business entities and other similar matters. Corporate attorneys often enjoy a sense of responsibility and accomplishment from being involved in such matters. In contrast, litigation attorneys often have the unpleasant task of defending companies when they have done something wrong.
See What Does a Corporate Lawyer Do? for more information
Corporate attorneys actually get business experience because they are involved in a variety of strategic decisions. Litigators do not have this opportunity. Due to this, companies will often utilize their corporate attorney as their CEO or in another similar role. Corporate attorneys often go into business for themselves after gaining in-house experience.
Interested in these kinds of jobs? Click here to find Corporate jobs.
2. Negatives Of Being A Corporate Attorney
i) When The Economy Is Bad, Corporate Is Very, Very Bad
When the economy is in a bad shape, corporate attorneys are cast out of firms as if they are cancer (unless they are partners). You could have anywhere from 1 to 10 years of experience in a large firm and you would still be likely to lose your job in a bad economy.
I have seen this occur several times in my career. For example, from 2001 to early 2003 and 2008 to 2009, corporate attorneys lost their jobs in droves. During periods of downsizing, companies do not hire outside corporate attorneys to do much of anything. When the work decreases, law firms become incredibly skittish about hiring corporate attorneys. In many cases, entire classes of first-year attorneys at law firms are let go when the economy turns, and there are often few survivors among the associate ranks in even the largest law firms.
I have seen corporate attorneys who were first in their classes from the top 10 law schools and working at law firms like Latham & Watkins have a hard time finding jobs for a couple of years when the economy goes sour. It is devastating for these attorneys in all respects. Many corporate attorneys end up moving home with their parents, filing for bankruptcy, and losing their cars and homes.
ii) The Work Can Become So Specialized That Your Job Can Disappear Overnight
I have come across corporate attorneys in my career who gained very niche, specialized experience in a firm doing a certain type of corporate work. A law changes or some other circumstance, and this work can disappear, and the attorney is out of a job. I have seen this happen to attorneys with a decade or more experience. It is not pleasant being in a position where you may have been making $250,000 a year for several years, and then suddenly your work disappears overnight. These attorneys are typically let gone by law firms fairly quickly.
iii) The Hours Can Be Extreme, Work Is Tedious And Leads To Burnout
When it gets busy for corporate attorneys and the economy is doing well, it is not uncommon for them to work 16+ hour days (or more) seven days a week, for weeks or months on end. The work that corporate attorneys do is often far more time-sensitive than the work that litigation attorneys do. In addition, the work is often very tedious and boring for many attorneys, and this (combined with the extreme hours) can lead to burnout. Many attorneys work so hard and end up so burned out that they leave the practice of law entirely.
iv) There Are Fewer Women Corporate Attorneys Compared To The Number Of Men
Corporate tends to be more of a male-dominated practice area. There are generally disproportionately more men in corporate law than women. Many women do not enjoy this imbalance.
1. Positives Of Being A Litigation Attorney
i) Litigators Generally Stay Employed In All Economies
Litigators generally are able to stay in demand in all economies. Unlike corporate attorneys whose fortunes can rise and fall with the economy, litigators generally end up staying employed through varying economic climates. The reason for this is because litigation cases often take years to fully play out. These long cases continue despite recessions. In addition, when the economy is bad, people are more likely to file lawsuits to try to recover the money they believe they are owed, which results in even more litigation work. It is quite common for litigation departments to “bolster” large law firms during recessions when corporate and other forms of transactional work slow down significantly.
ii) There Are More Litigation Jobs Than Corporate Jobs
There are litigation jobs all over. Regardless of where you live, there are courthouses and litigation work. While the quality and pay of litigation jobs can vary widely, there are litigation jobs everywhere. For example, if you lived in Bradenton, Florida, you could apply to work here:
Working for these ladies in Bradenton, Florida, looks a heck of a lot more entertaining than working for a giant corporate law firm in New York City.
If you are a litigator, you will generally be able to work in a wide variety of law firms of different sizes. In contrast, most corporate work is handled by large law firms.
iii) It Is Easier To Work For The Government If You Are A Litigator
There are some exceptional jobs for litigators in the government. If you are a litigator, there are opportunities to work in the government everywhere. You could be a judge, prosecutor, US attorney, or another type of government litigator. These professions are generally closed to corporate attorneys.
iv) It Is Easier To Set Up Your Own Law Firm (Work for Yourself) If You Are A Litigator
Many attorneys, at some point in their careers, decide that they want to work for themselves. If you are interested in being your own boss, it is generally quite easy to set up your own law firm doing litigation-related work. There are solo practitioners doing litigation-related work all over. As a litigator, you can do all kinds of work for people from varied backgrounds.
