How to Break Into Finance as a Lawyer
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”
-William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part 2, Act IV
Lawyers don’t get much respect – whether it’s from investment bankers or Shakespeare.
But if you’re a lawyer and you want to break into finance – investment banking, private equity, hedge funds, and so on – there is good news: you have it easier than some professions.
And in some ways you have it harder – so let’s get started with what you’re up against, what your strengths are, and how to network like a ninja and dominate your interviews until you land an offer.
What You’re Up Against
Each profession faces its own set of challenges when breaking into finance:
- Engineers: They’re great with numbers, but can they talk to real people and work far more than they would at tech companies?
- Accountants: They might be accounting wizards, but can they work without sleep for days at a time?
- Consultants: They understand how to work with clients and how the corporate world works, but can they work banker hours and avoid using the mouse in Excel?
- Liberal Arts Majors: They can communicate, but can they crunch numbers and burn the midnight oil?
Here’s your challenge as a lawyer:
“I know you can burn the midnight oil and deal with crazy people all day, but can you count? Do you know how to use Excel? And are you ready to throw away your investment in law school and your career up until now?”
In Your Favor
On the other hand, you do have a few things working in your favor:
- You “get it” – you understand how the corporate world works, what you’ll have to put up with, and how to deal with psychopaths all day long.
- You’re hopefully at a prestigious law firm that everyone knows – that’s huge.
- You can get better networking opportunities by going through clients, former clients, and even Partners and ex-Partners at your firm (yes, discretion is required).
All things considered, you don’t have it so bad next to the engineers and liberal arts majors out there that want to move into business.
Just as with universities and business schools, the prestige of your law school and law firm matters a lot – so make sure you get into a top law school and get a top corporate law job and you’ll have a much easier time moving into finance.
Telling Your Story
First, refer to the “how to tell your story” template and tutorial – this is also known as the “Walk me through your resume” or “Tell me about yourself” question (yes, they’re all the same).
You should say that originally you were interested in law, but then got exposed to M&A/IPO/Debt/Other deals and that those drew you to the finance side – you wanted to be the one driving transactions as opposed to just checking the paperwork afterward.
Here’s a quick sketch:
“In law school I was always interested in corporate finance and mergers & acquisitions. I took a lot of classes in the field and went to work in M&A at [BIGLAW] firm after graduation.
I enjoyed the work at first, but after a few years I was envious of the bankers on these deals – they actually got to see everything from beginning to end and could directly influence whether or not a company was sold.
All I could do was sit on the sidelines and comment on specific issues in contracts and agreements. I want to be the deal-maker, or at least be close to the dealmaker, rather than just drafting contracts.”
If you’re not in corporate or securities law, you will face a challenge here telling a convincing story: your best bet is to move into one of those, or to focus on a very specific area within finance if you can’t make the transition (e.g. if you do real estate law, focusing on real estate banking groups or real estate investments).
Other fields like antitrust, civil, copyright, criminal, litigation, and so on are just not that relevant: you need corporate/securities (ideal) or an industry-specific practice (less than ideal).
You don’t have to say that you got more interested in finance after you already began working as a lawyer, but it’s harder to tell your story if you claim that you were interested before that and still went into law.
So apply all those spinning skills you learned in law school and on the job and make your story “creative non-fiction” if necessary.
Networking Like a Ninja
I’m not going to repeat everything related to networking here: go to the Recruiting page to learn all about it and get dozens of tips and case studies on breaking into finance.
Everything in there still applies if you’re a lawyer – the key differences are:
- Cold-calling won’t work as well – it’s more appropriate for students.
- You have more ways to find names and contact information – your law firm’s “alumni network,” current and former Partners, current and former clients, and so on.
- You can be more direct – while informational interviews are a fine strategy for students and recent graduates, you don’t have the time to “develop relationships” and move through a slow process if you’re working in law right now. Ask for what you want at the end of the first phone call or meeting.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions on how to go through clients and Partners, and the key principle is simple: only ask people you know well and trust completely.
So if you have firsthand knowledge that a Partner is about to leave the firm, or you’re very close and you know he would help you out, go ahead and ask.
But avoid bringing it up with random people CC’d on emails, other Associates or Partners you don’t know as well, and anyone who could potentially ruin your career.
You’re safest asking former Partners and former clients because the risk is greatly reduced, but there are never any guarantees: it’s a calculated risk.
I’ve mentioned before that you stand a better chance at boutiques (small banks) rather than bulge brackets (Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, etc.) if you come from a non-traditional background, and that holds true as a lawyer as well.
But don’t rule out big banks completely – if your law firm is prestigious and well-known for corporate law (Latham & Watkins, Skadden, etc.) chances are that they’ve sent Associates to banks before.
Spinning Your Resume/CV
Focus on your 3-4 best cases and separate them into separate “projects” as you see on that template (label it “Case Experience” or “Client Experience” of course).
The standard advice is to spin what you’ve done and make it sound more quantitative and related to business – that works for engineers and consultants, but it’s harder to pull off as a lawyer because there isn’t much quantitative work.
