How to succeed in business (law) without really trying

There are many ways to approach a career in law from doing pro bono and legal aid work at one end of the monetary spectrum to corporate and commercial, the pinnacle at the other. In business law, achievement doesn’t come without a cost. But in this fast-changing and uncertain world, how do you achieve success as a business law practitioner? A few who have made it share their thoughts on how they did.

John Anderson, a partner and mergers and acquisitions specialist with Stikeman Elliott LLP in Vancouver has a four-point plan for success. Number one is to work hard and choose an area of the law that is going to “demand a premium.” After a number of years of practising, “marks are irrelevant. Anyone’s marks.”

“Watch the market and pick an area that’s hot. People who distinguish themselves become very well known for doing deals in one sector. When you get much better known, you can spread your wings in that area,” he advises. Accurately forecasting a niche area can be tricky though. For example, a few years ago everyone thought that outsourcing law would be in demand but few would choose to specialize in that area now, he says. Reading the business press and knowing the market is key. Doing work for small firms or retail operations won’t get you on magazine covers either.

According to Anderson, his “biggest insight, which sounds simple and trite,” is for business lawyers to think like business people, to take control of a file and get the transaction done, rather than waiting for the other side to come back. “Follow it up. Push it along. Step into the breach. Transactions that aren’t pushed tend to die on the vine.”

Having a business background is a plus, too. “I have a B.Comm. People who aren’t able to understand a balance sheet and have no head for the financing of a corporation are starting well back from the starting point. It’s a handicap. You can’t focus on the legal aspects if you’re scratching your head trying to understand a balance sheet,” he adds. Sophisticated knowledge will come later but you have to at least know the basics.

Amy Grubb with Ogilvy Renault LLP in Ottawa agrees. “I don’t have a business background. My undergrad degree was in sociology. Business was a whole new world for me. I would advise students, if they don’t have a business background to take seminars. Meet up with the some of the partners, get to know the lingo. You can’t just go in cold. Read up on your own. Find a mentor.”

For Michelle Chaisson at Blake Cassels & Graydon LLP in Toronto, the key principle is:  “At a junior level, the lawyers are your clients. In order to build your practice you have to ensure that you treat them that way. Particularly when you’re entering into a firm to practise in a larger group, a corporate or securities group. At a junior level, you need to find something to make yourself unique so that people within the firm recognize you as a ‘go to’ person within a particular area.

“I practise corporate law but I have a background in environmental science. I’ve maintained contacts with our environmental group, and now get about 10 per cent of my work from lawyers within that group. It has helped me be unique,” she says. “You have to be available. Sometimes you are asked to make sacrifices, particularly at a junior level. You need to be a team player.”

What if your goal is to become an in-house counsel instead? A lawyer at one of the country’s biggest mining companies says: “Big law firms are a bit monolithic. They all operate on the same principle. In-house is much different. The majority of companies are looking to hire people who have spent a few years at a big firm. Usually the more years you have, the more senior you go in. You can’t generally pass ‘Go’ and skip to ‘Park Place’. You’ve really got to work at the private practice of business law before you have a shot at succeeding in-house,” says Adam Segal.

You’ll also need to develop maturity, client relationship skills, and a solid understanding of what drives clients. For the most part, lawyers in private practice are specialists, he says. Especially in business law, and even more so today. But in-house, being an expert is not really the basis for a hire. “You’re being hired for your ability to analyze situations and the personal ‘soft’ skills that are involved in managing relationships internally.”

Segal previously worked with Borden Ladner Gervais LLP as well as the Ontario Securities Commission. “One of the nice things about being in private practice is that you have multiple clients. If you don’t like one, the truth is hopefully you have a bunch of others you can rely on. When you work at a company you’ve got to deal with the players you’re dealt. You’re working with a fairly small group of people and if you don’t get along with everyone, there’s probably not much room to succeed.”

The other thing to consider before moving in-house is whether you have the appropriate skills, if you like being an expert, or whether you can handle being outside the zone of your specialty where people throw a variety of work at you. On the plus side, there’s lots of opportunity to learn new things and a stimulating range of situations.

Yet other challenges loom for business lawyers. Richard Susskind, a former law professor at Gresham College in London, England, writes in The End of Lawyers? of a major shift he sees in legal services. Susskind is the guy English lawyers scoffed at for suggesting that the Internet and e-mail would become part and parcel of their daily law practices. In his most recent book, he argues that the practice of law will be almost unrecognizable in years to come, one change being a shift from a bespoke service, with face-to-face interactions with clients, to a more electronically based, commoditization of services.

Anderson agrees that technology is playing an ever-increasing role. When he started practising, “the big debate was whether to use a typewriter, a dedicated word processor, or one of these crazy things called a PC. Today it’s a pdf that you e-mail. Absolutely things are being done at the speed of light. You have to be able to react and to reinvent yourself,” he says.

Grubb seconds that. “Even in the short amount of time that I’ve been a lawyer. When I first started we did a majority of our work face-to-face, going into a huge boardroom to sign the papers and shake hands. Whereas today most things are done through pdf. It was a great experience to be in the room with all the lawyers and all the clients there. Now you don’t see how everyone works together,” she says. “As much as possible you need to get involved to get the picture of the transaction. Try picking the lawyers’ brains as much as possible. When the transaction is closed, ask the lawyer to go for coffee to talk about the transaction.”

Segal says: “It’s true here in Canada, too. Probably a bit less so. The commoditization issue is a big one. Things that business lawyers would traditionally have done will get farmed out offshore or electronically pushed down to ‘the lowest common denominator.’” Value for money will become particularly acute in today’s economy. “This wouldn’t be true for big ticket securities transactions or M & A deals. That will probably always be local and you’ll pay a lot for highly skilled labour. It’s already happened in things like residential real estate, even in commercial lending, routine banking stuff. You can certainly envision it in other areas, like IP, for instance, due diligence, reviewing contracts, any routine work.”

He concludes: “It probably means your value is tied to your ability to be so specialized that few others internationally could compete with you. In securities law, [and] bankruptcy and insolvency law few could properly advise Canadian clients. Now the pressure is on young law students to specialize even earlier.”

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