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How to Do Your Homework - Transactional Vs. Litigation

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Most small firms either specialize in a narrow field or practice “eat what you kill” specialties and work on a wide variety of cases. Meanwhile, large firms departmentalize. Know precisely what the firm's practice areas are.

Most medium and large firms consist of at least two major departments, transactional and litigation. The practice groups in a transactional department may include merger and acquisition work, private equity, and real estate transactions; in litigation, they may include employment, securities, product liability, intellectual property, and insurance. What you need to know for now is this: transactional lawyers draft contracts, help structure deals, advise clients on specific transactions and, invariably, perform due diligence. Litigators, on the other hand, primarily write briefs, memos, and motions; research the law; review documents; and attend depositions or court appearances.

For every transaction gone sour, there is a litigator who will either take someone to court or make a buck defending a lawsuit. Transactional and litigation work require different sets of skills. If you are interviewing while in law school or soon after graduation, you have not yet developed either of these skill sets. So, for the purposes of on-campus and callback interviews, simply know what the firm does and what your interests are, and try to pick one of the two areas.

If you are torn between these choices or feel uncertain about your interests, consider this advice: People who enjoy and/or do well in subjects such as contracts, business associations, and bankruptcy, and classes that require an understanding and memorization of rules and statutes, often discover they have a preference for transactional work. Meanwhile, law students who like subjects such as torts, product liability, constitutional law, criminal law, and legal research and writing, often gear towards litigation.

For the purposes of interviewing, try to make a choice sooner rather than later. You do not have to commit to it forever; plenty of young attorneys change their minds and switch from one practice area to another during the first few years of practice. Saying “I haven't had a chance to explore different specialties, but right now I am leaning towards X” is much better than saying “I do not know what I want to do.”

Furthermore, demonstrate realistic expectations about your future job, or the employers will see you as a flight risk. For example, if an interviewer at a medium or large firm asks you why you want to be a litigator, an answer such as “I enjoy research and writing” will fare better than “I would like to spend my days in court.” This is because court appearances are difficult to come by for associates at larger firms. Meanwhile, when interviewing at small firms, indicate your willingness to take on significant responsibility early in your career, and your desire to attend court appearances and obtain trial experience. This is important because small firms seek people who are self-starters and who are not afraid of responsibility.

If you are interested in corporate work at a large firm, stating “I want to work on large sophisticated deals” will leave a better impression than “I'm a good negotiator.” Likewise, telling your interviewers that the firm will benefit from your language skills and cross-cultural experiences is better than saying you “want to practice international law.” Candidates who want to practice international law without clear understanding of what such a practice involves can be an interviewer's biggest pet peeve.

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