Firm: Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
University: Queen Mary, University of London
Corporate finance lawyers advise clients on all aspects of the buying and selling of interests in businesses or business assets, relationships with their shareholders, corporate governance and equity financing matters. This includes advising on compliance with company law procedures, the raising of equity financing and, in the case of cross-border transactions, compliance with domestic and foreign laws. It is possible to work primarily on mergers and acquisitions (M&A) with public or privately owned companies. Alternatively, a corporate lawyer may focus on equity capital markets work, the private equity, venture capital or hedge fund sectors, or spend their whole career as a generalist assisting small and medium-sized enterprises and small-scale entrepreneurs.
Becoming a barrister was never a career option for Lillie Peichl. “I knew that I wanted to do transactional work and work closely with clients to achieve a common goal,” she explains. As an associate in the general practice group of Sullivan & Cromwell, Lillie advises step by step on transactions, something which has always been the most appealing part of the job. “I really enjoy advising clients and businesses,” she says.
Having trained at Sullivan & Cromwell, Lillie enjoyed the smooth transition from trainee to associate. The firm’s small trainee intake meant that she got to know her fellow trainees well, and could meet and work with them during their time studying for the Legal Practice Course. “It was nice to join a firm with a close and friendly culture,” she says. “And when I became an associate, I really appreciated having already had a good experience of the work before qualification. Plus, it was beneficial to stay in an environment I was familiar with.”
A mixed bag of work
Associates at the firm begin their career as a qualified solicitor by undertaking a mixed bag of corporate and corporate finance work. As Lillie explains, the system works by allowing lawyers to start broadly and specialise more narrowly as they advance in their careers. “I currently work on a lot of M&A and corporate work, but have also done some restructuring and project finance work too. You get to learn different parts of the law and the different types of deals that occur in various areas – as well as the kinds of skills they require.”
Currently working on a restructuring matter, among other matters, Lillie explains her role in the deal: “There are a lot of parties working on this matter, so there are consequently a lot of documents. My job is to draft documents, oversee the general process and communicate with the client and lawyers on the other side. I am responsible for ensuring that everything is moving forward and that it connects in an organised way.” Day to day, this involves being on calls, checking emails, drafting issue and document lists, and advising on issues with the team.
"Don’t forget about the bigger picture"
The sheer scope of the work and number of documents involved means that organisation becomes immediately apparent as a crucial skill for those looking to enter this area. “You have to be very diligent and thorough,” confirms Lillie. “You need to make sure you have a good attention to detail, and that you aren’t missing anything.” With so much going on at once, and everyone working at a fast pace, Lillie also stresses the importance of staying focused in a high-pressure environment.
The business perspective
“Don’t forget about the bigger picture,” she warns. “That means remembering what the deal is actually about – the client.” She goes on to emphasise that students must be aware of how businesses and clients really work. “Your priority as a solicitor is to advise your client on their objectives and goals. You have to think from a business perspective.”
Lillie goes on to explain that there were times when her clients were overly focused on a particular point. “Our job is to connect the dots,” she says. “We have to see the broader picture. And then we have to communicate that with our clients.” What does that actually mean? It all comes down to that all-important key phrase: ‘commercial awareness’. “The term ‘commercial awareness’ gets thrown around a lot to aspiring lawyers,” Lillie says. “But now I finally understand what it means in practice!”
Alongside organisational skills and commerciality, the ability to communicate effectively, then, emerges as another key skill that students should hone when looking to pursue a career in corporate finance. Much of a solicitor’s job is communicating concisely with clients and the team, as Lillie details. For that reason, it is imperative that they can always be clear and precise. Working in an American firm provided Lillie with the exciting opportunity to undertake a secondment in New York as a trainee. “I learnt a lot working with the teams there,” she recalls. “It was also the first case that I was in charge of, so I had to make sure all the documents were in shape and work directly with the client to close the deal.”
It is moments like this that remind Lillie of why life as a City lawyer was so thrilling in the first place. “There is a certain kind of adrenaline element to the closing process,” she laughs. “It can be very rewarding to close a deal.” Another part of the job that Lillie enjoys is working with people who are interested in the same things and being able to learn from others. “It sounds like a cliché, but you always learn something new every day in this job. And then you can pass that knowledge onto other members of the team and trainees.”
The impact of the pandemic
Future gazing, Lillie muses on how the coronavirus pandemic has impacted the corporate finance landscape, as it has with much of the business and legal world during the past year. “It’s changed not just the way we work, but also the way our clients work. There was a real shift towards restructuring and financing when covid-19 first struck, but now M&A is picking back up again.” Most important to note is that things are constantly changing and that as the world adapts to life post-pandemic, there will still be long-term effects on businesses, and consequently, on law firms and legal work.
For students who are also future gazing and wondering the best way to find out about how the law works in action, Lillie offers some practical advice: “It can be difficult to establish what kind of law you are interested in, and if you are even interested in the first place. I would always recommend reaching out to people and talking to them. Ask them simply, ‘What do you actually do?’. That will allow you to discover what their job comprises of on a daily basis.”
Finally, as much work experience as possible is advisable: “I did a lot of internships and work shadowing when I was starting out to find out whether a career in law was really for me. Once you have started you will quickly know whether it was the right decision, and what most appeals to you.”