LLVL: Corporate vs Litigation: Fight!

LLVL mediumHow are corporate lawyers different from litigation lawyers? (powder keg lit)

Someone using the name “Special One” (obviously a modest one) posed the following question as a comment to my last post:

Is being a corporate lawyer very different from a litigation lawyer? I mean, other than the type of work, is the day-to-day professional experience really that different?

I was going to write about how female lawyers have to put up with rampant sexual harassment (I suppose this applies to females of any profession really), but have been informed that this corporate lawyer — litigation lawyer dynamic is something that really puzzles a lot of people. When I put the choice of topic to a vote over coffee and dessert in a Bangsar eatery one night, the Special One’s question absolutely pummeled my compelling (or so I’d previously thought) sexual harassment rant by 7-1 (and the one was me!).

What lawyers imagine they look like.

What lawyers imagine they look like.

Research

So, I was left to wrestle with this question, in a desperate search for an answer. And yes, it was a struggle because, quite honestly, it’s not something I’ve ever really given much thought to. As my experience in the litigation department was just a couple of months during my chambering period, I hardly know enough to give a fair comparison.

So, it was time for a bit of research then.

I popped by the desks of some of the litigation partners in my firm on Monday and dropped the topic into the conversation, and their initial reactions were something like — “Ooh, sensitive topic!” / “Why, is someone making fun of you?” — and they all independently went straight into a session of “corporate lawyer bashing.”

Thinking that this was some knee-jerk display of machismo, I approached a female litigator, and was surprised that she too waded straight in with a view that “corporate lawyers” were in fact not “lawyers” at all. I was surprised! I mean, I expected some sort of summary on what litigation lawyers get up to, and perhaps a few practical differences between departments, but instead I consistently ended up listening to litigators slating corporate and conveyancing lawyers (the latter got it the worst — “glorified bankers,” or worse, “glorified clerks” apparently!)

As I was about to start writing this column, I received the following email at [email protected] (edited for brevity):

I read your article and the comment by Special One. I’m a second year law student at [a UK university] and wondering the same thing. In UK we have barristers and solicitors, but I know in Malaysia all lawyers equals “advocates and solicitors.” I’m really interested to know what’s the difference actually?

Well, that changes the tone slightly. Thankfully.

So, I won’t be going into the “corporate vs litigation” thing which seems to be a popular topic (at least among litigators). And honestly, hopefully it’s just childish ribbing and not reflective of some deep-seated insecurities.

Yes, obviously there is a difference, practically. Whilst in the UK barristers and solicitors have to obtain separate qualifications, and the practice and career paths are very clearly differentiable, in Malaysia it is not so. I’m quite used to answering this particular aspect of the query, as I’m part of the recruitment team in my firm, and take part in many, many interviews with the recently-graduated.

All lawyers are “advocates and solicitors” — what they choose to do with that qualification, in practice, is entirely up to them. There are definitely instances where some lawyers practice every area of law possible — perhaps as a matter of choice, perhaps out of desperation for work. However, a more common career path (particularly at the larger firms) would be to do a bit of both (ideally) during chambering, and then choose (or get told what to choose) by the end of the 9 months.

What lawyers actually look like.

What lawyers actually look like.

Litigation

On a day-to-day sense, obviously the litigator spends most of his time in the courts, waiting for cases to be called (perhaps less waiting time these days?), having a spot of breakfast/brunch, presenting his cases, and then back to the office to attend to desk-bound work and prepare for the next day’s court appearances. From the stories I’ve been told by the litigators in my firm, there may be slight variations — such as waiting from 8.30 am to 5.30 pm only to be told to come back and wait some more the following morning!

Litigation lawyers also spend a lot more time with other lawyers. I will contrast this with corporate practice in the next paragraph. Litigators also have to keep very much in touch with developments in the law — reading up on judgments on myriad issues from around the world — and so tend to talk about the law a lot more as well (compelling dinner conversation this is not).

Asked to describe litigators, my colleagues swung between “knowledgeable, confident, persuasive, overworked, passionate, and underpaid” (describing themselves) to “sneaky, unethical, untrustworthy, overrated, and stupid” (describing their opponents).

Corporate

Corporate lawyers are quite different. Firstly, let me point out that I’m not talking about corporate litigation lawyers (ie. litigation lawyers who litigate on corporate/commercial matters), but rather lawyers who practice corporate and commercial law. Yeah, I’ve probably gone and irreversibly muddied the waters, but let’s go with it.

Corporate lawyers tend not to be as in touch with the law in terms of court cases and developments in the law — more relevant to us are the commercial developments, and of course the various rules and regulations governing the business world. We are more likely to be caught reading The Edge, StarBiz, The Financial Times or The Economist than law reports.

It’s an almost completely different existence.

We hardly meet other lawyers, and most meetings we attend are comprised of business owners, directors, bankers, accountants, tax agents, and management-level employees of our clients. Meetings usually start on time (hence no waiting for hours on end) and we spend our days drafting or reviewing contracts and other commercial documents, attending meetings and teleconferences, advising on commercial transactions from those as small as a tenancy agreement all the way up to rights issuances, reverse take-overs, stock-exchange listings and the never-dull boardroom fights.

Conclusion

I could go on, but to be honest it’s not a fair comparison, as my information on litigation practice is all not personal to me. It’s like asking me what chemical and mechanical engineers do differently. I may well have misrepresented what litigation practice involves (if there are any litigators reading this, please enlighten us).

