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Center for Business Law and Innovation

Careers in Business Law

What do business lawyers do?

The practice of business law covers many substantive areas and takes many forms. A JD degree, especially one in the field of business, provides an incredible amount of flexibility in career choices. The substantive areas of practice include contracts, tax, intellectual property (trademark, copyright, patent), entertainment, real property (real estate) transactions, labor and employment law, community development, environmental, Indian Law, water law, advertising, sports, international treaty, banking, aviation, transportation, and energy, to name just a few!

Lawyers who choose to practice business law can select from an almost limitless number of environments within which to work. Most select to work in small or large law firms, but many others work as a private or public corporation’s “in house” lawyer (referred to as in house counsel); in federal government agencies (such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Housing and Urban Development); in state agencies (such as a Bureau of Labor and Industries, Workers Compensation Department, Department of Insurance and Finance); in an insurance company; a bank or financial institution; an accounting firm; or an investment banking firm. Although many people who work in settings other than law firms actually practice law, others who obtain a JD with a business law focus choose not to practice law but rather use their legal expertise in other ways. For example, many human resource managers have JDs, and use their expertise in employee benefits and labor and employment law. Businesses also value legal training for positions such as regulatory compliance officers, investment or securities bankers, management consultants, investment counselors, intellectual property managers, corporate board members, operations managers, and so forth.

Business lawyers who practice law can be divided into two general categories: one comprised of those who do trial work (litigators) and those who focus on contractual work (transactional lawyers). Business trial lawyers focus on disputes between businesses that end up in court. They act just as any civil trial lawyer does, except that they litigate business issues (such as breach of a contract) rather than criminal law or personal injury. Their days are often filled with meeting clients, conducting depositions (sworn statements), drafting legal documents like motions and pleadings, and appearing in court for trial, motion hearings, or arbitrations (which are trials but conducted in front of a panel of lawyers or an independent hearings officer) Transactional lawyers frequently spend the better part of their day talking with clients, negotiating contracts with lawyers representing other companies, and drafting contracts and other documents, such as lease agreements, licensing agreements, and the like. Most of their time is spent in their offices and with clients, never in the courtroom. Transactions lawyers also give clients advice on regulatory issues as well as prepare documents required by regulatory agencies, such as the SEC or the IRS.

What is International Business Law, and are there opportunities for me?

What do we mean by “International Law?”

International law is generally divided into two areas: “public” international law and “private” international law. Public international law typically focuses on nonprofit and government organizations. Private international law deals with all legal issues that affect businesses and corporations. Lawyers who practice international business law work for multinational corporations, or large and small law firms. Increasingly, even small mom-and-pop businesses engage in international business, and lawyers from all sizes of firms in nearly every city practice international business law

International business law covers everything from taxation, trade regulation, human rights and employment law, environmental regulation, to intellectual property and patent law. Most lawyers who practice in this area are “transactional attorneys” which means that they do not go to court. Rather, they engage in the negotiation and drafting of contracts, interpret regulations (such as tax, trade, building code, human rights regulations, etc.), represent clients in business deals and negotiations, help secure financing with lending institutions, and draft documents to protect intellectual property such as patents, trademarks and copyrights. In order to get a solid base for practicing international law, students should first select a large number of courses from the “regular” business law offerings and only then choose selected international law courses. Most international law practice requires a very strong grounding in U.S. law, rather than the laws of a foreign country, or “specialized” international law courses.

The practice of international law does not demand travel as much as many people think; with the advent of the Internet many deals and documents can be completed without having to leave home. Because most international law, especially contract law, is conducted in English, rarely do lawyers practicing international law have to be fluent in another language, although lawyers who are based in foreign countries frequently will be proficient in the language of the country they are posted in.

Are there opportunities for me to get experience in law school?

Absolutely. If you want to practice international law, there are several things you should do, and it’s a good idea to do them in this order:

  • Take a solid course load of business law courses including agency and partnerships, corporations, tax, securities, IP survey, commercial transactions, and advanced contracts. Most international law practices rely heavily on expertise in basic U.S. law.
  • Take some advanced international courses. Those that focus on regulatory schemes, international tax, international business survey, international IP and patent, and international trade should be top choices.
  • Take advantage of in-school opportunities to do an internship at a law school clinic, a corporate counsel’s office, a law office practicing international law, with a governmental regulatory agency (SEC, IRS or Office of Patent and Trademark), with an international agency such as World Bank, or with a nonprofit agency working in an area that may overlap with business, especially in the area of international development or environmental law. The Law School has Clinical Internship seminars in IP and Corporate Counsel, and you can choose to do an externship over the summer. In addition, the Small Business Legal Clinic, Low Income Taxpayers Clinic, and International Environmental Law Project offer students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience in issues both local and global.
  • Ask for a mentor who practices in the corporate or international law area (the Law School has a mentor program specially designed for first years and upper division students). Work with your alumni office to forge relationships with alums practicing international law both in and outside the United States.

