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Minding Their Own Business

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Law graduates are increasingly flocking to business law

Simon Potter loves his job. A lawyer who specializes in business law, Potter represents his clients in court. Thierry Lavigne-Martel loves his job, too. A lawyer who specializes in business law, he helps companies get established and grow.

These two lawyers both practice business law but in different ways. In fact, the scope of their profession is so broad that it allows them to practice the kind of law that best suits them.

“There are different practices of business law,” says Potter, a partner at McCarthy Tétrault in Montreal. “I practice business law without ever seeing a board room.

But there are lawyers who do business law without ever stepping inside a courtroom. Business law is huge and you can tailor your practice to what you enjoy. Some people get a high from putting together contracts that are going to make people rich, give people jobs and are ultimately good for the economy. I get my high from using my knowledge, words and cleverness… from going to court.”

Unlike Potter, Lavigne-Martel, of Martel, Cantin avocats in Montreal, says he enjoys the fact that his work is not about litigation. “It’s more about negotiation,” he says. “I like supporting business owners and working on helping them pass on their companies to the next generation.”

Business law is so vast that it touches every aspect and every person in a business and encompasses banking, finance, labour law and criminal law, says Julie Biron, a professor in the Faculty of Law at Université de Montréal and a former practitioner in the field. “There is no area that is not touched by business law,” she says. “But in a strict sense, there are two types of pure business law: litigation and counselling in the business arena.”

Increasingly attractive

It’s an area that has become increasingly attractive to young law graduates. “What attracts students to this is that there are more openings in large law firms in which to article. It’s different than, say, family law, which is a narrower niche,” says Biron.

The business law domain was “not that well known when I started practicing law in 2000,” says Virginie Arbour, a lawyer who works as a recruiter and manager at Delegatus in Montreal. But that’s changed, she adds. “I think people are realizing that there’s more to this field than they thought. Many students are doing degrees in commerce before pursuing a law degree in this area.”

Julie Biron says the reason she chose business law is that it satisfied her curious nature. “It takes a curiosity about how things work,” she says. “I also wanted to see how I could contribute to the businesses of my clients and I wanted to understand the economic world.”

Thierry Lavigne-Martel says his work is focused on helping entrepreneurs obtain corporate financing, aiding them in selling their businesses, arranging succession plans and reorganizing companies to increase profitability.

His career path has been distinct from that of business lawyer Frédéric Gilbert, a senior partner at Fasken Martineau who, as a commercial litigator, works to settle and circumvent disputes for his clients before they get to court. “But when that’s impossible, I advise my clients and represent them in the context of litigation,” says Gilbert.

The right set of skills

He says business lawyers need a particular skill set to succeed in their field. “The quality of your language, both written and spoken, is important. Judges are sophisticated people and before you start your trial date, the judge has read all the written proceedings,” Gilbert says. “The court makes its first opinion on a case based on those written proceedings so your capacity to express yourself and be convincing is important.”

Another important skill for litigators, he says, is the ability to listen. “If you can listen well to your client and during litigation, you can become a dreaded, efficient litigator.”

Team work and the ability to get along with others are also key, says Simon Potter, as is a willingness to pursue continual learning. “After law school, you should expect to continue learning for the next 20 years,” he says. “When you’re looking for a position, look for a place where you can continue to learn. Large law firms put a premium on continuous learning. It’s the same if you practice law in government.”

Ideally, says Virginie Arbour, it helps to have a business sense. “People who do well in business law are those who have worked in business,” she says. “It helps them understand how companies work. Working as an in-house lawyer also helps you understand the internal language of a company. You can’t give clients solutions without understanding how a company works. You have to complement your law studies with business classes.”

As a recruiter in her firm, Arbour sees an increasing number of graduates who say they want to practice business law. “I think it’s becoming more popular than other sectors,” she says.

Potter has some advice for aspiring law students who are considering a career in business law. “Find a firm that specializes in what you’re sure you want to do,” he says. “Alternatively, find a place where you can dabble in it for a while to see if you like it.”

Many challenges

Like other careers, business law has its challenges. “The rise in the number of rules and laws that apply to this area makes the practice of business law complex,” says Biron.

Lavigne-Martel concurs. “My biggest challenge is staying up-to-date with all the changes in the law and the way the law is interpreted by tax authorities,” he says.

Another challenge is finding a work-life balance. A father of three children, Lavigne-Martel works between 40 and 60 hours a week in addition to performing volunteer work. Juggling all those obligations requires prioritizing, he says. Generating business adds to the work load. “You’re always marketing yourself because you’re self-employed,” he says.

“Finding and keeping clients can be a challenge because everyone’s competing for the same clients,” says Biron.

Despite that, people who do this work say they wouldn’t want to do anything else.

“I like the contact with business owners,” says Lavigne-Martel. “They’re creative people. Right now, my work is with people who are selling their businesses, transferring their businesses to their children or reorganizing to become more profitable. I like being intellectually stimulated from this work.”

Gilbert enjoys the same elements in his work. “The clients are usually educated and sophisticated so you learn about their businesses. In fact, you enter those worlds through a very privileged door.”

Finally, says Potter, “there is an enormous demand for good lawyers, people who enjoy what they do.”

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