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Career Shift from M&A Lawyer to Deal Maker

Q. I'm a fifth-year corporate finance associate at a large New York law firm. I've been here long enough to know I don't want to practice law forever, and I'm considering making a move into investment banking. What skills are arguably most transferable, and will the fact that I'm presently a lawyer be held against me? What's the best way to find a job, and will I need to start at the bottom?

A. While law schools ultimately don't mint as many bankers as business schools do, there is a strong tradition of legal talent flowing into investment banking.

The motivations for doing so are layered. Obviously, the financial upside can be huge, even though fee erosion and competition has leveled off many bankers' bonuses from formerly stratospheric levels. Some lawyers discover a passion for finance and the economics of a business deal. In addition, a sizeable contingent long to move inside the action instead of kibbitzing from the sidelines-where their advice, at times, is thinly tolerated by bankers who may view lawyers as necessary evils and even obstacles to getting a deal done.

But contrary to what bankers might think, lawyers aren't necessarily made of such different stuff. Indeed, there are many aspects of a banker's job for which lawyers are ideally suited.

'The most transferable skills typically for a lawyer are those related to understanding the documentation and the legal and business dimension of an M&A or financing transaction,' says recruiter Peter Gonye of Spencer Stuart. 'If they're good lawyers, they are careful, comprehensive, focused on details, and understand the importance of clarity in documentation such that you can translate actions into a record that's legally binding.'

And that's not all. 'Lawyers very often understand the importance of finesse and understand the interpersonal dynamics engaged in negotiating effectively,' says Gonye. 'They understand that it's not a zero-sum game and that it's more important to reach a sensible compromise than to satisfy a polar extreme.' Other transferable skills possessed by some lawyers are the ability to communicate in a clear and unpretentious manner, to endear yourself quickly and sincerely, and to be knowledgeable and fully prepared in your subject matter.

But don't discount the stigma that many in your desired field attach to lawyers. Like it or not, lawyers are burdened by a reputation of being more fixated on technicalities than the pragmatism and commercial realities of the moment. 'You just have to have a general commercial instinct and a certain level of business savvy,' says Gonye, and convince your audience that you have a well honed sense of when you should be precise and meticulous and when it's better to take a more practical and expeditious approach to the deal at hand.

Your target job? 'Typically the most effective transition is into M&A because of the combination of documentation, negotiation skills, and due diligence that plays into both professions,' says Gonye. Unearth opportunities through your current job, repeatedly exposing your banker clients to your competence and style.

And speaking of style-don't look for much of a lifestyle shift. 'The hours are long, the pipeline to security is clogged, and you will be paying your dues for a protracted period of time before reaching seniority in the current environment,' says executive coach Maggie Craddock. You may find yourself traveling extensively. Adds Gonye, 'There is a level of intensity and not as much time spent sort of idly noodling.'

Finally, consider your burn rate. 'Investment bankers have a shorter shelf life,' says Gonye. It's tough enough to make it to the top, let alone to consistently justify top-level compensation. Many bankers find the intensity of the lifestyle unsustainable; they plan their exit strategies early on, pegged to how quickly they can amass their money. These cautionary words about lifestyle and shelf-life aren't to say you shouldn't take a chance-most Americans switch careers several times in their lives, and you're already accustomed to working hard-but rather to assess your own comfort around risk and uncertainty before taking the plunge. Good luck with whatever path you choose.

Next week's question: Several years ago, I was convicted of a misdemeanor, which was later reduced to an infraction. I just received a job offer from an investment bank. Will the infraction show in a background check? If so, how should I handle it?

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Look out for the experts' answer to this dilemma and readers' comments on Ask the Expert next week. If you would like to submit a question to our panel of experts, ASK THE EXPERT.

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