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BY PROFESSOR GARY BISHOP
Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Business Lawyer

Do you remember Facebook’s initial public offering, selling its stock in one of the largest IPOs in technology history? Or how about the company's subsequent purchase of Instagram? Or AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner Inc.?

These economy-shaking business transactions have a few things in common...

First, astonishing amounts of money. Second, far-reaching implications. But another critical element in these transactions and others like them—including those much smaller in scope—is that business lawyers were immersed in almost every single aspect and detail.

Business lawyers help keep companies running and growing by overseeing their legal ins and outs. They’re not your typical fight-it-out-in-court kind of lawyer (though they're often paid as well as the best of them).

Sound like the kind of role you’d like to play? Keep reading to learn more about what it takes to become a business lawyer.

What types of business law are there?

Business law covers a wide range of legal areas and applies to many different types of business activities. The legal issues that a business lawyer faces may involve corporate law, partnership law, banking law, sales law, securities law, or some combination of the above.

The business lawyer plays a very important role at the point where the business and legal worlds intersect, adding value and performing a valuable service for the client.

What do business lawyers do?

Business lawyers anticipate problems that may arise for their clients down the road and work accordingly to help avoid such problems. The business lawyer may accomplish this in a variety of ways. For example, a business lawyer representing a bank in a lending transaction must draft the necessary documents, such as the loan agreement, promissory note, and security agreement, with an eye toward protecting the bank and ensuring that the borrower is obligated to pay the loan back in the manner requested by the bank. The business lawyer must also anticipate the scenario where the borrower defaults on the loan and must provide remedies for the lender if that scenario arises.  

A business lawyer representing a company engaged in an IPO like Facebook’s must ensure that the necessary documents are filed with the appropriate governmental authorities and that the documents contain all the information and disclosures required by law.

The business lawyer plays a very important role at the point where the business and legal worlds intersect.

The business lawyer is also required to understand not only the law but also the fundamentals of their client’s work and their business goals. A business lawyer who works in the in-house legal department of a company will provide daily advice to the people running and working in the business. This work involves the interpretation of laws and regulations, and communicating advice.

If a matter is beyond the scope of the in-house legal department, the in-house lawyer will then consult with business lawyers at a law firm to determine the appropriate course of action. In that way, the business lawyer is simultaneously lawyer and client, acting as the liaison between any external law firm and their company.

Most business lawyers do not get involved in litigation or argue cases in court. Some litigators and trial lawyers specialize in business law, but the typical business lawyer does the bulk of the work at the office or in a conference room meeting with other lawyers and business people. Most of the business lawyer’s time will be spent on negotiation, legal analysis, contract drafting, advising, and writing.

How do I become a business lawyer? What courses should I take?

Of course, successfully completing law school and obtaining a JD degree is a fundamental requirement for becoming a lawyer, regardless of the area of specialty. Students also do not need an extensive business background in their undergraduate program of study to become a business lawyer.

That being said, it certainly doesn’t hurt to gain some familiarity with basic business concepts and terminology—you’ll impress your law school classmates when you know the difference between a balance sheet and an income statement. But even that is not a requirement. In fact, no specific undergraduate major is required. Rather, courses that will develop and strengthen your reading, writing, and analytical skills are most helpful.

Related: Learn more about studying business law

Once you arrive at law school, your first-year Contracts course will provide the foundation for many of the upper-level business law courses you might take. One of those courses is Business Organizations, which you’ll definitely want to take. It will provide you with an understanding of the various forms of business entities, the advantages and disadvantages associated with each one, and how each one functions in the business world.

Moving through law school, a course in Securities Regulation will introduce you to the regulatory environment in which securities are bought and sold. On the commercial law side, a Sales course covers statutes that govern the purchase and sale of goods, while Secured Transactions covers statutes that govern the taking of collateral as security for a loan. You should also take a course in Contract Drafting, which teaches a vitally important skill for the business lawyer.

Last but certainly not least, the American Bar Association advises anyone interested in a legal career, regardless of the chosen specialty, to pursue educational, extracurricular, and life experiences that will foster the strengths and abilities needed for success in the legal world. Among them are analytical thinking, problem-solving, critical reading, writing and editing, oral communication, listening skills, and research.

Experiences that might be of particular interest to students interested in business law might include taking a business law clinic, getting involved with a business law academic center, or conducting some business-related pro bono/volunteer work, like helping with the IRS’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program.

What are the benefits to becoming a business lawyer?

In short, business law is incredibly financially and intellectually rewarding. You will likely earn a high salary, and you will work with your clients to help them achieve their business goals (some of which can be as newsworthy as Facebook’s).  

Another practical benefit is that the skills you acquire can also be transferred to an in-house position with a business or government agency. Some business lawyers end up as entrepreneurs themselves, starting companies where they leave the practice of law behind but still draw on their legal knowledge.

Looking at the bigger picture, your work can have a significant impact on keeping economic engines running. (As one business lawyer I know once said while working on a transaction, “I really like going to work each day. I feel like I am a fish in the stream of commerce.”)

Business law is also much less combative than many other legal areas. The work does not involve disputes over something that has gone wrong, nor efforts to assign blame and responsibility for the wrong. It is important that there be lawyers to handle such matters, but the business lawyer is typically dealing with parties who all want the same thing. The bank lawyer’s client wants to lend money, for example, because it is financially advantageous to do so, and the borrower wants to borrow the money because it will have a positive impact on the borrower’s business. Each side will try to get the best deal it can, and while negotiations can sometimes become contentious, in the end, both sides are working toward a common goal.

If this type of law practice appeals to you, a career as a business lawyer should be something you strongly consider.

Gary Bishop is a Professor of Law and Director of Legal Research and Writing at New England Law | Boston. He also serves as the advisor for the school’s Business Law Concentration.