Which practice area boasts the smartest lawyers?

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Legal Cheek commenters spark debate

Legal Cheek readers have generated lively debate about which practice area boasts the best and brightest lawyers.

Several of our readers went below the line in a recent article about former Clifford Chance lawyer and tax sleuth Dan Neidle’s months-long investigation into the tax affairs of politician Nadhim Zahawi.

A specialist in his field, Neidle recalled digging through company accounts and filings, going back as far as 22 years, to uncover a series of what he claimed to be “suspicious” arrangements.

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Neidle’s work has lead some of our commenters to claim “tax lawyers are the brightest in the City” and “pretty goddamn smart in comparison to most other City lawyers”.

Pensions lawyers are also smart, apparently, and “way above the competency of any banking or corporate lawyers who are simply glorified overpaid transaction managing paper pushers!” Ouch.

But “as a corporate or banking lawyer, you still need to be able to negotiate docs and terms and understand the different nuances while working under crazy pressure and quick turnarounds”, responded another reader, adding: “Let’s not downplay it as ‘easy'”.

Another commenter chipped in: “Everyone knows that litigation is the brains trust and operate as the de facto department of hard questions. The rest of the firm are great at populating templates.”

So what do you think? Which practice area boasts the smartest lawyers and why? Let us know in the comments section below.


Another law grad

Who cares?!



Plenty of smart folks. Really a dime a dozen. But which lawyers have the judgment, work ethic, professional and personal ethics, creativity, and flexibility to advance causes within their field? Of course they must be smart, but focusing on that one baseline requirement risks missing the broader set of skills and experiences that make exceptional lawyers.






👆🏼 future litigation lawyer


A chancery barrister

Chancery barristers



Not really a practice area tho, is it hun?


Lincoln Sin

It does let you add on 25 per cent to hourly rates, which is nice.


The czar

Complex federal court litigators. Simple and obvious answer.



Academic measure of intelligence: to be fair, tax lawyers probably win with their “book smarts”.
Agree that litigators get the most difficult questions and have a high all-round skill set (but suspect their emotional intelligence can be pretty low).
Not sure how tax lawyers / pension lawyers do when looking at social intelligence (the vast majority I know are limited socially at best, very awkward at worst).
Corporate lawyers arguably have the best overall blend of intelligence / skill, particularly under pressure (but like litigators, EQ can be questioned).
Pensions lawyers are just a bit blah. Real estate lawyers, less said the better.


Pensions lawyer




So every lawyer’s emotional intelligence is low? Got it.


A solicitor.




I disagree with this. The very best rainmaker partners I’ve met across different practice areas all had one thing in common. Amazing interpersonal skills, ability to make conversation about anything, generally quite charming and confident. All traits I’d describe as high EQ and that explains why there are great at selling their trade.



I don’t know about smartest, but for being loaded, it has to be probate. Stinking grave robbers.



They are the opposite of grave robbers, they help Boomers dodge tax and make public services worse for everyone and increase the tax burden on workers of all ages.



It’s a bit of a silly question – obviously there are talented/smart and not-so-talented/smart lawyers, at all levels, every practice area.

In my experience, some of the academically “smartest” people in the business don’t actually make great lawyers and need a degree of managing. This is often true of those in advisory practice areas, eg tax, where there can sometimes be a failure to “read the room” and give pragmatic client-friendly advice, instead writing long emails which spook the client unnecessarily and where the issue at hand, in that partucular context, ends up being a non-issue.

Conversely, for all the slack that transactional lawyers get in the comments quoted in the article, there is a real skill in winning clients and keeping them happy, balancing this with the needs/capacity of the lawyers working on the project, offering strategic and commercial advice with comprehensive market knowledge/understanding and an ability to be unfazed by the unfamiliar too, effectively delegating work and interpreting the advice that comes back from specialists in a way which is client-focused and commercially-minded, and managing a project from start to finish in an organised and thorough way. A number of transactional lawyers I’ve worked with at the top of the M&A and funds industries are truly incredible people able to do all of the above and more. It is typically transactional lawyers who take leadership of firms because they are capable of that management aspect too and successfully combine that with winning work and clients and actually carrying out that work.


