Five things Suits never told you about corporate law
“Is it anything like Suits?” is one of the most common questions I’m asked by more or less anyone who finds out I work for a law firm. Here are my top five things our favourite legal drama didn’t quite get right about life in international corporate practice…
1. Deals require an army of lawyers to get across the line
At a high-level, in the UK, we can divide lawyers into two broad camps: barristers (the wig-wearing, court-going, client-repping lawyers) and solicitors (the ones who deal with paperwork – very broad, I know, but let’s run with it) – whether you’re buying a house, writing a will, or selling a multi-billion-dollar business, you’re going to come across a solicitor. A barrister usually gets involved if (i) a specialist opinion is needed on a matter of law; or (ii) things head south and it looks like a dispute may be on the cards. (In the US, and many other jurisdictions, the barrister / solicitor division looks very different.)
Among solicitors, we have generalists (e.g. corporate lawyers who guide a matter from cradle to grave: structuring, negotiating and executing the deal) and specialists (e.g. tax, employment, pensions, IP, real estate, antitrust and many other lawyers who have a detailed understanding of specific regulations which may affect a deal). Whilst there will be a few lawyers particularly at the helm of a deal, they don’t dabble in all different kinds of law in a one-man-band style approach to drafting, meaning an FT front-pager may require hundreds of lawyers, trainees, paralegals and legal secretaries in firms and public bodies around the globe to get the deal across the line.
2. International practice isn’t all travel
Working at an international corporate firm doesn’t always mean jetting first class between NYC and London. Life feels a lot less glam as I sit on a Teams call, staring at a screen share, listening to an Icelandic lease translated live for me (#corporategoals), or when my day kicks off with a 7am Zoom call to accommodate Aussie time zones, or when I’m asked to chase down last-minute signatures from across Africa and Asia, waking up several local counsel partners and their secretaries in the process. So, perhaps not all glitz and glam, but international work is a definite highlight of the job for me, picking up the phone to folks across the globe and getting a sneak-peek into life and the law where they are is often great fun and a good learning experience.
3. All-nighters aren’t 100% super-charged with activity, excitement and adrenaline
I know – shockingly disappointing – but the morning after an all-nighter, when you’re covered in crumbs (having shamelessly spilled your breakfast down you, very far past the point of caring about what anyone else thinks), and find yourself applying deodorant, make-up wipes and brushing your teeth in the bathroom whilst colleagues arrive at the office shooting you sympathetic looks, an all-nighter isn’t quite as glamourous as a legal drama might have you believe. The reality is that a 1kg pick-n-mix carries a team through an all-nighter, that heels are promptly swapped for trainers, jackets turn to hoodies and that by the morning you’re all looking relatively dishevelled and markedly less buoyant than the day before. In spite of the less glam aspects of an all-nighter, Suits does get it right that there’s a lot of adrenaline and excitement flying about, and if all goes well, the night may just end with tired smiles, champagne and a headline to share on the family chat.
4. Let’s talk about time recording
One thing which I guarantee will never ever ever make it onto Suits is time recording. Law firms make money (often) by charging clients for lawyers’ time. That means I have a charge-out rate as a trainee, an associate has a higher charge-out rate, a Managing Associate has a higher charge-out rate than that… you get the picture. The more experience you have, the more a client will pay for your time.
This means that at the end of every day, my working life is divided into six-minute segments which are neatly allocated to a matter, and a client, in which I summarise what I’ve been doing and what that work relates to. In case you’re worried, this doesn’t mean I record time every six minutes – either I’ll either use a timer which I’ll turn on and off as I switch between tasks, or I’ll pull meetings from my calendar to record time.
5. The realities of the print room
That’s right, the familiar setting for many a saucy scene in any legal drama is a lot less exciting than Suits may have you believe. Print rooms are a place to work up an altogether different kind of sweat for trainees, who are liable to have at least one printing marathon in their training contract. Whether you’re rushing to print docs before a colleague jumps on a plane (true story), running between printers to print SPAs for senior colleagues to mark-up at 1am (also a true story), printing, checking and delivering documents to a client office for wet ink signatures (a very enjoyable true story), or stressing about whether that colleague requested coloured two-pages-to-a-sheet, single-sided blackline, or black-and-white, one-page-to-a-sheet, double-sided in clean (you guessed it, true story), you’re unlikely to have much time on your hands, or company, in the print room.