In contrast, it generally (but not always) is more difficult to establish yourself as a solo practitioner as a corporate attorney. The work a corporate attorney does often involves services that only a large company would require. Large companies prefer to use large law firms and their resources.
I have seen many attorneys set up their own practices in my career. In almost every case, the corporate attorney fails and ends up going back to a law firm. In contrast, most litigators are able to survive (and even prosper) in their own practices.
v) You Can Make Huge Amounts Of Money As A Litigator And “Hit The Lottery”
Some litigators have made hundreds of millions of dollars taking giant cases on a contingency- fee basis. These earnings are simply impossible as a corporate attorney.
2. Negatives Of Being A Litigation Attorney
i) Your Credentials Are More Likely To Hold You Back Your Entire Career
Unless you graduate at the very top of your class from a lower-tier law school, your odds of ever getting into a large, prestigious firm are going to be significantly hindered as a litigator. I am not sure I have ever seen someone with below-average credentials get into a large law firm as a litigator. In contrast, I see this all the time with corporate attorneys.
As a corporate attorney, you will generally have the ability to move to a more prestigious law firm depending on the economy. As a litigator, clerkships, the quality of your school, participation in law review, and the like are more likely to determine your fate early on in your career. If you are a litigator without stellar credentials, it is very difficult to move up to a more prestigious law firm.
I look at legal resumes all day, every day for my job. It is not at all uncommon for me to see a corporate attorney who has made several moves to increasingly prestigious law firms. In contrast, this is extremely rare (almost unheard of) for litigators. More often than not, the resumes of litigators show a series of increasingly less prestigious positions.
ii) It Is Much More Difficult To Get Business As A Litigator
Unlike corporate attorneys, who interact with clients on a regular basis and are trusted business advisers, litigation attorneys generally do not have this type of relationship with their clients. Because corporate attorneys are involved in so many aspects of their client's businesses, they have the ability to bring in different types of work (tax, IP, litigation, real estate).
In contrast, litigators are only called when there is a litigation matter (someone gets sued or is going to be sued). Litigation attorneys generally have a much more difficult time getting business than corporate attorneys for this reason.
iii) It Is Much More Difficult To Go In-House As A Litigator
Most in-house positions are for corporate attorneys, intellectual property attorneys, and other transaction-related disciplines. Very few in-house positions are for litigators. Many litigators desperately want to go in-house after they have been practicing for several years but find very few opportunities to do so. Most companies that are sued do not want to handle this work in-house and want to use a law firm with its depth of resources to handle their problems.
iv) Litigation Attorneys Are A Dime A Dozen
Most attorneys are litigators. There are litigators everywhere. Because there are so many litigators out there, a lot of competition for jobs is always the case. In my career as a legal recruiter, I have seen law firms go to extraordinary lengths to attract and hire patent and corporate attorneys because they are needed so badly and even offered massive signing bonuses to the recruiters who brought them these types of candidates. I have never seen a law firm so hungry for a litigation attorney it offered the recruiter such incentives.
v) It Is Very Difficult To Move From One State To Another As A Litigator
Even litigators at the top of their classes from Harvard Law School practicing at a major law firm in huge markets have a difficult time moving to another state unless they have passed the bar exam there. One reason for this is due to the fact that litigators need to sign pleadings and go to court. In contrast, most corporate attorneys can move state-to-state with relative ease because they do not have the same requirements.
In addition, the work that most litigation attorneys do involve various local rules, state laws, state case law, and a long-term understanding of each jurisdiction’s statutes gathered through experience. Due to this, even with the bar exam, out-of-state law firms are very wary of hiring a litigator from another state because it will take those litigators years to get up to speed.
And why would a law firm want to hire someone from out of state anyway? There are tons and tons of litigators EVERYWHERE. The risk of hiring an out-of-state litigator is generally not worth it.
- See Top 10 Reasons Most Law Firms Have No Idea How to Hire and Evaluate Patent Attorneys for more information.
There are both positives and negatives to choosing corporate or litigation as your practice area. I can tell you, though, that one of the riskiest professions in recent years has been being a corporate attorney. When the market for corporate attorneys gets bad, it gets really, really bad. However, litigation is also extremely limiting due to the fact it is so difficult to go in-house, which many attorneys want to do. Having spent decades thinking about the relative strengths and weaknesses of both practice areas, I can honestly tell you I do not know which one is a better choice.
