So I'm A Finance Attorney...
Q: What are the “sells” of my specialty?
A: Finance offers broad exposure to a range of commercial issues as well as substantive transactional and advisory responsibilities that will make you a strong attorney. At the same time, it’s a narrow enough area of law for you to get your arms around in order to feel like an expert in your craft. This mix of work can make for a very satisfying career, and like other areas of corporate law, can bring you closer to the "business-side" of a deal.
Q: What do different areas within finance look like?
A: Finance practices are likely to look different depending on the client base of your group. Many of the top firms have practices dominated by acquisition finance. It’s sophisticated and consistent work, but also voluminous, time-sensitive and can feel repetitive – both substantively, and in terms of deal flow. Other groups may do acquisition finance as just one piece of their overall practice, or simply avoid it altogether. These practices offer a broader mix of lending work, as well as a more varied client base, both of which can prove beneficial to your long-term development.
Q: What should I be mindful of in order to best position myself to go in-house?
A: Given the more focused, systematic nature of the work, and the small number of entities that need to bring such work in-house, finance does not open as many in-house doors as some other corporate areas, which just means you need to be strategic about positioning yourself from day one. If you go to (or stay at) the most prestigious firm that offers you a job (an understandable mentality, of course!), in most cases that will mean working for the largest banks on large cap deals (i.e., the acquisition finance deals described above). Looking ahead, realize that if you’re primarily working for such banks, you are grooming yourself to go work for a bank. Is that what you want? If it is, well-played!
If not, it inures to your benefit to gain exposure to a varied client base on the lender-side (middle market banks and alternative lenders), or to expand the focus of your practice to borrower work (or a mixed practice of both lender and borrower work). A borrower-side practice offers you exposure to companies – how they operate, what issues are relevant to them in a financing, how they come to decisions, and a slew of other business-related insight. This type of exposure could give you a competitive advantage for varied in-house opportunities in the future.
Q: What if I want to be a partner?
A: If you want to leave the door open to making partner at a law firm, know that business generation is an ever-increasing necessity to being considered for such advancement. The question then becomes: how do you best position yourself to generate business? That answer involves exposure to the “right” client base. The “right” client base for your purposes is one in which you, as an associate, are able to build relationships with people who hold decision-making power. Large cap banks have a panel of approved law firms that they are authorized to give work to. That means that if you’re working primarily with large cap banks, you’re limited in your ability to build a potentially portable relationship, by sheer virtue of the fact that the relationship is already assigned to someone else at your firm.
On the flip side, middle market bank and alternative lender contacts (as well as borrower entities) don’t have their hands tied in that way. If you’re entrepreneurial, being in front of those types of clients will offer you greater business generation potential and broaden your options for the future.
Q: What, if any, is the difference in the level of responsibility I might have when working for large banks versus middle market banks versus borrowers?
A: Ultimately, the level of responsibility you have is based on the size of the group you are part of, the management style of those leading the charge and the initiative and potential you demonstrate. That said, while large bank work is voluminous, for certain personalities and in certain circumstances, it may not present the optimum learning environment, either because it can feel repetitive (the banks already know how they want it done after years of doing it the same way) or because the number of attorneys staffed to the deal can make it difficult to take on more than just a piece of the transaction.
Alternatively, if you’re working for the borrower or a middle market bank, the client likely wants a lean legal team. More leanly staffed teams should translate into more substantive responsibility (and more forward-facing client contact) earlier on. In this type of environment, there can be more potential for strategic thinking and negotiating, and more opportunity to serve as a substantive legal advisor.