A lawyer is of no use if he/she can’t serve a client. Consider the following reality scenarios, on the life of law students:
Reality 1: Recruitment in recession
Jay was a law student with impeccable “CV value” – he had great grades, internships, laurels at moot court competitions and publications to his name. Yet, recruitment season proved to be disappointing. Interviewed by a power manufacturer and a mining company, his inability to answer sector-specific questions let him down. He had even taken elective courses in subjects related to the firm’s business, yet although his concepts were clear – he failed to wrap his head around basic practical issues.
Reality 2: Life with, and without commercial law
Aditya and Ashwin, both diligent students, and eager learners made it to a mid-sized law firm in Mumbai, which had high-quality corporate work. Aditya was a quick learner with a sharp mind, and if given some time and resources, he could learn subjects fairly quickly.
At the law firm, however, Aditya was shocked by the kind of work pressure and timelines he faced and found it hard to cope. The vast amounts of information he had gathered at law school seemed abstract and difficult to apply to the ground level problems that required solving. His struggle to adapt to practical situations took him almost 18 months of struggle.
Ashwin simply did not have a clue of what to do and quickly lost hope and interest in his career as a commercial lawyer. He quit within a year and applied for an LLM program.
Aditya’s conclusion: After 18 months, Aditya realized that these skills need not necessarily be learned through experience, and wishes these were ‘taught’ systematically. In fact, today he is convinced that Ashwin was unable to give his law firm career a fair chance, due to lack of prior training. This was also the cause for his own struggle at work.
The above situations are familiar to most law students and lawyers. Colleagues, batchmates, seniors, or sometimes, juniors (and in some cases, it includes us) have faced them at some point or the other.
Most law firms today are struggling to find the right methods to train and motivate juniors. It’s a disconcerting fact that more than 40-50% of those who join law firms quit within the first 3 years. Where do these people go? I had no answer to this question when I was graduating. I still don’t. If you ask your seniors, you will realize that nobody knows what the answer really is.
If you ask around, you will see that most law graduates already have a preset plan when they join a law firm or soon after (higher studies, litigation, etc.). Unfortunately, the converse is not true, I have never met anyone who planned to quit initially, but later changed their plans and stayed back. This is a reality that requires investigation- how is it that jobs which people strive and struggle through law school to obtain are so quickly traded in for any other option?
Why do fresh law graduates quit law firms? Let’s analyze the exit syndrome before we see the answer.
What are your skills as a law graduate? As law graduates, we are all trained to read the law, read commentaries and cases to interpret it, and argue. But if you’re working in a company or a commercial law firm, you can’t afford to think of arguing on the law. Who are you to argue? A law graduate? There are advocates with greater domain knowledge and experience than you, and some of them are arguing cases on those issues live in courts. You are nobody to take calls on the law. That is the role of a judge, and only he is empowered to adopt it. Your argument can cost millions for companies and clients.
What are clients’ expectations? Clients don’t want legal arguments. Clients want certainty with the law, and they want to move ahead with their business in a safe manner with the minimal element of legal surprise. More than 95% of the work at a commercial law firm will require you to understand volumes of regulations, policies, orders, notifications. It will require you to perform filings, obtain permissions and consents, review documents (as an expert) and other practical tasks.
What are graduates thinking when they quit?
People quit, complaining that commercial work is not enjoyable, is repetitive and not rocket science. Maybe it’s not science, but did you want to be a rocket, scientist? Or do you want to be a smart, robust and creative thinker?
Is it fun to work at a law firm?
The question is subjective and its answer will differ for each person – you should read the clues below to find out your own answer. I have given mine at the end.
How would you feel if clients looked up to you for help in negotiating their deals?
How would your client feel about you if you drafted clauses that saved him and still managed to convince the other side that it protects their interest?
How would you feel if you were able to structure a complicated deal that everyone was struggling with?
How would it be to tell your peers that you are liaising with a regulator on a burgeoning commercial issue, such as the Vodafone tax case?
How would it be to listen to a senior counsel argue a case exactly as you briefed him a day before, in a hearing before a court?
I believe there is a unique thrill to each of the above, and somewhere deep inside us, and you may be able to identify with it. We are free to choose not to make it our career, but in a lot of cases, we seldom make a choice. We don’t even give it a fair chance.
Solving the Exit Syndrome
Survival of the fittest is still the rule. Adaptation is what you need to stay fit and survive.
You have to adapt your mind and see the broader picture as a commercial lawyer. This requires moving beyond the mundane tasks that you may be assigned, and see it as part of an exciting problem-solving an exercise. To a great extent, training can enlighten you to the approach required by a commercial lawyer, explain the kind of practical tasks you are required to perform, and shows you where to look. This will inspire you in small doses, to go out and do the bigger tasks when you start working. You will be able to see yourself improve drastically even at internships. You’ll know this from the way seniors perceive and treat you, and from their feedback.
What if there was a course that taught you how to get various licenses, incorporate businesses and draft and structure venture capital agreements?
When I was studying in law school, I wished that I had a glimpse of what life at a commercial law firm should be. I had interned at some of the top law firms, and wished that I could learn how transactions were done and discuss the impact of regulatory developments on transactions. Unfortunately, at each point, I had to scramble and look for the answers myself. I was happy to know, when I worked at a law firm, that some of the answers were absolutely correct.
This got me thinking – if more than 90% law students graduate to become commercial lawyers, shouldn’t there be something systematic that provides practical training on commercial law? Maybe teach REAL tasks that commercial lawyers perform?
I am happy to announce that NUJS, Kolkata has announced a 1 year course for law students on practical aspects of commercial law (taught on an online learning management platform).
Students of other disciplines who are interested in entrepreneurship would also find this course very useful. Centred around the emerging startup movement in India, the course aims to build a community of entrepreneurs well-informed in business law, and law students who can serve start-ups from college itself, and subsequently use the knowledge and experience for high-profile clients in law firms.
Those who successfully complete the course will get a diploma in Entrepreneurship Administration and Business Laws from NUJS. The first batch starts on July 15, 2012. Click here to find out how you can be amongst the first to learn practical business law skills, before you even graduate.