Becoming a Business Lawyer: Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a business lawyer? Get real job descriptions and salary info to see if becoming a business lawyer is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Career as a Business Lawyer

A career as a business lawyer, or corporate attorney, means being responsible for providing legal advice to businesses. Keep reading for a balanced take on a career as a corporate attorney:

Pros of a Career as a Business Lawyer
Relatively high pay (the lifetime earnings of an average lawyer are about two times more than those of the average four-year college graduate)*
Comprehensive education (law school prepares students for a variety of careers outside of law as well)**
Career flexibility (corporate lawyers may wear many different professional hats throughout their careers)***
Entrepreneurial potential (about a quarter of all lawyers are self-employed)****

Cons of a Career as a Business Lawyer
Work burden (most lawyers work long hours on conducting research and completing paperwork)****
Lengthy formal training (lawyers usually need at least 7 years of formal training after high school)****
Moderate employment outlook (although demand for lawyers will continue, budget constraints in private and public sectors will affect the pay and availability of jobs)****
Nature of the work (the work of corporate lawyers often involves relatively unexciting tasks, such as reading contracts and advising business executives)****

Sources: *Georgetown Public Policy Institute, **The New York Times,** *Yale University,**** U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

A corporate attorney is responsible for dispensing legal advice to businesses on all kinds of matters, such as patents, contracts, labor agreements and regulatory measures. They're also required to research cases, draft contracts and develop diverse corporate procedures. The specific duties of corporate attorneys may vary depending on their employers and professional roles. They may be called on to manage budgets, ensure regulatory compliance, draft codes of conduct, litigate cases in court and facilitate corporate mergers.

Job Prospects and Salary Info

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the national employment rate of attorneys was projected to grow by 10 percent through 2012-2022. This is slightly lower than the 11 percent average rate of growth for all other occupations during the same period. The somewhat tepid demand may be due to the budget constraints on both governments and private businesses. Lawyers' employment opportunities are usually dictated, in part, by economic cycles. With corporations responding to the economy by limiting discretionary litigation, these opportunities are expected to reduce. But the federal government is expected to pursue lawyers to both prosecute and defend cases.

Lawyer pay is affected by many factors. For instance, lawyers with their own firms are typically paid lower than their counterparts who are employed by larger law practices or who serve as in-house counsels for companies. In 2015, according to Payscale.com, the total compensation rates (bonuses, commissions and profit sharing included) for lawyers nationwide ranged from about $46,000 in the 10th percentile to about $150,000 in the 90th percentile. However, the total salaries of lawyers specializing in corporate law ranged from about $58,000 in the 10th percentile to about $180,000 in the 90th percentile.

Career Paths and Specializations

Corporate attorneys have a wide array of different avenues available to them in a range of different sectors. Commercial law is employed in many different circumstances, such as when an investment bank facilitates a merger and/or acquisition, when a large multinational corporation settles a labor dispute and when a private company goes public.

Typically, corporate lawyers begin their careers with law firms and then transition to working within private companies (what's often called 'in-house' employment). These companies may vary from small private companies to transitional companies seeking to go public to large, publicly traded companies.

Career Skills and Requirements

Corporate attorneys are required to hold a law degree from an accredited program. They're also required to pass a state licensing, or bar, examination. Many law schools offer specialized courses and/or programs in business/commercial law. Topics covered may include bankruptcy, banking, accounting, insurance, international trade, securities and anti-trust litigation. Along with specific knowledge in the legal aspects of certain areas of commerce, law school may also equip students with a wide range of analytical, communicative and rhetorical skills.

Useful Skills

You'll need to rely on a number of hard and soft skills to successfully complete your professional tasks. These may include:

  • The ability to employ advanced problem-solving techniques to complex legal cases
  • The ability to write clearly and concisely
  • The ability to use inductive and deductive reasoning skills
  • The ability to negotiate with disputing parties
  • The ability to organize many different tasks and functions efficiently

Job Postings from Real Employers

A November 2012 job search conducted on Indeed.com revealed a variety of listings for corporate attorneys, also referred to as corporate counsels. Employers looked for licensed candidates with strong academic records and previous professional experience in the field to which the company belongs. Below are actual listings from this search:

  • A clinical research organization in Kentucky sought out a corporate attorney with at least a year of professional experience to join its team of legal counsel. The ideal candidate would also have at least a year of experience in areas such as biopharmaceuticals and medical devices.
  • An office product supplier in Illinois looked for a corporate attorney to handle issues such as regulatory compliance, risk assessment and labor disputes. The successful candidate would need to be located within the vicinity of the company's Lincolnshire location.
  • A healthcare company in Florida looked for a commercial attorney with at least 8 years of experience in the healthcare industry to join its legal team. Particular preference was given to attorneys with experience in handling issues related to Medicare and Medicaid.

How to Stand Out

An effective way to distinguish yourself as a corporate attorney from the competition may be to join the American Bar Association (ABA). The ABA has a business law section for members who specialize in that field of law. Membership will provide you with up-to-date professional literature, an expansive network of professional contacts and a pathway to distinction among your fellow lawyers through joining committees and taking on leadership roles within the ABA. Membership is open to all licensed U.S. lawyers.

Other Careers to Consider

Defense Attorney

If you feel that the work of a corporate attorney is too insulated and want a career that allows you more access to regular people and/or that allows you to help people in need, you may consider becoming a criminal defense lawyer. Like corporate attorneys, criminal defense lawyers must also graduate from law school and obtain a state license. However, they're required to maintain contact with their clients either through visiting them in jail or meeting with them in the office.

Criminal attorneys may also represent people charged with crimes who have no money to purchase a lawyer themselves by becoming public defense attorneys or by signing up as private council conflict attorneys. For an idea of their salary ranges, see the section on salary information above.

Paralegal

If the educational requirements for becoming a corporate attorney are too burdensome, you may consider a career as a paralegal or legal assistant. These professionals do many responsibilities with lawyers, such as conducting legal research, obtain affidavits and prepare for trials. Unlike corporate attorneys, however, paralegals typically only need an associate's degree. In addition, they aren't required to obtain a license. In 2011, according to the BLS, the mean annual wage of paralegals legal assistants nationwide was about $50,000.

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