How to Switch from Litigation to Transactional Work
For most people, litigation sucks. Its combative and competitive. It is unpredictable. It is a lot of pressure. Most lawyers don’t like to litigate, except for the ones who enjoy the strategy or crushing their opponents. If you’re not one of those people, you’ll probably come to hate litigating within a few years after you start. It can seem unsustainable. So you’ll wonder what other options there are.
One option is to move to non-litigation work, like corporate or transactional work. If you have commercial litigation experience, that may be your best option. If you specialize in a certain type of litigation, it will be harder to transition to general corporate work, but perhaps easier to find nonlitigation work in your niche. For example, I had a friend who did a lot of environmental litigation and found a role doing environmental planning and consulting. Personal injury litigation may be the hardest because there is such little substantive carryover.
- You won’t be able to BS your way into the transition. If you’re interviewing with a corporate lawyer, he or she will know how much or how little you did on a deal. If you haven’t drafted or negotiated a certain type of document, that will come through immediately. You are better being honest about the fact that you’ve never even seen a Subordination, Non-Disturbance, and Attornment Agreement (an “SNDA”). Don’t say you’re familiar with SNDAs if you only reviewed one when it was produced in discovery in a case you had a few years ago. If you say you’re familiar with SNDAs, assume your interviewer will ask you a substantive question about them. This raises the risk that they’ll think you’re exaggerating everything you’ve worked on. You are better off being honest about what exactly you have done and even more honest about what you haven’t. If you are a litigator, you’re expected to have litigation experience, not corporate experience. Your interviewer knows this and is still interviewing you anyway. That works in your favor. Don’t try to mess it up.
- The settlement agreements that you’ve drafted don’t mean much. As a litigator, this is probably the most drafting you’ve done. You may be tempted to say that you have a lot of experience drafting settlement agreements, so you can draft all sorts of other agreements too. Once you start doing corporate work, you’ll realize how insulting this can be to a corporate lawyer.
- You have transferable skills! This phrase is what you’re supposed to focus on when looking to make a career switch. But what are the transferable skills that can help you switch from litigation to transactional work? Here are a few.
- You can manage and prioritize tasks with longer-term planning. Deals have a closing date. This is when all the documents have to be final and signed and the money is transferred. Things are really busy right up to closing. But that’s just like going to trial. You know that trial starts on a certain date and you have to be ready on that date. You need your witnesses and your exhibits and your motions. If a partner asks you to help on a trial that starts in a month, you’ll know how much work there is going to be because you know how much has to get done in a month. Same thing with deal work. If a partner asks you to help on a deal that has to close in a month, you’ll learn how much work that will involve. Deal lawyers create closing checklists. They share these checklists with the other lawyers working on the deal to make sure everybody knows what has been done and what still needs to be done. Find examples from your career where you had to manage and prioritize all the work that needed to get done before trial. The story should show your ability to organize, delegate, and do longer-term planning.
- You dominate deadlines. I was talking to my friend Tom once about deadlines. We were wondering whether deadlines were more important for litigators or for transactional lawyers. I say litigators. Here’s why. Sure, transactional lawyers have to close deals by closing dates. And closing dates are usually firm and immovable, like the end of a quarter or December 31. “The deal has to close by then!” everybody will say. While I’m sure it has happened, I’ve never worked on a deal that didn’t close. Sure, some may not have closed on time, but they always closed. So deadlines are definitely important for transactional lawyers. But I still say litigators. If you miss a deadline, the other side is going to pounce and you’re going to have to explain it to the court. Everybody has heard of some case where a filing was a few minutes late and the court did something extreme like dismissing the case. There is even a case where an inmate was executed after his appeal was filed 2 minutes late and was rejected as untimely. Can’t get much more severe than that! And litigators know it. Same thing with statute of limitations. Litigators know the consequences of missing deadlines. So use this to your advantage. I was once on an interview and was asked, “Have you ever not gotten something done on time?” “Never,” I said. “You just don’t file something a little late. If the court says something is due by a certain date, you get it done. Good litigators don’t miss deadlines because bad things happen.”