Firm: Sullivan & Cromwell LLP
University: University of Oxford
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 fund raising. 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 finance 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.
“Make the most of your university’s careers service” is advice that is thrown around relatively frequently during your quest to become a lawyer, but these wise words are not always taken on board at the right time. Sullivan & Cromwell LLP associate Catherine McLaughlin is proof that these services are incredibly useful when identifying the right career path for you.
During the second year of her law degree at the University of Oxford, Catherine dedicated time to learning about the differences between barristers and solicitors. “I was lucky because my university had lots of engagement with both sides of the profession,” she explains. “I attended as many events as I could, including workshops, panels and dinners hosted by barristers’ chambers and solicitors’ law firms.”
It was only through speaking to people working in the industry that Catherine got a sense of the work that barristers and solicitors do. Ultimately, it was the transactional and client-facing nature of a solicitor’s job that drew Catherine to this side of the profession. “I thought it would suit the key aspects of my personality better,” Catherine says.
Looking back on her journey from law student, to trainee and then associate, Catherine explains that “the work you do as a trainee solicitor at Sullivan & Cromwell, particularly within the first six months to a year, is possibly more demanding than working as a junior associate. You’re doing substantive work from day one, including marking up documents and sending email advice to clients” – a level of responsibility that appealed to Catherine.
No one-trick ponies
While Catherine’s work in corporate finance focuses mainly on M&A and capital markets, associates at Sullivan & Cromwell are encouraged to practise across a range of areas – an approach that is echoed globally across the firm. “I was attracted to this model because it makes every day different,” comments Catherine.
“In the space of one day, I could work on a private equity orientated management incentive plan, before working on more traditional M&A deals that might involve drafting share purchase agreements.” The variety of work on offer and the chance to exercise different skills is a key component to Catherine’s happiness at the firm.
The array of work is not the only thing Catherine enjoys. As well as her secondment to Hong Kong in 2019, which Catherine describes as a “very special time”, she also details additional highlights of her career to date, including the carving out of an optical business in Europe. Catherine was appointed to this matter from the start and was responsible for making sure the signing and closing of the transaction went smoothly. As well as gaining insight into the nuances of how M&A deals work from start to finish, her role in the matter enabled her “to build up great relationships with internal team members”, including partners she’d not worked with before.
At the heart of all corporate finance matters is the client, and it is this relationship-building aspect that Catherine favours: “It is rewarding when you reach a key milestone and the client is pleased with the work, and appreciative of the support you’re offering them in navigating their issues.”
"It is rewarding when you reach a key milestone and the client is pleased with the work”
The work doesn’t stop there though. The relationships built with clients need to be maintained too: “It’s quite common when working on the acquisition of a company for the client to come back to the firm five years later for more help. It’s helpful to have worked with clients in some capacity before, to have established good working relationships and identified their objectives.”
But how do you get the clients to keep coming back with the “advent of legal efficient technologies, as well as the increase in legal services providers”? Catherine considers the major issues facing the profession over the coming years – she explains that firms like Sullivan & Cromwell will be looking to develop ways to differentiate themselves from other firms. “What makes this firm special?” and “How do we show clients that we remain a valuable proposition?” are just two of the questions she suggests firms try to answer.
“The main way we do this is via the quality of work and by showing excellence in the day-to-day matters we work on. I’m constantly thinking about how I work to show clients how useful we are.”
Not everything is innate
In order to produce high-quality work and continue to win back clients’ business, it comes as no surprise that lawyers must possess a set of fine-tuned skills. Catherine is keen to emphasise that we aren’t all good at everything and not all skills come naturally to everyone. “It’s appreciated that everyone has deficiencies and skills we need to work on,” she admits. In Catherine’s case, this has meant developing her attention to detail, a critical skill for all successful lawyers; and billing, which requires a lot of “personal organisation” – a skill she picks out as one required to become a top solicitor at any firm.
Catherine urges aspiring lawyers to get themselves into good organisational practices from the outset of any vacation schemes or training contracts. “For example, they should find out how the firm’s email system works, as well as how to organise emails relating to different clients and matters. A lot of being a lawyer is going back to find things you’ve given advice on before and updating them for your clients.” Getting into these organisational habits early will help to cut down time spent on admin tasks.
“Any time you read the news you should be looking out for issues that could impact the clients and therefore your day-to-day work”
However, being organised isn’t the only skill you need to bring to the table. Perseverance is key too. “As a trainee, it’s quite normal to approach your training contract with a lot of trepidation. You think you have to be excellent from the start, but it’s important to not let constructive feedback knock your confidence. Don’t be too hard on yourself,” she advises.
The ability to communicate well in what is a predominantly client-facing role is also essential. While you won’t be expected to engage in these relationships independently straight away, you should still showcase your “willingness and enthusiasm” to get involved from an early stage.
Working with clients means more than just being a good communicator – “commercial awareness is also important”, says Catherine. “Any time you read the news you should be looking out for issues that could impact the clients and therefore your day-to-day work.” As an example, Catherine references the war in Ukraine and the economic uncertainty it has caused globally. She adds: “You should be on top of such issues so you can speak to clients about them.”
How do you find the right firm for you? “Try to get yourself out there as much as you can,” is Catherine’s top tip. “Choosing between firms is a confusing process.” To help with this, Catherine urges aspiring lawyers to attend as many events, including workshops, open days and webinars, as possible: “Get to know the people working at the firms”. Not only will this help you make your decision, but it’s also a fantastic research tool.
Catherine explains how she later used these experiences to help her secure a training contract at Sullivan & Cromwell: “I could talk at length during the interview about why I was interested in a training contract at the firm.” It’s vital that you choose a firm in which you can picture yourself in years to come – somewhere “you’ll be comfortable working”.