US counsel

Restructuring hands down, followed by non-contentious regulatory and competition.

But PE is still the most brainless yet lucrative practice area.



Why is PE brainless? What makes it an easy area to practice?


Advisory associate

Levfin is awfully brainless too. An average 3PQE can operate like a partner no problems.


Honest man

Lets be honest here. Not much talent is needed to be a transactional lawyer. Its a cushy job for those that don’t mind being highly paid for doing boring, repetitive and meaningless paper pushing tasks.



Right. Until you become more senior, then it’s the total opposite.


Kirkland NQ

If it’s judged on the results, ie pay, then PE funds lawyers at the ‘land wipe the board. Who else can afford not only an Italian super car but also a Chelsea townhouse to park it outside?


Not a PE lawyer

Not an NQ lol. Also went off topic and didn’t answer the question. Bit brainless of you you’ll have to concede.



Are the stereotypes of tax and litigation lawyers being socially awkward actually true? It sounds like a TV stereotype.


Tax litigator

You can ask my other half once I have repaired the puncture and re-inflated her.


Causal Observer

Where is Kirkland NQ when you need him to claim that private equity practices boast the most intelligent lawyers AND the highest lambo prevalence…

In all seriousness though, some regulatory areas require super smart lawyers who understand the product/service as well as the law (tech/pharma/finance).



Property development lawyers.





UCL Post-grad

I think you just need to look at the academic contentiousness of a field of law, if ‘smart’ is synonymous with ‘intellectual’.

It would most likely be a contentious area. Unsettled areas requiring the broadest of understandings are likely to indicate a good intellectual ability. However, tax is incredibly complex by any standard. I would imagine on those parameters that Public, Tax, and Chancery lawyers would be smarter on average.

That said, there are all sorts of types of smart, so crime and family, for example, will require some of the highest levels of emotional intelligence. Corporate work would require very strong foresight and due diligence. It all depends.

Generally, I think no field of law produces all-round smarter lawyers.

HOWEVER, in my personal view, anyone who goes into Land Law after suffering through it during their LLB/BA/GDL is inherently not smart.


UCL PRE-GCSE Prospective Open Day Attendee Grad

Try qualifying first love x


Is it?

Is doing PE or Alec Fin a piece of piss?


Lefty Legal Aid Lawyer

A lot of people seem to be mistaking remuneration for intelligence. I’d take a wig and a jury over an office in a glass and steel monument to capitalism any day of the week


Grumpy In Houser

As others have said, it’s folk with complex advisory practices. If it’s not tax it’s fin reg. Some competition lawyers are super impressive, although I kinda think that’s largely a function of the fact that the complex bit of what what they do is economics not law. Insofar as solicitors go, it’s definitely not litigation. Reading the White Book and paying counsel for an opinion isn’t brain scratching stuff.


US paper pushing associate

IP / Competition litigation among the smarter lawyers I have come across.

Real estate lawyers the absolute smartest though. 9.30 – 7pm hours (even at US law firms), same pay as their royally ruined corporate colleagues, and have a social / family life outside work. Well played, friends.


Unbiased litigator

Disputes work requires higher calibre individuals than other areas to do the job well. This is in part because i) you need to understand the field of law/sector that the issue revolves around in addition to appreciating how to navigate the disputes process; ii) more often than not the other side is trying to screw you so you need to think strategically, and iii) disputes often require original thought to test and produce arguments. The only real requirement for transactional work is a willingness to work long hours populating templates, meanwhile specialist areas like tax are sometimes tricky from an academic perspective though only really require the first part of skill i) above



You clearly have no knowledge of transactional work as a biased litigator because all of your points 1-3 could equally apply to a senior transactional lawyer. In the same way a reverse argument could be made that all litigation solicitors do is push paper while hiring barristers to do the real tricky legal work.


Kirkland 2PQE

The ‘land has never really invested heavily in disputes for a reason – disputes aren’t profitable and are packed with self-proclaimed eggheads (like yourself) who are uncommercial and have no drive to originate work. The star in any dispute work is counsel, and in all honesty 90% of the intellectual work is done by the KCs assisted by their brilliant juniors anyways. Dispute lawyers are merely the middle man at best, and that’s why the good work is typically handled by mid-market firms.


