Created with Hogan Lovells

Durham students learn to think like commercial lawyers

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By Katie King on

Katie King heads north to attend Hogan Lovells’ skills workshop


There’s just something about the life of a City lawyer. It sounds glamorous, powerful, exciting. It draws people in, making them flock in their thousands to open days, vac schemes and career events.

Everything’s just bigger and better in the City: the buildings, the prestige, the wages. But, shrouded in secrecy, lies an age-old question that even the most switched on law student would struggle to answer: what do corporate lawyers actually do?

Recently, I headed up to Durham University, to find out what life is really like in a City law firm.

Senior associate Graham Cutts (pictured right) and consultant Chris Stoakes (pictured left) — both from leading international law firm Hogan Lovells — were tasked with the difficult job of demystifying a day in the life of the City lawyer.


Cutts — a member of the firm’s commercial real estate team — told me that his friends and family don’t quite seem to believe him when he says that he cannot help them sell their own houses.

So this corporate skills workshop was the perfect chance for me, and about 70 Durham students, to uncover the mystery once and for all over the course of two workshops

In brief, I learnt that corporate lawyers help businesses understand what they can and cannot do to achieve their commercial goals. Of course, in order to be able to do this, law firms must be instructed by the businesses in the first place.

Law firms win clients, Stoakes explained, by pitching to them. The key to a good pitch, he said, is focusing on what matters to the client. Talk to them about the issues that matter to them. Don’t just reel off a list of impressive features about the company. Apply the ‘so what?’ test to everything you mention, so you don’t find yourself listing information without applying it to the client’s needs. With clients such as Mars, SAB Miller and Vodafone under their belt, the Hogan Lovells team really know what they are talking about.

But sometimes actions speak louder than words. Another method of weeding out law firms is for the company to send out work to their prospective instructees. The law firms do the work, they send it back, the company decides who they like the best.

So, for the Durham workshop, that’s what we had to do.

I — along with the students — pretended to be from an international law firm, wanting to impress hypothetical company ABC Legal (whose directors were Cutts and Stoakes). They would give us some work to do, we had to decide how we would do it and then feed our ideas back to them, in a bid to show ABC why we were the right people for the job.


In his opening speech, Cutts had pointed out that:

Practising as a lawyer is not an academic job.

The focus of the workshop was on creativity, thinking outside the box, and, ultimately, thinking about law as a business.

The first task was to devise a checklist for ABC to give to its procurement professionals, to ensure they knew whether or not they had entered into a binding contract. The mistake — and one I definitely made — was to reel off everything you can remember from first year contract law. But that’s not really the point at all — the point is that procurement professionals aren’t lawyers, so presenting the law in a simple, creative way ticks the box better than producing four pages of case names and legal tests. Top marks to the students who used pictures, flowcharts, and visual aids.

A corporate skills workshop isn’t something I ever did at university, and doing one has reaffirmed to me that my brain just doesn’t work like a City lawyer’s. I am more inclined to see the law in an academic way, but it was interesting to spend time with others who function more commercially. The students who attended, first, second and third years alike, were super switched on. One asked about the international contract law implications of drafting the checklist for an international company. Stoakes pulled me aside to tell me that he had heard some very good, imaginative points being discussed.

What I learnt was that being a corporate lawyer is not just about legal knowledge; it’s also about common sense. When discussing the approach ABC should adopt when responding to contractual disputes, the best students focused on the need to keep things amicable. The did not inflame the situation by marching the other party straight up to the courthouse. Any application of legal knowledge, Stoakes and Cutts agreed, should be built on that foundation of sensible behaviour. And often it wasn’t the black letter law itself that was most important, rather lawyers’ experience of the litigation process and ability to anticipate how particular disputes would play out in practice.

Similarly, a simple — at least on its face — problem about how best to help out ABC at times of peak activity was best dealt with by students who realised it’s not realistic to promise too much by unconditionally providing more and more solicitors. “Who is going to pay for these?” asked Stoakes. Instead, more sustainable alternatives were suggested, such as ‘Mexican Wave’ deals involving tie-ups with smaller, less expensive law firms which partner with megafirms to deliver the service for the client. Another option was for lawyers from the primary law firm to train the client’s in-house legal department in order to carry out tasks itself. These very commercial problems often boiled down to the concept of ‘adding value’.

So now I get it: being a City lawyer is a lot more than the image portrayed in the TV series Suits. It’s great to see a top City firm visiting Durham to demystify this stereotype. Speaking to the university’s career adviser for law, I found out that about a third of students that use the service have expressed a desire to work down in London, with the students telling me that events like this pitch simulation were a great way to learn about firms beyond the brochure.

Katie King is a reporter at Legal Cheek. Prior to embarking on her law degree, she completed work experience at Hogan Lovells on the Pathways to Law scheme.

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