Find out what it takes to become a successful corporate attorney.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Does A Corporate Litigator Do?
Licensed lawyers may practice in any area of law they choose, but most choose to focus on one particular area. A firm's corporate litigation practice is one area of focus for a lawyer. Lawyers who represent businesses in legal disputes are known as corporate litigators. An attorney who specializes in corporate litigation must be familiar with a wide range of legal subjects, including negotiation and trial work. In this position, preparation of court documents, investigation of claims, negotiations, and trial representation are required.
"Transactional" and "corporate" are often used interchangeably when describing a firm's practice areas. A corporate lawyer drafts documents, negotiates deals, attends meetings, and makes calls towards those ends. By providing clear and unambiguous language in an agreement, a corporate lawyer ensures that future problems will not arise for their client. Corporate attorneys also advise on the duties and responsibilities of officers, directors, and insiders (or are ambiguous in order to serve the client's interests.) Firms do not categorize corporate practice in the same way. Antitrust and mergers and acquisitions practice groups at some firms are separate from corporate practice groups, while at others, they are part of the corporate department. In the following list, corporate attorneys may be involved in the following fields, but the list is not comprehensive.
Corporate Formation, Governance, And Operation
The services of a corporate attorney include the creation, organization, and dissolution of businesses. Attorneys draft articles of incorporation, which specify the company's creation and management of internal affairs. The roles of officers of a corporation are typically defined in the company's bylaws. In addition to corporations, corporations lawyers typically assist partnerships, limited liability companies, limited liability partnerships, and business trusts. These types of entities have different legal rights and responsibilities, organizational structures, and tax burdens. A lawyer helps clients select the legal form that best suits the type of business they want to run and the relationships they want to build. In addition to helping form a company, a corporate lawyer might later be called upon to help the company with its startup or management, such as reviewing leases for office space or equipment or crafting employment contracts, nondisclosure, and non-compete agreements. In some cases, corporate lawyers consult with other lawyers who specialize in certain areas of law, such as employment law or environmental law. Moreover, executives seek legal advice from corporate practitioners about their responsibilities as corporate officers and directors.
Mergers And Acquisitions
The mergers and acquisitions (M&A) practice area is one of the key areas of corporate law. Acquisitions (buying) or mergers with other companies can add properties, production facilities, or a brand name to a company. Likewise, a merger or acquisition could be used to neutralize a competitive entity. M&A attorneys provide legal advice regarding proposed transactions. The key assets and liabilities of a company are typically examined by corporate attorneys to determine the company's viability, such as financial statements, employment contracts, real estate holdings, and intellectual property holdings. It is called due diligence. After assessing the situation, the lawyer(s) can raise specific issues with the client -- for instance, who is responsible for the Environmental Protection Agency's investigation of that piece of property the company owns? In the event that the target company is sold, what happens to its employees and to its stock options? An M&A lawyer can help determine which parties have current or potential obligations based on consultation with their clients. After drafting the merger or acquisition agreement, the lawyers carefully negotiate the rights, obligations, and liabilities of each party.
A venture capital lawyer works on private and public financings and daily consulting. In other words, the legal and business structures of new businesses are maintained, money is found for their ventures, and operations are organized. Whenever a lawyer is working with a startup, he or she helps build the company. They might be responsible for everything from draft articles of incorporation to technology licensing to financing and mergers and acquisitions. It is less confrontational than M&A because the client is with other parties to accomplish a common goal. A merger and acquisition can sometimes be viewed as a zero-sum game in which each party strives to achieve the best deal regardless of any repercussions on the relationship with the other party. A hostile takeover is a prime example of this.
In order to design, build, operate, and maintain power plants, oil refineries, industrial facilities, pipelines, mines, telecommunications networks and facilities, and transportation systems, many different entities and lawyers are involved, as well as extremely large sums of money. An attorney who specializes in these deals is a project finance attorney. An entity is formed for the project, a corporation, a partnership, or another legal entity that exists during the project's term, and power purchase agreements, construction contracts, and financial terms are negotiated with lenders and investors.