Of Counsel

This is a bit like watching predictions for who is going to make it to the League 1 play-offs. It is all relative.


Birkenhead barrister

We get some pretty tricky stage threes sometimes



All I know is criminal lawyers are the poorest and all the rest are boring.



What about PE and lev Finance?


Sheik Mohammed al-Thubaini

I don’t think that there are practical areas with brainier people across the board, but I am surprised that no one has mentioned patent litigators at the high end of the market.

They are people with technical backgrounds, PhDs and previous research careers or, at least, lawyers with the ability to discuss highly complex technical matters with true experts, digest them, look at them through the prism of legal and strategic complexities and “translate” them into simpler words for the judge to understand (which is far from easy).

In addition you get a significant part of the strategic thinking of regular commercial litigators.


MC trainee

As someone who enjoyed technical legal problem solving at law school, I actually found my disputes seat easier and more comfortable than M&A.

In disputes you have the relative luxury was of time to think and digest the very complicated problem in front of you. Sure, the issue is difficult, but with time to think you can be relatively confident getting to grips with the matter. There’s also a lot of churn and procedure that isn’t too dissimilar to a transactional seat.

In M&A, the pace is so much quicker. That’s the challenge. Getting to grips with complex deal structures and understanding all the different work streams in a short time frame requires a different kind of intellect. I think I was more impressed by my M&A colleagues ability to rapidly digest and understand some random pensions and tax issue in a private acquisition, then produce clear commercial and legal advice to a client, than I was about someone producing a well-thought out research note in disputes. Give a decent technical lawyer enough time to research an area of the law and I think most could produce something similar.

Research requires more effort and mental strain, but often leads people to confuse effort with intellect. If intellect is the ability to understand complex material quickly, then disputes isn’t necessarily where you’ll always find such attributes in the most abundance.

Anyway, that’s just a long-winded way me of explaining why I think transactional lawyers get an undue reputation for being dumb precedent churning deal monkeys. Sure, some are, but those operating at the top level are seriously impressive.


Bookish Litigator

Fair point



Non-contentious financial regulatory



Way back in the Cretaceous when I did FRU stuff it was pointed out that benefits law was second only to tax in terms of the amount of legislation and how quickly it changed. So I think there are some pretty smart people in that field.

Not me; I was blooming hopeless.



I’m an advisory lawyer, and I honestly think that some of my M&A colleagues are several times smarter than me. I’m pretty good at my little niche of the law, but I’m only just-about-competent at general corporate advisory work and I’m clueless about other advisory specialisms. Meanwhile the senior associates and partners I work with in M&A have a working knowledge of every specialism in the building, and whilst they wouldn’t necessarily be able to advise in detail on each specialism they can easily spot the key issues and discuss them meaningfully internally and with clients. It entirely depends on the person, but I think the stereotype of transactional lawyers as unintelligent drones is largely wrong (and probably stems from trainees doing six months of DD or preparing board resolutions from precedents, and thinking that all transactional law is going to be like this, rather than appreciating that transactional law relies upon trainees/juniors doing the grunt work whilst developing the skills that will enable them to do the more sophisticated work as seniors).



project finance


The correct answer was







International Arbitration. HANDS DOWN.



It’s funny when you see an English all solicitors team in an international arbitration. They start all flashy with powerpoint and handouts, and then the cross-x starts. The highlight always is the expert cross-x, such fun to watch.



International Arbitration. HANDS DOWN.


High yield associate

Restructuring and bankruptcy is easily the most difficult practice area because it requires a thorough understanding of corporate, finance, real estate, trust, IP and litigation and how they interact under the bankruptcy umbrella. Despite not being a restructuring attorney I had the pleasure of working on a handful of restructuring situations with specialists in the area and I can’t help but stand in awe of these highly intelligent attorneys.



Yep. International tax lawyers. Every cross border transaction starts with them. They are the tail that wags the dog.


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