But, at the end of the day, I will say this — whatever you’re studying, or have studied, in law school will not enable you to gauge what real legal practice is (be it corporate or litigation). Practice is completely different. Keep an open mind, and certainly don’t descend into this puerile “one is better than the other” stuff.

Thanks for your comments and emails — I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the response so far. I’m sorry I can’t respond to every query or comment I receive, but I definitely do read them, and may use them in the future.

Keep ’em coming.

Alter Ego has been a corporate lawyer in Kuala Lumpur for many years. Livin’ La Vida Loyar is a weekly semi-fictional, sorta-kinda-fact-based, non-chronological account of her experiences in the legal industry. She is writing this column anonymously because she doesn’t want people around her to know that, when she’s furiously typing on her BlackBerry in their presence, she is actually taking notes for this column! Plus of course there’s all this mumbo-jumbo about client confidentiality and getting disbarred. If you have an interesting story to share from your experiences as a lawyer, your encounters with a lawyer, or if you have a question about lawyers, please email her at [email protected] Confidentiality is guaranteed. She thinks tweeting should be left to the birds. As all fiction is to some extent autobiographical, you may think she’s writing about you. She’s not. Jangan perasan. You may also think you know her. You don’t. Jangan kay-poh.

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10 Responses to LLVL: Corporate vs Litigation: Fight!

  1. Dipendra

    Hi Marcus, Nicole,

    Sorry, I had not realised that the both of you replied to my thread. Should have checked this sooner. My bad.

    Marcus,

    yes, many firms do not value the formative years of a young lawyer. They often expect young lawyers to do run of the mill work before "graduating" to the more serious stuff. That, should change.

    Increasingly, a lot of partners in larger law firms that I have spoken to, tell me that they feel young lawyers are detached from practice and that young lawyers expect too much and offer too little.

    I suppose its a bit of a generational lack of understanding and employers trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. It cuts both ways and I think employers should make a wee bit more effort in understanding employees just as employees must accept that they are required to work within a structure and that they must be prepared to effect changes to fit in that system.

    Whilst money is a key issue, a young lawyer should be more focused on learning and prefecting lawyering rather than worry about how to be rich quickly.

    Nicole,

    by "skewed" I mean views that are only acceptable to the litigator. Sometimes, in a dispute the stumbling block towards resolution is not the client but the lawyer. Often I find that a lawyer will have his own views about the dispute and the client just has to follow that view without asking too many questions.

    I think its harder to move from corp to litigation than the other way around. I dont mean this in a negative way but it may take longer for a corporate lawyer to understand and adapt to the way the court mechanism works and how to work within the system. It is easier the other way around.

    However, much would depend on how many years in practice one is. The younger in practice (and at times age-wise too) you are, the easier it is to adapt.

    Best

    Dipendra

  2. I sincerely think that the first caption should be renamed to be 'What law students imagined they would look like when they start working'

  3. Alan

    even among litigation lawyers, there are separate branches ie; criminal, civil, commercial, ADR.

    To sum it up, i would view that civil litigators required more preparatory documents prior to the trial, disclosure, agreed facts etc etc and one can pretty much understand what is going on when the trial starts.

    In criminal litigation, it is branched out further like blue collar crime and white collar crime..to actually explain roles and behaviours of each will take a lot of time and fit for an article!

  4. BERNARD

    Alter Ego, from what you wrote it seems you support the view that corporate lawyers aren't "real lawyers" since they're not involved in as much law?

  5. Lingswaran Singh

    A pseudonym for this? …

  6. nicole

    dipendra, what do you mean "skewed views"? eg? also, is it possible to start with corp then transfer to litigatn?

    marcus: won't someone be jack of all trades king of none if do all?

  7. Dipendra,

    I think you mean "agreements prepared by BAD corporate lawyers." :P

    I agree with you that lawyers should be exposed to both corporate and litigation practice. I was running around the courts almost everyday during my chambering, and would like to think that I learnt a few things from the experience.

    However, and this goes back to the "working conditions" discourse which the YLs have been pushing, many employers do not invest time and effort in training and teaching young lawyers. From what I hear, this is particular obvious in the bigger firms. What this means is that a lawyer who decides to "start off with some litigation" may well end up doing two years of debt collection work and, at the end of it all, having crawled his way to the surface of the mountain of files he has been buried in, would realise that he hasn't learnt very much about the law, or legal practice, that would benefit his career. Participation in trials are either reserved for more senior practitioners or favoured YLs.

    Having said that, I still think there is value in being open-minded and exposed to different areas of practice. Society expects lawyers to be knowledgeable about everything – be it litigation, corporate, intellectual property, conveyancing, banking, finance, economics, politics, or how come the petrol prices keep going up.

  8. Jason

    A mobile closet comprising of either a black suit and/or white shirt(s).

  9. nicole

    lolol at denny & allan! entertaining one. you forgot also litigation lawyers like to hang clothes in car, like mobile closet!

  10. Dipendra

    Entertaining indeed!

    Litigation lawyers have employment because of disputes in agreements prepared by corporate lawyers. Ha ha ha!

    Anyway, jokes aside – I think all lawyers should start off with some litigation. It adds an interesting perspective when drafting agreements etc. Conversely, litigators should sit in meetings and understand how corporate practitioners think. This is important as some litigators can have very skewed views independent of client’s demands.

    Dipendra