Securities lawyers specialize in corporate law. Companies that sell securities to the public must register with the federal government under the Securities Act of 1933. Corporate shareholders and investors must be provided with information in accordance with certain protocols, depending on the type of corporation and the size of the shareholder. The Securities and Exchange Commission requires companies that owe their stock shares to public companies to file detailed reports and provide parts of these reports to investors (the prospectus). Stock exchange companies have obligations under the Securities Act of 1934. Attorneys for corporate clients make periodic disclosures, quarterly reports, and special disclosures whenever something might adversely affect the stock price, such as impending litigation or government investigations. Corporate securities law requires corporate lawyers to understand a wide range of corporate rules, whether they specialize in securities law or not.
What Is Corporate Litigation?
There is much more to corporate litigation than just one business suing another. The term corporate litigation encompasses any type of legal action involving a corporation or business, including steps taken to avoid litigation as well as litigating and managing business disputes.
Tort and contract issues are common to corporate litigation. In addition to dealing with federal regulators, corporate litigation now includes ensuring compliance with federal and state regulations in addition to Sarbanes-Oxley.
An experienced business litigator is capable of handling every business problem that comes up over a corporation's lifetime, including:
- Making sure laws related to wages and hours and anti-discrimination are followed.
- Litigating wrongful termination cases for companies.
- Complying with the new accounting and governance regulations.
- Litigation or mediation of shareholder derivative suits.
- Tax compliance management for corporations.
- Settlement of labor disputes with both unionized and at-will workforces.
- Defending or prosecuting breaches of contract, usually involving other businesses.
- Injuries caused by your products or services can give rise to tort claims.
- Property-related issues for corporations, from premises liability to landlord disputes.
In today's world, managing litigation risk and preventing becoming a target of government investigations is a must to run a successful business. Risk avoidance and management can be easier when working with a litigation lawyer.
What Is The Role Of A Corporate Lawyer?
An attorney for corporations advises clients about their legal rights, obligations, and responsibilities.
A corporate lawyer represents the corporation, not its shareholders or employees when hired by a corporation. The law actually treats a corporation much like a person, which may be a confusing concept at first.
Corporations are legal entities created under state law, usually to carry on business. Corporations are considered separate legal entities from their owners or shareholders.
A corporation's law covers all legal issues it faces, which are numerous given the extent to which it is regulated by the government and state. A majority of states require corporations to hold regular meetings, like annual shareholders meetings.
They also handle other types of work, such as ensuring that corporations follow these rules.
Skills Corporate Lawyers Need
A corporate lawyer should have excellent writing, communication, and negotiating skills since such skills are heavily relied upon in day-to-day corporate law work.
Corporate law covers many transnational, regulatory, and business-related areas, so unless you want to specialize in one niche legal area such as securities law, you must have the desire to learn about many different areas of law.
Moreover, many corporate lawyers have multiple clients in different industries, so they must gain a comprehensive understanding of those industries.
Last but not least, corporate lawyers need the ability to contact other lawyers to gain experiences in specific fields, such as tax, ERISA, employment, or real estate.
To become a corporate lawyer is not that different from becoming a lawyer in another field. To become a corporate lawyer, one must complete law school, obtain a juris doctorate (J.D. ), and obtain a license in their state.
A corporate lawyer is often familiar with the business world, but past work experience is not usually required.
What Is The Difference Between Litigation And Transactional Law?
There are two large classes of lawyers - those who help bring people together, and those who help tear them apart. In transactional practice, attorneys research, prepare, and review the documents that bind individuals and companies together, such as mergers and acquisition contracts for corporations and closing documents for home sales. This responsibility also encompasses ensuring that regulations and laws are followed. A transactional lawyer is never in a courtroom. Researchers, drafters, negotiators, and advisers are their main tasks.
The sort of lawyer you see most often on television and in movies is a litigator. As courtroom litigants, they are the ones who seek to resolve lawsuits - whether it be contracts that were (allegedly) broken, crimes that were (allegedly) committed, or roller coasters that were (allegedly) negligently operated. Similarly, the image does not match reality here as well. Popular culture shows lawyers in court most of the time, but the reality of litigation is very different: the vast majority of trial attorneys' work takes place outside of court. During their duties, attorneys research the law, examine the facts (including interviewing the client and witnesses, analyzing documents, and analyzing the case merits based on the law and facts), and negotiate potential settlements. 90 percent of all lawsuits settle before trial (although this varies based on the specific area of law and the resources of the parties). Trials are less common for litigators than motions (often on procedural issues).
Most lawyers (especially in larger firms) concentrate their practices on one or the other of these two large areas, even though there are some overlaps. In general, solo practitioners and small firms handle both transactional work and litigation.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. He is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.
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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.