Posted: December 1st, 2020
By: R. Daniel Johnson
Being a corporate attorney is both challenging and rewarding. While law school teaches many valuable lessons, it is unable to educate students about the practical side of working as an attorney. Mr. Afzal Karim, of the Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP (Womble) office in Charlotte, was kind enough to answer some questions for the Journal about his career as a corporate law attorney. Mr. Karim is a Wake Forest School of Law graduate and a native of High Point, North Carolina. He also served as a staff member for the Journal of Business & Intellectual Property Law. His role as an associate at Womble includes representing clients in mergers and acquisitions, contracts, operating agreements and shareholder agreements, and many other transactional matters.
1. What is a typical day in the life of a corporate attorney?
Mr. Karim’s day typically begins by fielding calls and emails from both clients and partners. However, most of his time is dedicated to diligently drafting and reviewing various forms of contracts and agreements. The length of each depends largely on how particular the client desires it to be and what the circumstances entail. Mr. Karim noted that many people in the industry value practicality more than formalism – in other words, business minds want their objectives completed in the most efficient manner, while making sure their legal and business interests are protected. Most clients want an agreement to be as simple as possible. But other agreements can reach up to 200 pages in length, depending on the complexity of a transaction and the nature of the parties involved. The process of his day varies greatly from day to day. Some days, everything is more relaxed, but other days he works up to thirteen billable hours.
2. What is the culture of a big law firm really like?
Mr. Karim noted that every office is different, but his particular office places a high value on efficiency through adaptability. Everyone must be willing to adapt to unpredictable circumstances and in the same tune, try to stay ahead of the leading trends in law. Culture is something that is very important at Womble and a lot of value is placed on a good working relationship among the partners, associates and staff. Partners will typically find associates they work well with and assign them various tasks until they are ready to have their own clients. Even then, Mr. Karim stated that he rarely produces anything that has not been first reviewed by a partner before sharing with the client(s). However, he also stated that this relationship goes both ways and that he is constantly reviewing various documents produced by the partners. Partners and associates try to work in a symbiotic relationship sothey can constantly learn and grow from the skills and input from one another.
3. Is corporate law really as fast-paced as everyone says?
The answer to this question is one that law students and lawyers are very familiar with: it depends. According to Mr. Karim, each industry of corporate law is different. There may be some industries where you have a constant workflow – whereas other corporate industries have peaks and valleys when it comes to workflow. In Mr. Karim’s instance, he represents a large number of closely held private businesses, and thus, some days are relatively laid back, while oth
rs go quickly. As you may imagine, working in mostly contracts is all about articulation and communication, and thus an important aspect of the practice is communicating clearly and concisely whether it be via agreements or directly with the client on a day-to-day basis. When the office is busy, there are several tasks to be accomplished but Mr. Karim prefers it that way, as he personally enjoys the fast-paced work environment. If one desires to have a similar practice, it is important to work towards becoming a goal-oriented person who does not mind working through a checklist in a timely fashion. A lot of law school may lean towards conceptual matters – but in actual practice, clients desire to find concrete and often practical solutions to their real issues at hand.
4. What is the most important thing someone who is wanting to work in corporate law should know?
Mr. Karim stated that you have to really ask yourself whether this is the right field for you, and if you are not sure – that is perfectly fine. Much of what you learn about being a corporate attorney will come from actually practicing in the field. However, the field in general involves a lot of reading and writing. He suggested that aspiring corporate lawyers should go to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s website and read some of the documents, to get a feel for some documents that you may be called to review and/or draft in your practice. Ask yourself whether you would enjoy reviewing or writing those documents. Those agreements, or some form thereof are a large portion of what corporate law involves – especially for attorneys who want to represent public companies. Mr. Karim also noted that corporate law generally removes the adversarial system that is common with litigation – as typically, in a transaction both parties are working towards the same objective. Whereas, in litigation you have directly competing interests and objectives. In a nutshell, the corporate practice of law tends to be all about collaboration.
5. What does your firm consider in the hiring process?
Womble seeks to attract well-rounded candidates, who have excelled in the classroom and beyond. In addition to looking at one’s work ethic and achievements, Womble values diversity and welcomes candidates who would add to its diverse law firm. Additionally, Womble takes firm culture seriously and attempts to identify how someone would mesh and work with potential colleagues. In other words, Womble truly values how a candidate would “fit” into its culture when evaluating a candidate. Womble understands that part of being an attorney is adding your own unique experience and expertise within a law firm – and it is this uniqueness and creativity that will ultimately lead to the immediate and future success of its law firm. In Mr. Karim’s words, Womble is a place where you can truly chase your legal passion and be encouraged to do so with Womble providing the resources and support to get you to your goals and beyond.
6. What is your favorite part about being a corporate attorney?
Mr. Karim enjoys the challenges that each day brings and appreciates that no two days are the same. In addition to drafting documents in a creative manner and spotting issues and providing solutions. Mr. Karim enjoys serving as the “de facto” in house counsel for most of his clients and takes great pride in being able to advise his clients on their most sensitive business dilemmas. He enjoys that he has built a repertoire that most of the longtime clients of the firm now reach out to him directly to address their issues. Mr. Karim enjoys working with closely held companies who often have had certain businesses in the family for generations.
7. What is something you dislike about corporate law?
As many corporate lawyers will tell you, billing is a mundane and tedious process. Like many big law firms, attorneys at Womble have to keep track of their time in 0.1-hour (six minute) increments. Although this process can be unappetizing, Mr. Karim realizes and appreciates that it is necessary to assure firm efficiency and allow clients to see how his services are truly adding value to their business.
8. How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the industry?
Mr. Karim was quick to state that almost all contracts have some form of pandemic clauses included in them. In absence of these clauses, many contracts which were breached due to the COVID-19 pandemic are currently gearing towards litigation, where courts will have to decide the outcome. Mr. Karim has turned to advising his clients to account for the impact of COVID-19 on performance of contracts to his clients, so that courts do not have to step in during such circumstances, and the parties can have a predetermined outcome written into a contract. In addition, due to the pandemic, the process of corporate law has almost all been moved online, as face-to-face interactions are highly limited. Mr. Karim also noted that many transactions have slowed down, as clients are reevaluating their business plans in light of the pandemic, and transactions in general have moved to a much slower pace than they were before the pandemic.
Corporate law is a unique area of the legal profession that requires intelligent and hardworking individuals. Mr. Karim wanted to make sure that anyone hoping to become a corporate attorney knows that this fast-paced industry is both challenging and rewarding. Corporate law highlights the fact that good grades may get you in the field, but a solid work ethic, embracing change and creativity will take you a step further. Likewise, like all professions, having a positive attitude and a likeable demeanor will make a law student an attractive candidate for corporate law.