‘Think commercial law; think Mayer Brown’: a guide to life in commercial law

Last updated: 11 Oct 2023, 14:31

You may have heard that commercial law offers great opportunities for aspiring solicitors – but what exactly does that mean? Georgia Stylianou, an associate at Mayer Brown, shares her essential insights into working life.

Georgia Stylianou, against a City backdrop with a Mayer Brown logo

Meet Georgia Stylianou, an associate solicitor in Mayer Brown’s corporate and securities team in London. She worked as a paralegal before starting Mayer Brown’s training contract in 2021, where she completed seats (rotations) in real estate, commercial dispute resolution, corporate and securities, and a secondment at a FTSE100 top 10 company. Now, she sits down with targetjobs to explain what working in commercial law is really like, how Mayer Brown’s training contract set her up for success and how you can develop your commercial skill set while at university.

What attracted you to a career in law?

I chose to do a law degree because I’d been part of Model United Nations and Debate Club , which I had really enjoyed. It is very different to commercial law but from there, the natural choice seemed to be a career in law.

I studied law at university but thinking back it would have been useful if I had studied something else and done a law conversion course. Different degrees could give you a more specific skill set that may be useful in law – for instance, if you’ve done a geography degree, it may help in oil and gas transactions, or an engineering degree might help you in construction law.

Why commercial law and why Mayer Brown?

I attended a lot of open days and took part in commercial awareness competitions, both of which allowed me to see opportunities within commercial law. I liked the collaborative nature of commercial law, as in a deal team you are usually working with a partner, an associate and a trainee. Whether you are on the buy side or the sell side, everyone is working towards the same outcome. Meeting clients and building relationships also appealed to me and that is something I now do day to day. If you are a people person, being a solicitor in commercial law is definitely a great job.

Mayer Brown stood out to me because of the collaborative nature of the business and its international side, which opens up opportunities. The firm has many offices all across the world and our clients come from everywhere. The subject matter is also very international. I speak Greek, although I have not yet come across an opportunity to call upon my language skills – maybe one day!

There’s a big sense of achievement when you find solutions to a client’s problem and because there are a lot of deals going on, when you get to completion and everything goes as planned then you feel like you’ve done a good job. That’s what you work towards: you’re helping people.

There are a lot of socials in commercial law, which is a benefit for someone who is a people person like me. And, although people don’t go into commercial law for the socials, they are a fun part of the job.

What actually is commercial law?

Commercial law is geared towards helping companies, rather than people, achieve their ends, so it’s usually transactional in nature. It is usually financial-based or corporate-based, for example helping a company with its daily operations by drafting operational agreements.

In commercial law environments you deal with very knowledgeable clients collaboratively – usually they have previous experience of the work you are doing. Rather than having to explain to them in layman’s terms what is going on or how to manage the next steps (as you often have to do in, for example, family or criminal law), you work together to find the solutions that best suit them. It is definitely less emotionally charged than family or criminal law, but companies are still made up of people. You are dealing with people on a daily basis.

Which areas of commercial law are Mayer Brown particularly known for and which clients do you work for?

The firm has a big finance practice and we have great clients, such as HSBC. I qualified into the corporate team, where we do a lot of public and private mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and private equity work. We also have a litigation department and a commercial real estate department.

On a typical corporate deal, our client might be a private equity company, buying to invest and do up something or perhaps to make an exit because it has its return on investment. Or a client might be a massive conglomerate looking to diversify into another industry by buying a smaller company to add to its portfolio. We generally act for established companies.

What might a trainee do in a typical day?

Mayer Brown trainees get involved in every part of the deal at every stage. You might be asked to draft documents, organise the documents list, make sure all the documents are in order and in the agreed form. You are also in charge of getting transaction documents signed and completed.

The partner in a team is generally more involved in negotiating the documents, such as the sale and purchase agreement (SPA), while the associate and trainee do everything in the middle. The associate in a team will look over a draft to make sure everything is correct and amend it if necessary. The associate will also directly manage the trainee, as well as liaise with the client to make sure we have all the information that we need. Associates will generally be in charge of running due diligence, although the trainee will also be very involved in due diligence.

