Q&A: Inside Goldman's Legal Department

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Goldman Sachs Associate General Counsel Heather Sahrbeck: "I like becoming an expert in something and then using that in the context of a company's commercial decisions."

Heather Sahrbeck is vice president and associate general counsel for investment bank Goldman Sachs. She oversees a group of 12 attorneys within the investment banking legal department, working on transactions such as securities offerings and mergers. In addition to her legal work, she shoulders some of the department's management tasks, including staffing and overseeing assignments.

Could you tell us about your career path?

I went to Duke University for both my undergraduate in political science and German, and law school, which I graduated in 1997. I went straight from undergrad to grad school. After that I worked at Davis Polk & Wardwell, a firm in New York where I specialized in securities and mergers and acquisitions until 2000. Then I joined Goldman Sachs as an associate in this group. I was promoted to vice president in 2002.

What are your thoughts on going straight from college to law school?

For me it was a good decision because I always knew I wanted to go to law school. But that is less and less common, and had I known of some of the opportunities that were available, I might have enjoyed taking a few years to work before getting my law degree. If you're not certain about whether you want to practice law, going straight through is not the thing do. Three years of law school is interesting, but it's also very difficult - and expensive.

Did you always know you wanted to practice corporate law?

I had no idea at first. Law school is geared toward litigation. It's very hard to teach someone how to be a corporate lawyer if they're not involved in a transaction. When I got to law school I really enjoyed the strategic thinking, but I didn't like the research and writing of briefs and memos. When I was a summer associate, I was exposed to the corporate side of law and I really enjoyed the transactional work and the commercial aspect of it. As opposed to litigation which is completely adversarial all the time, corporate law can be a very collaborative process, which I appreciate.

What is a typical day for you?

Being in-house counsel offers a slightly better lifestyle than at an outside law firm. Because we work a lot with outside firms, they are the ones working on documents overnight.

That said, we're all on call 24/7, even though we might be in the office from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. With cell phones and BlackBerrys everyone now expects immediate responses.

At any one time I am working on 50 to 60 transactions. It's impossible to take a deep dive into any one, so the one with the most complexities gets tackled first. I might spend an hour or two on a conference call discussing disclosure issues relating to a securities offering, meeting with a client to go over an engagement letter for a merger, talking about a potential structure for a new security with a banker, or training bankers on a new policy or procedure. It's also a lot of putting out fires.

What do you like most about your job?

A lot of people who work at a law firm get really burned out, but I enjoy what I do. I like becoming an expert in something and then using that in the context of a company's commercial decisions. It allows me to see the fruits of my labor. Since Goldman Sachs is my client, I really get to know my client well. These are benefits of working for a corporation, as opposed to an outside firm.

Anything you don't like about your job?

It would be great not be on call 24/7, but that is the nature of the job.

Any advice you would give someone looking to get into law?

It's important to really understand the reasons you want to go to law school. If you're going to law school, you should have some goal of using that law degree. If you're not sure right out of college, it's not a bad idea to seek out a job to figure out where you might fit in best.

In our legal department we have an analyst program designed for those who are interested in both banking and law. Each year, about half do go on to law school, and the other half stay here and pursue banking.

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