What Do Corporate Lawyers Actually Do?

I know a guy who publishes books about archaeology. Mind you, these are not tales of Indiana Jones-like adventurers running through the jungle, dodging poison darts and Nazis as they heroically rescue a priceless artifact. No, this guy publishes the actual, day-to-day work of archaeologists: hours spent crouched in the hot sun, scratching with meticulous care at a piece of rock in order to free a fragment of bone the size of your fingernail. And that’s the exciting part. Have archaeologists made some of the most thrilling discoveries in human history? Yes, without a doubt—think of the discovery of Troy or breaking the seal on the Tomb of Tutankhamen. Is that what an archaeologist’s work looks like, most days? Not by a long shot.

I mention this because of the similarities to the work of a corporate attorney. Sure, there are days, when you’re involved in a big case with millions of dollars on the line, when the adrenaline rush is so powerful you can hardly close your eyes long enough to blink. But many days—maybe most—the routine of a corporate attorney would look mind-numbingly dull to the vast majority of people.

On the other hand, since “the business of America is business,” dedicated corporate lawyers typically find themselves involved in helping those people and entities that are the primary drivers of the engines of prosperity. And there are easily as many facets and specialties in corporate law as there are in, say, medicine. A corporate lawyer might focus on structuring and negotiating mergers and acquisitions deals (M&A), or she might concentrate in intellectual property law (patents, copyrights, and trade secrets). Corporate attorneys may specialize in liability, human resources law, federal and state environmental compliance, taxation, or any number of other concerns that bear directly on the operations and profitability of American businesses.

As for the actual working environment, a corporate attorney might work for a large firm that is retained by business clients, or he might serve as an in-house attorney who is employed directly by the company he represents. That was my situation, as Vice President and Chief Counsel of Litigation, and later as General Counsel, Senior Vice President, and Executive Vice President, for McDonald’s Corporation from 1978 to 1998.

As in almost any profession, corporate attorneys who want to be successful must be, first and foremost, skilled communicators. The vast majority of any type of legal work involves clear, accurate communication—regardless of what you may have thought after wading through the legalese of your last real estate contract. In fact, good corporate attorneys—like good attorneys of any kind—must not only be adept at “lawyer-speak,” they must also be able to present complex legal matters in language that can be understood by their clients, most of whom are not lawyers.

Naturally, what makes a career in corporate law satisfying—again, as in almost any profession—is the people. I had the good fortune to work with some of the most high-quality, hardest-working, most earnest people in the world during my time at McDonald’s, both my colleagues in the company and those I interacted with outside of it. I cherish those relationships to this day.

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