Mayer Brown has two intakes a year – one of 10 trainees and one of five trainees – and this means there’s only ever a few trainees in a department. As one of few trainees, you get to build relationships with people who will trust you and give you a lot of responsibility and very high-quality tasks, so from the start you are not just photocopying or bundling.

How long might a transaction take?

It usually depends on the timetable the client has set. If there is a deadline that needs to be met, because there are other bids coming through for example, we might be time-pressured and a transaction could take a matter of a few weeks. If there is a lot to be negotiated, it might take a few months. Nothing that I have worked on has gone on for years. Commercial law is quite quick-paced.

What are the working hours like?

You will hear the words ‘peaks and troughs’ a lot! At busy times the hours can be tough, but afterwards things are more relaxed. And no-one works for the sake of working. At Mayer Brown we don’t have the kind of culture where you sit at your desk if you have nothing to do past normal working hours. We also work as a team together, which makes the late nights almost enjoyable and fun.

Are trainees encouraged to compare experiences and take time out together?

They are, and everyone is encouraged to take part in extra-curricular activities, such as the networks and charity events. It is quite easy to build relationships within the firm.

You do a certain amount of pro bono hours… tell us more

You have to do 20 hours minimum every year in order to qualify and pro bono work is very much encouraged and part of the culture. Last year I did 300 hours. The firm has charity partners, including Weavers (a play space and community centre in London) and the Samaritans, which we raise money for through fun events. These bring you together with people across the firm that you might not otherwise meet, while doing something good.

What differentiates Mayer Brown from other law firms, especially for trainees?

The emphasis on training is exceptional. Every six months there’s a rotation, of seats, and your first training sessions are given by senior members of the team you are going into – so you learn the people in charge of doing the deals day to day. Training is prioritised and everyone respects that.

Associates are also encouraged to pass on their knowledge. In the corporate team we have weekly meetings, which are usually training sessions to make sure that even the associates and the partners – everyone has to attend these – are up to speed on legal developments and anything that people have raised concerns about. Training is encouraged at every level of the firm and then people are encouraged to pass that training and knowledge on. It’s nice being part of that.

I recently went on secondment with one of our clients – a FTSE100 top 10 company – and I was absolutely wowed by it. I loved getting involved and seeing how clients expect law firms to provide their services and how the business worked. It will definitely help me going forward in my career.

What skills are particularly beneficial for a career in commercial law?

Organisational skills, because the trainee in a team is usually in charge of managing the documents list in corporate or the condition precedent (CP) list in finance. You are expected to understand where we are in the deal and make sure everyone is on top of what they are doing.

The other key skill is attention to detail. Even if what you have written is brilliant, if there are typos and errors, it just won’t inspire confidence in the person you are doing it for. Attention to detail is really important and can affect so much.

You worked as a paralegal before starting at Mayer Brown; could you tell us about that?

I worked at the Serious Fraud Office (UK) and Mischon de Reya as a paralegal. I would definitely recommend paralegal-ing to anyone who is looking to start in law or apply for a training contract. You get such useful experience: for example, learning how to use the systems, the computers and how law firms operate on a day-to-day basis. You gain transferable skills and learn how to deal with people and documents.

What else can students do to develop their skills and commercial understanding?

Start with voluntary work, such as Citizens Advice or providing pro bono services. I did that weekly and it gives you more insight into how to deal with clients and solicitors and how to draft legal documents. You have to stay organised with a case and show a lot of commitment. You might find yourself dealing with difficult situations and it prepares you for life in a commercial law firm.

You could also look into commercial competitions, which are simulated rather than real life but will give you an idea of dealing with an M&A transaction, for example, and what to look out for. They are super-useful and fun as well.

I would encourage people to apply to vacation schemes. I completed a vacation scheme with Mayer Brown and sat in the non-contentious construction department and the finance department. Both gave me insights into what kind of work Mayer Brown does, specifically, and what similar law firms do as well, if they have similar departments.

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