University: University of Durham
Undergraduate degree: Law
Commercial lawyers help businesses trade and work on a wide range of commercial agreements dealing with the manufacture, sale, supply and distribution of goods and services, as well as identifying and establishing the best routes to market, which could be via an agency, distribution or franchise model. Recently, there has been increased focus on ecommerce, online sales and software agreements. The work involves advising clients on the best trade arrangements, drafting, negotiating and signing off contracts, assisting with the day-to-day running of commercial business and advising on new products. Commercial law is often a key component in other projects and touches many areas of law, making it a highly varied legal arena.
At school Charlotte Wright discovered her love for advocacy and debating, so much so that she began to picture a career as a barrister. However, she tells us that “as a commercial lawyer, you are a draftsman”, so it was Charlotte’s love for English which has proved to be her greatest career ally.
Charlotte studied law at Durham University and graduated in 2010. Once out of university she worked for four months at a family law firm in Wakefield, but it was not right for her. It was during her time as a paralegal in the commercial team’s head office at Asda House in Leeds that Charlotte had her first taste of commercial law and found the fit that suited her best. During that time, Charlotte was involved in a lot of exciting work; implementing training, dealing with competition and information requests and assisting with contract management for big suppliers.
Variety is the spice of life
Her Walker Morris training contract enabled Charlotte to experience numerous areas of law. She touched on property development, corporate, employment, banking and litigation. The fast-paced world of litigation was exhilarating, but Charlotte explains that while the “adrenaline rush” was fun, the lifestyle “wasn’t for me”. A secondment back to Asda and a further secondment to Hargreaves brought the “variety and range” of an in-house workload, making the decision of where to qualify much easier: “Even though I hadn’t sat in the commercial department at Walker Morris at that time, I knew from my experience during my secondments that it was what I wanted to do.”
Charlotte was lucky to experience the work and responsibility that was to come: “During training you may be proofing the documents or working on a particular clause and attending the meetings that you will soon own and run as a qualified lawyer.”
“Big deals come three or four times a year – the time you put in, the build-up; that’s a huge accomplishment"
It is the variety that Charlotte loves the most. The “big deals come three or four times a year – the time you put in, the build-up; that’s a huge accomplishment”. In between the big deals there is the “bread and butter” work, the day-to-day trading advice, contracts and terms of sale and building relationships: “It’s nice sometimes to get a piece of work and to sit down and lock yourself away, or work from home and get your head down and get quite creative to make the document the best it can be.”
You work for your clients
Charlotte’s days involve advising on, drafting and negotiating a wide spectrum of commercial agreements. She interacts with her clients through conference calls and meetings, as well as occasional visits to other cities. International clients are not always available to meet face to face, but video-calling and screen sharing are just a click away.
Charlotte explains that Walker Morris is supportive of business development and encourages building client relationships: “You don’t always think about it, but law is all people based, you work for your clients, so building those relationships is important”.
She likes organising activities and explains that there is ample opportunity for social events. “If you have a good idea, you have the freedom to roll with it – if you are happy to get involved with the planning then there is nothing to stop you from doing that.”
Charlotte is eager to share a career highlight where she was acting for a client launching a new product with a major bank. She was running it herself, with support where required, and working through the night liaising with City partners, drafting documents and handling client calls at 1:00am: “Completing this deal was a milestone in my career. Having the responsibility for getting a deal completed is scary at the time, but you know you have to do it and you will get it finished. It gives you a real sense of satisfaction. The recognition that you get from the team, the sense of accomplishment in yourself – it’s a proud moment!”
When it comes to what Charlotte enjoys least, she struggles for an answer – she enjoys her job and turns the negatives into positive advice: “When you get bogged down, you might be in the middle of a three-week period when it’s been really busy, and you are getting in at 7:00am and not leaving until 10:00pm and it can just seem a bit relentless. I compare it to when you are doing exams, and when you are in the middle of those exams you just can’t see a way out, but you just have to keep going. In those periods it can be hard, but you have to learn your own coping mechanisms. So even if I know I’m going to be working to 11:00pm, I’ll try and get out to the gym around the corner to get some time back for myself.”
Charlotte has many friends in commercial law and they often discuss their legal future. Technology and contract automisation are the big changes that Charlotte sees affecting commercial law: “If clients continue to instruct firms to come in and automise documents and fast-draft paperwork themselves, then this could really start to change how lawyers work. There will always be a need for lawyers, as there will always be a need for complex legal knowledge, delicate negotiations and fine tuning of drafted documents. It will be very interesting over the next five to 10 years to see how this will shape contract drafting. I think this will affect all areas of law. Firms will be able to harness contract automisation to reduce man hours for certain standard documents. It might have an effect on the amount or type of instructions we get.”
Explore your options
Charlotte advises budding lawyers not to “feel trapped” by the traditional route of A levels and law degrees when there are numerous opportunities to train on the job or try a non-law degree: “At my school in particular, there weren’t many people that went to university or stayed for sixth form, so I was in a minority of students applying to university and career advice wasn’t great at the time. Looking back, I really enjoyed English and writing, which is really useful and helps me in my day-to-day job – now, if I’d have had better career advice at the time, I may have chosen an English degree and done a GDL conversion. I don’t think I had realised that there were different routes to the qualification.”
Charlotte is keen to promote on-the-job experience: “If you get the opportunity, do a secondment. And if you don’t get the opportunity to do a secondment, or if people are graduating without a training contract to go straight into, get experience within a commercial environment. It means that when you do qualify in commercial law, you understand the business drivers that the clients are facing and what is important to them. So, working in a law firm, sometimes it can feel that you are in a bit of a vacuum if you don’t appreciate and understand your clients’ needs – they are asking you to do the work and you are just doing it. But you can add a lot more value if you appreciate where they are coming from, then you can suggest other things that they might not have thought about.”