If you’ve done anything that involves numbers, even remotely – even if it’s just looking at an Excel file or a series of calculations, definitely include that:
“Reviewed flow-of-funds calculation for $500 million purchase price allocation to ensure that sources and uses of funds and individual investor allocations matched up with terms stipulated in definitive agreement.”
That sounds much better than writing about more legal-related aspects of the deal such as reviewing the reps and warranties.
You’ll have to adjust the focus quite a bit and focus on smaller tasks that didn’t take up as much time as the bigger ones if you want to spin your resume successfully.
If you don’t have any examples of quantitative experience like this, use anything that can be related to deals or investments in any way – whether it’s a tax issue, a contractual one in stock purchase or asset purchase agreements, or even something like employee contracts.
Dominating Your Interviews
As a lawyer, you’ll have to answer 2 key questions in interviews:
- Can you count?
- Are you prepared to throw away your career and investment in law school?
They’ll still ask the usual “fit” questions and your “story” is still critical, but most questions will feature the 2 themes above as the subtext.
To answer #1 successfully, use everything at your disposal: undergraduate courses in finance, self-study, classes outside of work, and anything you learned in law school.
The CFA is not the most efficient use of your time if you’re just preparing for interviews, so stick to self-study and investment banking interview guides unless you have a surplus of free time.
IB Interview Guide
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For proving #2, you will make a much more compelling case if you’ve been working for at least a few years in corporate or securities law first – if you’re just out of law school you have an uphill battle.
You need to emphasize how much research (bonus points if you call this “due diligence”) you’ve done on your own, how many bankers/investors you’ve spoken with, and how you’re certain, after working on dozens of cases, that finance is a better fit for you.
You don’t view this career change as “throwing away” anything but rather as a way to apply the skills you’ve gained in a different context, and to learn new ones along the way.
Anything is fair game when it comes to technical interview questions – and the fact that you don’t have a finance background means that they really want to test how much you’ve learned on your own.
They won’t necessarily focus on a specific type of technical question (with accountants they would obviously lean toward asking more accounting-focused questions), but bankers will expect you to know as much as a new Analyst or Associate fresh out of a finance undergraduate program or MBA.
Check out our guide to investment banking interview questions and answers offered on this site to get an idea of the topics you need to know.
If you’ve had absolutely no finance background, you may need to go beyond the interview guide: while the CFA is good preparation, it also requires hundreds of hours of study.
Since you don’t have that kind of time as a lawyer, think about books or the video-based Breaking Into Wall Street Financial Modeling Program.
Don’t bother with other certifications: Knowing how to use Bloomberg has nothing to do with valuation and modeling questions in interviews.
So, Which Field of Finance?
I’ve assumed so far that you’ve been working as a lawyer for a few years and that you’re moving into investment banking.
It’s possible to get into other fields of finance as well, but whether or not they’re viable depends on your background and the firm you’re targeting:
It’s tough because there’s no overlap with the skill sets you use as a PE Associate and the ones you gain as a Law Associate – consultants have operational experience, while bankers know accounting and finance.
Here you’re better off going for a highly specialized firm that only hires people from legal backgrounds, or advancing to the Partner-level and moving in like that (it’s been done before).
These are also difficult and you don’t stand a good chance unless they do something that has serious overlap with the law – such as Distressed Investing.
Otherwise, most hedge funds are looking for traders or bankers depending on the fund’s strategy, so you’re not in a great position to move in directly here.
Real Estate Finance
Real estate also has more overlap with the law because complex contracts are required to begin construction, and you need legal approval and permits throughout the process.
But it depends on the types of investments they make, and how much real estate you have in your own background – overall this one is still tougher than banking.
Within Investment Banking, More Specifically
Your best bets are M&A or Restructuring – with Restructuring and Distressed M&A there’s a ton of overlap with the legal code, so experience there is almost required.
Plain-vanilla M&A may also work, but again it depends on your background – moving from corporate law to M&A at a bank happens, but going from copyright law to M&A at a bank is wishful thinking.
This is almost impossible because early-stage companies do not have to deal with complex legal issues, and early-stage investments have very simple contracts.
VCs are usually looking for industry experts or former bankers who have worked in industry groups like technology or healthcare, so you don’t stand a good chance.
Plan B Options
So what should you do if you can’t make the move into finance?
1. Move to a More Prestigious Law Firm or a Different Group
You have the best chance of breaking in at the top law firms in the world – smaller places don’t have the brand-name recognition and don’t have as many contacts at large banks.
If you’re not in corporate or securities law, do whatever you can to transfer into one of those.
2. Go to Business School
This one is controversial because more time in school won’t necessarily help you: especially since you already have a JD, you may also run into a branding problem if you get an MBA as well.
But it is an option, albeit an expensive and time-consuming one, that may or may not help you re-brand yourself.
Master’s in Finance programs are also possible but their usefulness is questionable: they help more if you don’t already have an advanced degree.
3. Accept a Non-IB/PE/HF Field
You could move to a normal company and transition into finance or business development there, for example – but if you’re reading this, you probably don’t want to settle.
Kill All the Lawyers?
Bad idea – we need them for deals to close and for bankers to get paid.
So as much as bankers dislike lawyers, they’ll probably let them live for now.
But if you want to kill your own career in law and move into finance, now you know how.
Series: Career Transitions
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