• Kat Crossley

You Don’t Need a Commerce Degree to be a Commercial Lawyer

It’s a common belief among law students that if you want to work in a corporate law firm, a commerce, business or economics degree is a huge advantage. Mallesons banking and finance partner Philip Harvey, who has a background in Russian history and literature, spoke with Survive Law and set the record straight.

Having started an arts law degree straight out of school, Harvey soon found that, at that time, he enjoyed studying arts far more than law, and he withdrew from his legal studies 18 months later. After graduating from his arts degree, Harvey decided to complete his law degree. “I came [to law] as a grad student and I think it helped me having had the time to think about what it is that I actually wanted to do,” he says.

Harvey admits that as a student he was uncertain about the area of law in which he wanted to practice. He applied for summer clerkships and was offered a role at Mallesons. “You’re offered something so you say, ‘okay, well I’ll try that and see how it goes’. I hadn’t been previously working in a firm, or had any sort of legal experience before that so it was a nice change from pulling beers,” he says laughing.

Harvey has been with Mallesons ever since (with a two year stint working for Slaughter and May in London) and now sits on the firm’s recruitment committee. He stresses that lawyers with a non-commercial background are not in the minority at a corporate law firm, estimating that at least half of his colleagues did not study a commerce-related course. “We have partners and lawyers with backgrounds as diverse as theology, Latin, Ancient Greek through to chemistry and forensic science. Diversity brings a great strength to a firm,” he says.

“We don’t recruit in any way based on what your second degree is… obviously when you look at CVs, you’re looking at what [applicants] have done and what their marks are, but I don’t think anyone who has got a commerce degree or a business degree is in any way necessarily putting themselves in a better position than somebody who’s got an arts degree or a science degree.”

Harvey says a well-written application and a strong academic record are the key, and work experience across a wide spectrum of jobs or industries is always valuable. “it is not always the content but the context and skills learnt that is most important,” he says.

“Fundamentally we’re looking for people who are going to be strong lawyers, not people who have a deep understanding of macroeconomics, or microeconomics, for that matter,” Harvey says. “The reality is it doesn’t matter whether you’re in property, corporate, M&A, litigation, IP and so on, we’re first and foremost lawyers and the skills that you need to have are legal skills which cut across all of the groups that you’re practicing in and are not necessarily dependent on a business background.”

In reality, Harvey says that law students with a background in languages, international studies, politics, history, international relations and science also have skills that can be applied in a large commercial firm: “having a deep understanding of how the world is put together is actually just as important as understanding how economics in Australia works.”

At the end of the day, says Harvey, it’s important for students to do what they are interested in and to do it well. “If you’ve got an outstanding arts degree or an outstanding science degree, that is still far more impressive than someone who’s got a mediocre business degree.”

The same applies advice applies to choosing electives. “In my last year [of law] I studied subjects that interested me as well as those that could be perceived as ‘more relevant.’ I studied Introduction to American Law, and Roman Law 1 and 2. The last thing I was going to do in my final year was Business Associations 2,” he laughs. “My own view is that there’s nothing that’s not relevant in the legal space because we’re constantly looking at other legal systems, we’re constantly looking at other ways of thinking about problems. If you’re bringing in knowledge from some other area, that’s helpful.”

To summer clerks without a commercial background, Harvey says firms provide a comprehensive induction program and offers this reassurance: “While having a background in business, economics or commerce is no doubt beneficial because it means you may be more familiar with some of the terminology [and] some of the work that our clients are doing, and the context in which they do it, most people will pick that up during the course of their practicing career anyway.”

In Harvey’s own experience, the move from an arts degree to commercial law isn’t the leap that many would consider it to be. “One of the funny things about banking and finance is that it is fundamentally about contracts, and contracts are fundamentally about language,” he says. “It’s really not got a lot to do with economics or business, although economics and business are important because of the context in which we practice. Understanding our clients’ businesses and the market in which they operate is an extremely important part of practice, but I pick up the dictionary a lot more than I pick up my maths textbook.”

Given the increasingly competitive job-hunting environment, Harvey’s advice to all law students is to follow your interests. “My own experience is that you do something because you’re interested in it… when you’re interested in something you tend to do better at it.”

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