How does corporate law as a career compare with litigation?
In addition to deciding which area of law to pursue, this is another question that constantly puzzles law students.
Many people are confused between these two areas because of what they hear from their seniors and also because of different television shows or movies. Both seem appealing because on one hand, there seems to be tons of money cracking deals while on the other hand, there is a thrill of fighting a case for a client and winning.
The fact is that if you are smart, dedicated, and work strategically, you can do very well for yourself in litigation, even right at the beginning of your career.
Working at a big law firm is no joke. The work culture in a big law firm is usually totally crazy. You live between deals. You may get a breather while there are no transactions, but when a deal is on, your life is suspended. It is seen as perfectly normal for you to put in 14 hours of work, work on weekends and in general, you will not have any time for anything else. You may stay up night after night and lawyers often jeopardize their health while working like this.
You need to find what works for you. Nothing is perfect for you by default. Neither litigation nor corporate law are perfect career choices by default. It is important that you find what works for you. Some people may thrive while doing litigation but may not enjoy corporate law firm work. Some others love corporate law work and absolutely do not like litigation.
For some people both are ok, the question is what is more convenient or suitable based on the opportunities available. It depends on what you value in your work. If you value autonomy, for instance, you may prefer litigation, because in a law firm, you might not get autonomy up to a very high position – maybe that of a senior partner. On the other hand, if you prefer working in a structured environment where you are clearly instructed what to do, you should choose working in a corporate law firm.
If validation i.e. acknowledgement and appreciation by others is what is important for you, even then you should prefer litigation, because in a corporate law firm, chances are that all the credit will be taken by the partner concerned.
If power is important to you, you may be closer to power if you pick up litigation by developing a network and being closer to powerful judges or the police. On the contrary, in a corporate law firm, you will be discouraged from building a network or brand of your own, since the threat is that you may leave and create your own law firm.
You should therefore make the choice depending upon what is important for you.
Where are litigation and corporate law work similar?
Both the fields demand devotion, hard work and a lot of time. In case of corporate law, you do not get control over your time until you become a senior partner. If you are a senior partner, you have a team which can do the work to a great extent. However until then, you will be subject to the daily grind.
In litigation, until you have enough juniors under you, you would be very busy, since you will have the double work of drafting the required documents and preparing applications, petitions and appeals, compiling the documents, preparing an adequate number of sets and also running between courts and tribunals.
In both litigation and corporate law, you can make a lot of money if you are a good lawyer. It is not true that you can make money only in corporate law or only in litigation. It is possible to earn well in both the domains.
In both cases, you can work independently or work for someone else, depending on your confidence level and risk appetite. Even as a litigator, you can be working in the disputes team of a law firm. You can also have your own practice as a corporate lawyer and begin from some basic compliance related work.
In both cases, working for law firms which are slightly larger can have many advantages.
If you are in litigation, law firms with a growing disputes practice may groom you in a better and more organised approach. On the other hand, if you are working with an individual litigator, things may be unorganised and learn or internalize the wrong lessons. Especially if you are stuck with a law practice that is small and stagnated, not only will you not be earning much from it, but it may make you learn restrictive and limiting thoughts
If you are working at a large corporate law firm, you are working at a place that is proven in the marketplace, there is a quality standard that they have managed to establish. On the other hand, there aren’t many small corporate law firms which would have a stagnated practice.
What is the difference?
Focus on appearance Vs. focus on quality of work
Litigation is very hierarchical and a lot depends on what other lawyers and judges think of you. Rather than your quality of arguments, much may depend on how the judges perceive you and knowing the judge is as important as knowing the case and the law.
You will often hear the words ‘face value’ in litigation. This means that how you ‘appear’ is far more important during a court proceeding as against what you actually are. If a judge has formed a particular opinion about you, he is likely to act on that basis rather than your arguments.
If you are up against a senior, there may be certain disadvantages, as there is likely to be a bias in their favour or an inference that they will be able to argue better since they have more experience.
It takes long to overcome many of these disadvantages in litigation practice and while there are avenues to earn money to be comfortable enough in your early years as well, to truly establish a counsel practice is a long haul and may take many years.
If you are trying to build a corporate law practice, on the other hand, it may be much faster to get to a place where you can feel accomplished. Your quality of work is of supreme importance, and what clients think matters far more than what other lawyers think. If you are able to find solutions and get work done for a client, that is far more relevant than how you appear.
Individuals vs. businesses as clients
In litigation, you are likely to find most clients as individuals. Individuals can differ in payment capacity and are also likely to have low ticket matters. However, in corporate law, the clients would be businesses. As you deal with businesses as your clients, you can expect more sophisticated clients and better payment terms.
Litigators can also get businesses as their clients and succeed, but it’s harder for them to get there, since businesses are likely to have high ticket matters and for this purpose, they prefer senior litigators with a track record.
It is also easier for those in corporate law practice to specialize in a narrow domain or target a new upcoming trend, for example, data privacy. This is a little difficult in litigation because in most cases, people specialise on the basis of a forum rather than an area i.e. someone is good at practising before the NCLT, someone before the High Court etc. However, they prefer to take all matters over which that specific forum has jurisdiction rather than one specific matter.
In litigation, you may be running around courts and may find it frustrating to wait for judges to hear your case for hours and therefore, there is a lot of physical energy and movement required. Sometimes, you might have to wait for the case to be heard and it might not come up for the whole day. Virtual hearings have been a blessing that way, since in that case you would be able to do other things even if your case wasn’t put up for a virtual hearing.
On the other hand in corporate law practice, you do not have to physically move around and you can get things done while sitting in the office.
In litigation, it may be a great idea to practice in a small, prosperous, growing district town. There are lots of thriving litigation practices in tier-2 and tier-3 cities, and even smaller towns. In larger cities, even though there may be more matters, there is also a lot of competition. Whereas, if you are really talented and practising in a small town, you could get success very soon.
It may not be possible to build much of a corporate practice in smaller towns, although things have been changing rapidly and even for people living in smaller towns, it is now possible to access clients beyond the geographical area of where they are living. For the larger part corporate lawyers tend to be concentrated in 4-5 large cities with a few exceptions.
There are some litigators who are also doing the corporate law work for local clients, startups and growing businesses. For instance, they may take up a Section 138 matter and then also go on to advise the same client for better contract drafting and negotiation to not end up having payment defaults.
So how to choose between corporate law and litigation?
Look at your immediate priorities regarding money. Do you have some debt burden which you would need to repay as soon as possible? Do you have more people dependent upon your income? If your circumstances require you to earn good income almost immediately, corporate law practice might work better for you because it is possible to get higher salaries in corporate law firms even at the beginning itself.
However, where generating a high income is not an immediate priority, you could choose litigation, and do some other work on the side to earn survival money. Gradually, you can get more clients and a higher side income also.
Does courtroom drama intrigue you? Do you find being in the midst of a courtroom and arguing something thrilling? Then you should choose litigation. Also, it is not a bad idea to be flexible if you want to start your own practice.
You can look for where it would be possible for you to do both – corporate work as well as litigation. Many practice areas are great for such an approach. For instance, company law, tax law, real estate law, competition law etc. are fields where you can get both corporate and litigation work.
In the end, if you feel passionate about something, you are far more likely to be able to sustain the grind that is necessary to succeed in that area.