Should I specialize in law school?

Students frequently are concerned that if they want to practice business law, or tax law, or intellectual property law, that they have to “specialize” or take a concentrated course load in these areas. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Law School offers certificate programs in tax, intellectual property and business so that interested students can highlight their areas of interest. They are not at all meant to be a suggestion that this is what students should do to be successful. Employers do not look for areas of specialization and in some cases are wary of them.

In order to be a successful attorney in any field, students should take a wide variety of courses that will teach them essential skills and expose them to various practice areas. During law school is the time you should be experimenting with things that you have never experienced before - it is much more difficult after law school to explore, for example, the practice of aviation law or family law. While in law school, you can take such divergent courses that will allow you to assess your interests, as well as provide you with some basic knowledge related to substantive issues you might encounter in real practice. In addition to taking classes that seem like “fun” such as Indian Law or Sports Law, you should also consider taking “bar courses” such as Income Tax, Wills and Trusts, Administrative Law or Family Law. Finally, most law firms would rather see a resume that reflects a broad range of business, “bar” and practical skills courses with solid grades than a highly-specialized transcript. This is because the practice of law demands a wide variety of skills, not just in-depth knowledge in a particular subject area.

Pros of “specializing”: Provides students who have strong backgrounds in IP, tax or business an opportunity to develop legal expertise to add to their “lay” knowledge; For students with a highly-developed interest in a particular area of practice when coming into law school, it offers the opportunity to gain in-depth knowledge, as well as an acknowledgment of that interest.

Cons of “specializing”: Deprives the student of taking general “bar” courses or other basic skill courses that could be much more valuable to the actual practice of law than highly-specialized substantive knowledge; can “compartmentalize” a student making it harder to find a job; can deprive the student of experimenting in law school with a wide variety of different fields (criminal, family, Indian law for example), thereby making it impossible for a student to find out whether she likes a particular area of law.

Regardless of what you choose to do, there are lots of professors and administrators at Lewis & Clark who are ready, willing and able to help you navigate the curricular and career paths.

How hard is it to get a job practicing business law after graduation from Lewis & Clark?

Although each year Lewis & Clark graduates find jobs all over the country and abroad, most choose to stay in the Pacific Northwest. Finding a legal job in any large city can be difficult, as competition for jobs can be intense, especially in larger firms located in desirable cities such as Portland. However, the vast majority of lawyers across the country, including Portland, practice in small to mid-sized firms. These firms’ primary focus tends to be your background and experience in law school, not your academic performance, making it easier for those in the “top 75%” to find jobs

Lewis & Clark has an exceptionally strong reputation in the Pacific West, and our graduates work at all the top law firms in every major city, including Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, Boise, and Salt Lake City, to name a few. We also have a very large alumni base in Washington D.C., and strong alumni groups in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and along the Eastern seaboard. In addition, graduates who wish to live in smaller communities work at small and mid-sized firms and government agencies in small towns, ranging from Concord, New Hampshire to Medford, Oregon, and nearly everywhere in between.

For students interested in practicing business law, the best thing you can do is to get as much practical experience in Law School as possible. Take practical skills courses such as mock trial or negotiation; and business law clinical courses; become a pro-bono volunteer at the Small Business Legal Clinic or through the Pro Bono Honors Program. Take advantage of the Law School’s strong mentoring programs, as well as the incredible number of networking opportunities directed by our Career Services Office. Get to know your professors - the Law School is renowned for its open and friendly faculty. After your first year, try and get a job clerking in a local law firm. Many third year students who are ready to graduate “pass on” their clerking job to first year students in the spring. The more practical skills you acquire, and the more contacts you make, the easier it is to get a job practicing business law. Since most small and mid-size firms have at least a component of their practice that deals with business law issues, it is relatively easy to practice some form of business law in your first job out of law school. Also, many government jobs, including those with the United States’ Attorneys Office, States’ Attorneys General, and many other government agencies, deal with business law issues.

If you want to practice in another part of the country after Law School, the Career Services Office has an entire packet they hand out and offer help through alumni, summer jobs, externships, and post-graduate career counseling where they will help with resume review, reciprocity with other law schools’ career services offices, and career advice. Our strong national alumni base are a prominent force in assisting new graduates with a job search.

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