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Demystifying the City: 11 things that corporate lawyers do

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By Alex Aldridge on

Alex Aldridge distils the key points from Hogan Lovells’ Oxford University ‘Demystifying law in the City’ lecture, delivered earlier this week by lawyer and author Chris Stoakes


This week Hogan Lovells consultant lawyer Chris Stoakes explained to a group of Oxford University students what many fear to ask: what do corporate lawyers actually do? Stoakes, who has authored a number of books aimed at demystifying the City, divides the job into eleven central elements …

1. Research

Who does it? Trainees.

Trainee solicitors spend a lot of time doing legal research. They are highly valued in this capacity, says author and Hogan Lovells consultant Chris Stoakes, because their knowledge is “fresher” than anyone else’s in the firm.

Isn’t it a bit risky to hand such important work to rookies?

“Trainees have been selected carefully, partially on the basis of their sharp, detail-focused minds, and are often as able as law librarians,” responds Stoakes.

He adds that the partners then take the research and consider it in the context of the wider deal or case, weighing up the risk and consequences associated with their advice.

“The really good trainees,” he continues, “begin to consider the practical application of their research, keeping the wider commercial imperatives in mind as they present it.”

2. Draft documents

Who does it? Trainees and associates.

The other trainee staple is drafting, which also builds on skills learnt during law school. It is not rocket science, but it does require a high level of precision — and commercial nous:

“The key thing is to understand what the parties want and to then reflect that in the clause which you draft,” explains Stoakes.

3. Negotiate

Who does it? Trainees, associates and senior associates.

Negotiation is a big part of what corporate lawyers do. And being at City law firms, the negotiation is mostly about risk — i.e. helping clients settle on key terms for a transaction with other parties, or determining the amount of a payment arising from a dispute.

Trainees witness in action the principles they studied at law school, then increasingly find themselves called upon to step up and represent their clients’ best interests as they move up the associate ranks. One thing negotiation in a corporate law firm is not about, says Stoakes, is “banging on the table”.

“It’s more subtle than that,” he adds.

4. Advise on regulation

Who does it? Trainees, associates and senior associates.

Pretty quickly, trainees find themselves progressing from legal research to application of the law to a client’s actual problems. Those clients are drawn from the three main types of players in the City: companies, banks and institutional investors (such as pension funds).

Stoakes likens the City to a fruit and vegetable market, with the main differences being its scale and that its product is money.

Accordingly, companies are the customers, stallholders are the banks and institutional investors the wholesalers.

“Law firms like Hogan Lovells advise these various organisations on the law as they go about their business — hence the need for legal knowledge and skill, but also very thorough commercial awareness,” says Stoakes.

5. Manage deals/disputes

Who does it? Associates and senior associates.

This boils down to “getting out from behind the desk to make things happen,” explains Stoakes.

“As associates mature they are expected to take a more pro-active role,” he continues. “This goes beyond managing a case or a deal, to actually driving it forward — making things happen so as to meet key deadlines.”

6. Structure deals/disputes

Who does it? Associates and senior associates.

Trainees and junior associates are presented with requests from clients after they have been through several stages of filtration from higher up within the firm. But as associates accumulate experience there is an expectation that they will themselves begin to translate client’s wishes into concrete steps.

“Clients come to lawyers wanting something without having thought about the process,” explains Stoakes. “Your job is then to structure the deal”.

7. Run teams of lawyers

Who does it? Senior associates and partners.

This is effectively case management on a much larger scale. At a big international firm that scale can be pretty enormous, involving tens, if not hundreds, of lawyers based across many jurisdictions and time zones.

“The challenge of running teams shows how City law really is no ivory tower,” says Stoakes. “Ultimately it’s all about delegation, which requires interpersonal skills and an understanding of what makes people tick.”

Good delegators, he continues, show a subtle touch — avoiding, for example, asking juniors to come to them only if there is a problem (which can lead to the potential withholding of bad news until it’s too late) but rather encouraging them to check in regularly with an update.

8. Manage matters profitably

Who does it? Senior associates and partners.

The staffing of deals in a sustainable way that meets client needs requires not only a thorough grasp of how law firms work, built up through several years working at the coalface as an associate, but an understanding of in-house legal departments.

“Law firms are above all businesses which have to offer value to their clients,” notes Stoakes.

9. Liaise between offices

Who does it? Partners.

Beyond running cases and deals across offices comes the challenge, reserved for partners, of keeping the whole firm strategically aligned in its locations across the globe. Stoakes comments:

“Hogan Lovells has 47 offices in over 26 different countries, with a major presence in Europe, Asia, the US and Latin America. In order for international deals that are staffed by lawyers from several of these different locations to run smoothly, work needs to have been done at the top of firms to help develop unifying culture and work practices.”

10. Win new business

Who does it? Partners.

Preserving strong relationships with existing clients is a key part of a partner’s role, but in a highly competitive environment it’s not enough. Those at the top of law firms also need to go out and win new business. Comments Stoakes:

“Students don’t tend to think of law as a sales job, but the best lawyers are so attuned to their clients’ needs they can sell the firm too.”

11. Manage the firm

Who does it? Partners.

At the helm of a City law firm is its management committee, which is led by the managing and senior partners.

It is this group which, having consulted the prevailing economic winds, decides how to position the giant vessel which they control so as to maximise profits.

“Managing lawyers has been likened to herding cats — it requires diplomacy and firmness in equal measure,” says Stoakes.

Hogan Lovells will be delivering ‘Demystifying law in the City’ lectures at universities throughout the country this year.

Chris Stoakes is the author of ‘Know the City’ and ‘Is Law for You?’ among a host of other publications aimed at law students.