How does a law degree prepare you for a career in commercial law?

Many embarking on a law degree do so with the intention of becoming a solicitor. But is a law degree any use in practice? The answer is yes – to an extent...

24 March 2017

By trainee solicitor Molly Paatz

Many embarking on a law degree do so with the intention of becoming a solicitor. But how does a law degree prepare you for a career in a commercial law firm, and what should you know before starting your training contract?

Academic law

I really enjoyed the academic study of law. Learning about key legal concepts from mens rea and actus reus to the law of trusts, I felt like I was being let in on the secrets of how our society operates.

But is it any use in practice? The answer is yes – to an extent. I have drawn upon my academic studies throughout my time at Burges Salmon, sometimes in surprising scenarios. Studying undergraduate Land and Employment law was of course invaluable when sitting in the real estate and employment departments. What I didn’t expect was how useful studying Company and Trusts law would be to my time in the family department, or Competition law to my time on secondment.

The law in practice overlaps hugely, and lawyers do not work in isolation. Being able to draw on your undergraduate studies can help to connect the dots between the work being done by the teams across the firm.

Skills from a law degree

The skills you can develop during an undergraduate law degree are also very useful in commercial practice.

Undertaking effective legal research into case law and statute will be a skill useful from day one as a trainee. Similarly, reading large volumes of documentation and being able to pull out the salient points is essential, and something you will be used to from your time in the law library.

Whether it is the solicitors on the other side of a dispute or the in-house counsel of your client, understanding someone else's legal point of view (and whether you agree with it) is a large part of the work of a solicitor. By getting involved in seminar discussions and debates you will start to develop techniques you will need as you progress through your career.

What a law degree doesn’t cover

Academic law can only take you so far in practice (and indeed, many trainees study it in only one year on the GDL). Clients do not want a lengthy essay detailing the intricacies of a particular judgment – they want focused, useful answers to their particular problem. You will need to learn to think commercially, understand what your client is really asking, analyse and solve problems and then tailor your advice. A law degree covers the generalities and principles, whereas you will have to focus on the specifics of application.

You will also need to learn how to see the bigger picture, and how one particular task or query fits into the wider context of the litigation, transaction or the client's business. While a law degree is taught module by module, topic by topic, in reality you have to draw upon all of your experience and knowledge to provide seamless comprehensive service. Quite often, the answer may be a practical or commercial one rather than legal, and you may need to consider them all in your role as a trusted adviser.

Learning to communicate effectively about the law to clients, most of whom are not legally trained, is something best learned in practice. On a law degree, you spend much of your time talking to law lecturers and law students, but understanding how to get legal concepts across to non-lawyers in an intelligible way is the next step.

Conclusion

If you enjoy studying the law academically, there is a good chance that you will find an area in practice that is right for you. But if you haven't enjoyed your studies, or read something other than law then never fear – there is far more to a career in law than can be taught in the lecture halls.

Key contact

How does a law degree prepare you for a career in commercial law?

While a law degree is taught module by module, topic by topic, in reality you have to draw upon all of your experience and knowledge to provide seamless comprehensive service.
Molly Paatz, Trainee Solicitor

More from Molly

Trainee Solicitors

Our award-winning training programme gives you expert guidance in your career and access to high profile clients.
Find out more

Latest tweets

RT @LawSocBrussels: [3/3]: MEET THE #TRAINEE: Kayla Urbanski, seconded from @BurgesSalmon @BurgesSalmonTS in Bristol, who enjoys road… https://t.co/Kgw68PHE1e
RT @BurgesSalmon: We are delighted to be named 'CSR Team of the Year' at the South West Dealmakers Awards 2021, for our virtual adapt… https://t.co/4BI0yjl7Fe
RT @BurgesSalmon: The firm is pleased to have successfully delivered its annual Bright Sparks #workexperience Programme, for the firs… https://t.co/4KgnjmTHhf