Practice Perspectives: Everything You Need to Know About Legal Practice Areas

Published: May 26, 2021

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The most frequent question we receive from law students and fledgling attorneys is how to differentiate among legal practice areas. Launching your legal career with confidence can be difficult if you're not sure what each practice area entails and what kinds of tasks you'd tackle in certain areas. Understanding the myriad practice paths is essential as you research legal employers and plan out your career goals and next steps.

So what's an industry newbie to do?

Look no further than the newly released Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas. (If you're a law student, log in with your Vault Campus account for free access.) Featuring in-depth Q&As with 100-plus attorneys from some of the most prestigious law firms in the country, Practice Perspectives offers an inside look at what it is really like to practice across 24 major practice areas. In this guide, attorneys from firms that are top ranked in each practice area share insights into their career paths, typical tasks, representative clients, training and skills, misconceptions about the practice, how the practice has been affected by COVID-19, and more. 

Basically, each Q&A is like having informational interviews with attorneys practicing in your target areas—or areas you want to learn more about.

Of course, this guide isn't just for industry newcomers. Law students and lateral candidates who already know their intended practice can use this guide to learn more about working in that area at specific firms, as well as gain greater insight into lawyers' career paths and key areas for development within a certain practice.

Wondering what's behind the front cover? Take a sneak peak inside the General Corporate and Litigation sections of the guide below.

General Corporate

Question: What types of cases/deals do you work on?

Vanessa Jackson, Partner—Davis Polk: I work on a variety of transactions related to acquisition financings, including both strategic acquisitions and private-equity-led leveraged buyouts. In addition, I work on investment grade credit facilities, both in the context of acquisitions and working capital facilities, as well as on restructuring-related financings for distressed companies. It is an incredibly interesting and complex area of the law, and I value the opportunity to work on such a variety of financings that address the needs of clients in various industries.

Maggie White, Partner—Gunderson Dettmer: A common transaction for us would be preferred stock financing, where a venture fund is investing money into a newly formed or early-stage company, such as a Series A financing. The process starts when a company receives a term sheet from a venture fund, at which point we negotiate the term sheet with the company; communicate with the board on the process; and eventually run the deal by drafting the financing agreements, negotiating with the lead and other investors, communicating with the other company stockholders, finalizing the pro forma capitalization table for the financing, and addressing any issues that come up in the investors’ due diligence review.

Vanessa Smith, Associate—Gunderson Dettmer: I work with company clients from formation to exit and fund clients from fundraising and formation through deployment of capital. A large part of my practice consists of company-side and investor-side representation in financings. I also work with my company clients on day-to-day corporate matters and attend their board meetings. In addition, I represent companies and funds in complex restructuring transactions, asset sales and purchases, and mergers and acquisitions.

Matthew Eapen, Associate—Kirkland & Ellis: Sponsors come to Kirkland because they want a law firm that can understand the complexity of their business. We handle traditional private fund formation work and secondaries transactions as well as more bespoke matters, like fund recapitalizations and reorganizations. Kirkland has an unparalleled team of corporate lawyers. That allows us to tackle complex and novel transactions in a comprehensive way.

Benjamin Rubin, Partner—Proskauer: Our most typical and frequent transactions are leveraged buy-outs (LBOs), where our clients partner up with a private equity sponsor to acquire a target company with a blend of equity and debt financing. We work on LBOs across a wide variety of industries, from information technology and soft- ware to health care and government contractors to hazardous materials and manufacturing. The wide variety and exposure to different industries and businesses is a fascinating aspect of my practice as we are continually learning, at a micro level, about particular business models, services, and products and, at a macro level, about the economy as a whole.

Caroline Gottschalk, Partner—Simpson Thacher: While I don’t specialize in any particular industry, over the years, I’ve developed extensive experience in health care and financial services, as well as industrials, retail/ apparel, and pharma. Recently, I represented sponsors in the sale of a multi-billion-dollar brokerage business and put together a $2.9 billion joint venture between Centerbridge and Blackstone for Great Wolf Resorts. I also advised public company boards on a variety of matters, including questions regarding fiduciary duties and issues arising from shareholder activism. In addition, I counseled JPMorgan and Citigroup in the $74 billion sale of Celgene to Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Drew Harmon, Associate—Simpson Thacher: Recently, I helped Blackstone raise a $20 billion real estate fund—the largest real estate fund ever—and advised Palladium in its fund focused on middle-market companies. I’m currently advising clients on funds focused on environ- mental and social investments, among other things. Outside of fund formation, I advise on regulatory compliance matters and M&A transactions involving private equity firms.

(Check out the guide for more insights from these corporate lawyers—from a typical day to junior-level tasks to training.)

General Commercial Litigation

Question: What types of clients do you represent?

Lina Bensman, Partner—Cleary Gottlieb: I represent a variety of clients, including natural resources companies, airlines, manufacturers, financial institutions, retailers, and individuals. Recently, I have been part of teams representing Petrobras, Brazil’s flagship energy company; Bosch, a German multinational engineering and technology company; and LATAM, the largest airline in Latin America.

Rasha Gerges Shields, Partner—Jones Day: I have represented a broad range of corporate clients in a variety of industries, including a large privately owned water- bottling company, a medical diagnostic laboratory company, a California oil-refining company, foreign entities based in China and Germany, and financial institutions. I have also represented individuals and entities facing government investigations, including cases involving public corruption and tax evasion. In addition, I have a very active pro bono practice; I have represented asylum seekers, a mother in a child-custody dispute, nonprofit organizations (such as Bet Tzedek Legal Services, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, and California Women’s Law Center), and constitutional law professors across the country.

Tracie Bryant, Partner—Kirkland & Ellis: My clients are just as varied as my practice area. I’ve represented telecommunications companies like Verizon, health care companies like Abbott Laboratories, building supply manufacturers like JELD-WEN, Inc., and everything in between. Most of my clients are large Fortune 500 corporations, but others are small startups or even individuals.

Thomas C. White, Partner—Sullivan & Cromwell: I have represented a wide range of clients in different industries. My clients have included Volkswagen and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles in actions related to diesel emissions and Micro Systems Engineering, Inc. in a copyright, trade secret, and breach of contract action. I have also represented financial institutions, including Barclays, Goldman Sachs, Popular, Swiss Re, and UBS in securities and ERISA class actions. Right now, I have the privilege of representing the Republic of Argentina in litigation related to its acquisition of a controlling state in the energy company YPF and cases arising out of its issuance of GDP-linked securities in 2005 and 2010.

Luna Barrington, Partner—Weil: I represent clients across a broad spectrum of industries— including consumer products, e-commerce, pharmaceuticals, metals and mining, and food services—in their most challenging and bet-the-company matters. Some of my current and past clients include ArcelorMittal USA, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Farmers Insurance, Johnson & Johnson, Serta Simmons, eBay, and Sanofi.

(Check out the guide for more insights from these litigators—from misconceptions to summer associate tasks to benefits of a generalist approach.)

Choosing your practice area is the first step to paving your legal career path. For those who are just starting out, understanding the ins and outs of each area is essential in helping you narrow down your target areas. For those who already know which area they want to pursue, gaining insight into everyday practice can help you focus on skill development and better understand how the practice differs from firm to firm. 

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