What is Corporate Law?
Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) or Corporate Law is probably the practice area whose transactions you most often see on the front page of the business section of the newspapers.
The work is exactly what it sounds like – merging, demerging (i.e. separating), buying and selling of companies and their assets. You will also become experienced in the formation and restructuring of companies and with joint ventures and strategic alliances.
Corporate law quite frequently involves a cross-border element, and is therefore a department found in the large international firms and major City firms. Transactions can be public (when they involve companies listed on a stock exchange) or private (when they involve companies privately owned by individuals) in nature. The M&A department of a firm usually also handles private equity-financed transactions.
As an M&A lawyer, your clients will span an extremely broad range of industries, from automotive to media and entertainment to mining. Certain law firms may choose to focus their M&A work in several specific industries, such as energy, communications, and technology only, for example.
Clients will not necessarily be large companies – many of them will be smaller growing businesses or the smaller branches of large companies. You will represent buyers and sellers, as well as the financial advisers who structure the entire merger or acquisition process.
What does corporate law involve?
As a trainee in the M&A group, you would probably spend a large amount of your time conducting due diligence, generally the first stage of any M&A transaction. Due diligence is the investigation to check the accuracy of information passed from the seller to the buyer or from the company raising capital to the investor. It endeavours to ascertain the financial performance of the company, the status of its assets, whether there are any outstanding debts or legal claims that could prove problematic, and whether there are any environmental, intellectual property or antitrust liabilities that could affect the value of the company going forward. Due diligence involves sifting through and reading vast quantities of paper or online documentation within a tight time frame. At times, you will be asked to travel to the client’s offices in order to conduct the due diligence onsite.
If you represent a buyer in an acquisition, there are usually two significant stages: The auction process leading up to the bid and hopefully, the acceptance of the bid; and secondly, the process leading to the eventual acquisition of the target company.
Both stages have severe time pressures, but the auction stage more so than the second stage. You will also find that your clients’ expectations of the quality of your work will be much higher during the auction stage, since there will be a lot riding on winning the bid. In the auction stage, client confidentiality is paramount. If you happen to represent the financial adviser in an acquisition, when sending out emails and other correspondence, especially en masse, it is important to ensure each recipient of the communication cannot see or otherwise ascertain who the other bidders are. If a bidder knows the identity of other bidders, or even the identity of their legal advisers, they will have a better idea as to the amount of the bid and the type of package their competitor is putting together and can trump that in order to win the bid. At the second stage, the period of most intense pressure will be shortly before closing, when doing the final negotiations of the sale and purchase contracts.
What skills do you need to become a successful corporate lawyer?
- A corporate lawyer needs extensive knowledge of business law in jurisdictions where clients have operations and want to invest.
- You need to have strong communication and negotiation skills, as you would need to negotiate settlements and explain complex information to clients and argue a court case.
- Teamwork is an essential skill, the ability to work with people from all legal hierarchies and clients. Fostering a close working relationship with your colleagues as winning cases will be a team effort.
- A good corporate lawyer would secure positive results for the client by employing problem-solving and creative thinking skills. The best solution isn’t always the easiest or the most obvious.
How to become a corporate lawyer
To work as a solicitor, you can either take the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE), or if you are eligible, you can study the Legal Practice Course (LPC).
If you qualify through the SQE, you will also need to complete two years of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). To prepare for the SQE, we recommend studying one of our SQE courses, which have been designed to give you the knowledge and skills for a successful career as a solicitor.
If you’re eligible to study the LPC, you will need to get a two-year training contract with a law firm. To find out what route is right for you, see our Becoming a Solicitor page.
Once you complete your two-year training contract or QWE, you can apply to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to be admitted as a solicitor.
To become a barrister, you will need to have completed an undergraduate law degree, or if you are a non-law graduate, a conversion course, before completing the Bar Practice Course (BPC). You will then need to secure pupillage.
We also offer a range of Master of Laws (LLM) courses specialising in corporate law. For example, you could study an LLM in Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability, an LLM in International Commercial Law or an LLM in Company Law to give you the knowledge and skills to move into this area.
Working as a corporate lawyer
Compared to other practice areas, M&A lawyers need to be more generalist in their knowledge and work closely with other specialist departments. Each transaction consists of different components that require input from practice areas including tax, capital markets, real estate, employment, pensions, antitrust, regulatory, environment and intellectual property. Studying corporate law will expose you to a wide variety of legal areas to ensure a well-rounded legal knowledge.
As an M&A trainee, you could possibly forward the necessary documents to, for example, the tax lawyers who have been assigned to your transaction and ask them to review and spot any potential problems. However, as you progress through the ranks, you would need to know enough about all the above practice areas either to flag up any potential deal obstacles to the client at an early stage before the client is completely committed to the deal, or to flag up any issues your junior lawyer might have missed during due diligence.
In addition, as a mid-level M&A lawyer, you need outstanding organisational skills to coordinate lawyers across the firm; as well as excellent interpersonal skills to cultivate good working relationships with the specialist lawyers in the other practice areas, since you will almost completely rely on each of their various areas of expertise in order to close the transaction. Last-minute specific problems are likely to come up requiring that you persuade them to work under very tight deadlines in order to give you the advice you require.
More than in other practice areas, in an M&A department the workflow is very cyclical and the hours very unpredictable. You could be going home at 5 every evening having done nothing all day, or you be working until 5 in the morning on a deal. Some individuals thrive on such drastic peaks and troughs, and enjoy putting all their energy and time into several transactions simultaneously, then have a ‘slow’ period once those transactions have closed to completely unwind; before the process begins again with another set of transactions on similar timetables. You therefore need a great deal of work stamina. Other individuals prefer a more predictable lifestyle with less ebbs and flows, in which case, M&A is probably not the practice area for you.
Average salary in corporate law
A newly qualified solicitor in a firm outside of the city or smaller commercial practice may expect to earn around £25,000 to £40,000. An average corporate solicitor salary in London is anything from £40,000 to £80,000 based on five years’ experience according to Reed.co.uk. For those with over ten years' experience, earnings can range from £35,000 to £70,000. Those based in London and bigger cities will often earn more too.
What is the difference between corporate and commercial law?
Corporate law is closely connected to the lifecycle of companies and mergers & acquisitions. In contrast, commercial law involves a broader range of law practice areas such as intellectual property, franchising and sometimes litigation.
Gaining work experience in corporate law
The following student guides have useful information on working in corporate law: LawCareers.net, Chambers and Partners student guide and Target Jobs – Law.
Industry publications can also help you keep up-to-date with particular sectors such as business law or corporate law. Here are some examples:
The Financial Times (non-subscribers can view several articles a month for free)
The Lawyer for corporate and commercial news.
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