What is it really like to be a lawyer? Perhaps the answer to that question will surprise you.
For a behind-the-scenes peek at the profession, we spoke primarily with junior lawyers, who graciously shared their experiences with us. Of course, no one account can accurately convey what “all” lawyers go through. Juniors, even within the same firm, can have vastly different experiences, depending on who is giving them work and how, the amount of work generated by different departments, who the clients are, and other such factors.
Still, these vignettes should provide a bit of an overview to help you better grasp what you yourself may encounter once you have earned your JD and begin work for a firm. And, as you may have already guessed, certain information in these stories has been redacted, names have been changed, cases have been slightly obscured, and other alterations made to protect the confidentiality of our contributors.
First-Year Transactional Lawyer in the Project Finance Department at a Major Firm
Because junior lawyers are somewhat of a commodity, the environment among first-year attorneys at major firms is quite competitive. So, when junior lawyers finally start at their firms, many are fearful of stepping out of the lines, fearful of asking questions. Because of this, many do not define their careers. Most young lawyers take what they are given and can get pigeonholed in a very narrow area. I think that many can “accidentally” develop expertise because they get staffed on a few deals and get good at one thing. Then, senior associates keep coming back to them for that one thing, and it keeps getting reinforced. They wake up six years in and realize they don’t like doing regulatory work, for example, and can’t make a change.
In my case, I very politely and diplomatically asked to be on project finance trans- actions, and that is what I am working on and I love it. If I got placed in the tax department, I would probably quit—I think that a lot of lawyers burn out because they are in the wrong areas and don’t know it. They feel powerless and they might like some other part of the law.
With respect to project finance, let’s say that, hypothetically, a client of our firm’s is buying a power plant. We will conduct due diligence on the asset. We will have to put on our client’s hat—like we are their in-house council—and ask all the ques- tions that they want to ask and some that they might not even know they should ask. In this case, as a firm, we will have to make sure that the deal is sound from a variety of perspectives—will regulators agree? Will banks loan us the money? At times, we have to consider how shareholders will react. And we have to ensure that our clients are prepared for a deal to go through or not to go through.
From a project finance perspective, we might need to consider hundreds of contingencies in a credit agreement. Maybe my client is borrowing money from a bank to complete the purchase of an asset and I am staring at a 200-page credit agreement. I am definitely not going to be negotiating the terms of the agreement—that is for very senior associates and mostly for partners. However, I will have to read and understand the agreement, so I will be examining the agreement and looking at precedent agreements. I won’t be writing new language, but I will need to be familiar with past agreements and “conform them” to this one. I will take exhibits, schedules, and guarantees from an old deal and adapt them for the new deal, and they will be reviewed by those senior to me and might make it into the final deal— at a minimum, it will make it easier to construct this one.
I will also make a checklist of all of the conditions in the agreement—maybe 35 of them—that need to be met before we can advise our client to sign the agreement. I will be tracking that agreement and making sure that we don’t miss the little things. But I might be doing these things on anywhere between two and seven other agreements at a time, constantly assimilating all of the details from all of the various deals simultaneously. Try keeping seven checklists of 35 different things going simultaneously! And, of course, the details are different for each deal—in one we might be representing a company, in another an investor, and in another the bank itself. In one, a company may be buying an existing asset and in another, it may be paying a party to build and hand over a turnkey operation. Each deal requires that we analyze different perspectives, from who is purchasing the energy to liabilities if construction is delayed, etc.
I categorize my days in three ways: not busy, comfortably busy, ridiculously busy. When I am not busy, my day might start at 9:30 a.m. and last until 6:30 p.m. When I am comfortably busy, I am well staffed and working from 9:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. If a deal is pending, and it is urgent that we get it done, I am going to be starting at 9:30 a.m. and working until 12:00 a.m.—sometimes later—for one to three weeks at a time. Because I am not afraid to ask questions and ask for advice from those senior to me, I feel like I am pretty efficient.
Junior Associate with an International Organization Working on a War Crimes Prosecution
We interviewed a junior associate at a major New York law firm who explained, as we noted earlier, that many associates do not truly understand what practicing law is about: “A lot of law students think they will walk out of law school and will be arguing cases in the Hague. Those jobs are one in a million.” He is right—such opportunities are exceedingly rare—but we managed to find someone who was able to land such a job. Keep in mind, then, that even though this individual’s experience is interesting, it is also highly unusual.
Jeremy Shinewald is the founder of jdMission, an admissions consulting firm that helps applicants get into law school. This article is excerpted from his book, The Complete Start-To-Finish Law School Admissions Guide.
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