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Practice areas: Who is drawn to what?

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By The Careers Team on

The people who thrive in different legal specialisms don’t always conform to stereotype


At a recent open day for non-law students held by independent UK law firm Burges Salmon, lawyers gave the inside line on the personality traits required to make it in their areas of specialism and the sectors in which they work for clients. Legal Cheek Careers tagged along to observe an eye-opening day.

CORPORATE — the good all rounder

Lawyers specialising in corporate work tend to be sociable types who enjoy working consensually. And because their work spans across so many different practice areas, they become familiar faces across the firm — which may explain why this practice area has a reputation for breeding managing partners.

“As a corporate lawyer you feel very much a part of the firm,” explains Burges Salmon corporate law associate Mark Cook.

The flipside to this generalism is that colleagues from other departments sometimes quip that “there is no law involved in being a corporate lawyer”.

For Cook, one of the big appeals of the job is the project management. He explains:

Being part of teams working towards a common objective fosters a great spirit of camaraderie. Clients become your colleagues, and you are all in it together, coordinating all the elements of a deal and driving it to completion.

The importance of being able to manage a large team accounts for the popularity of the job with career changers from management backgrounds, adds Cook, although many corporate solicitors come direct from university.

Other key characteristics shared by corporate lawyers are stamina “to withstand the email from the other side at 10pm” and a grasp of economics. Happily the latter “can be learnt on the job,” says history graduate Cook.

BANKING — the adrenalin junkie

Contrary to commonly-held assumptions, the fundamentals of banking law are pretty simple: lawyers either act for the lenders of money or the borrowers of money — providing them with assistance on structuring and advice on strategy.

Where things get fun, says Burges Salmon banking law associate Emily Scaife, is when the parties have notably different bargaining positions, which makes for some interesting negotiations.

With banking transactions often imbued with a sense of urgency, this makes for a very fast-paced environment that, as Scaife admits, does have “an adrenalin junkie element”. But the ebbs and flows of deals do allow for a work-life balance.

Unlike many practice areas, banking requires an ease with numbers as well as words, but Scaife says maths ability is not essential although “it helps to have a logical brain.”

PROJECTS — the commercial awareness guru

While commercial awareness is important in all practice areas, in projects it reigns supreme.

This is the heading under which Burges Salmon’s highly-rated renewables and nuclear practices are grouped, alongside its well-known infrastructure, defence and procurement teams. All areas are highly specialist and rely on lawyers thoroughly understanding the sector of the client who they are advising.

Richard Manning, a solicitor in the firm’s projects department, explains:

To add value in this area you need to understand the nuances and details of your client’s sector.

This obviously takes time to build up, adds Manning, who did a history degree at Oxford before converting to law via the Graduate Diploma in Law at ULaw in London, with his department looking for individuals with a wider interest in the world.

Other key traits for projects lawyers are determination (“This is required to get things across the line”, says Manning) and attention to detail.

REAL ESTATE — the communicator

Students struggling to master the notoriously difficult subject that is land law will be encouraged to hear that it is a very different beast in practice.

“Land law is a great area to practise in, with lots of client contact,” says Burges Salmon real estate solicitor Kayleigh Harrison-Dunford.

The life of a land lawyer is very commercial, she continues, with the firm’s big name clients such as The Crown Estate and various prominent energy companies requiring advice on some fascinating projects.

To thrive in this area you need good communication skills; explaining the quirks of right to access and land ownership to the uninitiated is not easy, particularly where old deeds are involved. An ability to sift information and present what is important to clients matters too, as does that lawyer staple: attention to detail.

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LITIGATION — the fighter

“You’ve got to be a particular kind of personality to want to engage in arguments on other people’s behalf day in day out,” admits Burges Salmon dispute resolution solicitor Henry Sackville Hamilton.

But there are very different ways to do this, ranging from “bold, confrontational litigators” to those with “a distanced, more academic approach”.

Whatever category you fall into, you need to be highly commercially aware. Explains Sackville Hamilton:

Litigation is about getting the best possible outcome for your client, which is often not ending up in court. You have to understand the wider commercial context in which the dispute is taking place.

Equally important is legal excellence; in court litigators live and die by their own legal arguments.

“In this area you have to be right on top of the law and aware that your arguments will be scrutinised, picked at and pulled apart by the other side, counsel, and the court,” adds Henry.

PRIVATE CLIENT — the people person

With their fluency in equity and trusts and preference for working with individuals over companies, private client lawyers have an academic air that sets them slightly apart from their corporate law colleagues.

Research ability is essential to this practice area, explains Alex Fraser, a solicitor in Burges Salmon’s private client department. But perhaps the most important attribute of all is people skills. Fraser continues:

Some of the partners here have clients who they have worked with for most of their careers, and during that time they have built close relationships as their trusted advisors.

A politics undergraduate who made the switch to law, Fraser says that she figured out that she wanted to do private client work during her Legal Practice Course (LPC). She has never looked back after thriving on the array of challenges presented by advising high net worth individuals.

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