Why you should care

Don’t believe the hype — it could distract you from this rewarding, lucrative field. 

The author is an investment lawyer based in Virginia.

“Plastics!” So was the career advice famously urged upon Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) by Mr. Robinson in The Graduate. We’ve been hearing last rites for the legal profession, particularly of the precipitous decline in law school enrollment. But I say there’s still a beating heart in the profession. And so I offer my Mr. Robinson advice: “Law!” Or more specifically, “Investment law!”

Preposterous? Yes, many bright students have been scared off from law school, and for good reason. Hiring dropped calamitously after the recession, and a generation saddled with college debt has looked past this career choice. And this generation seems clear-eyed about the realities of legal practice. Despite the glamour and excitement depicted in TV dramas, legal work can be a grind, full of long nights and a seemingly endless audition for partnership.

But. The economy is getting stronger, and the need for legal services is increasing just as enrollments are going down. Supply and demand is starting to favor the law student. With even a little faith in the future, a young lawyer now has a better shot at success.

Why?

They Want YOU! Corporations need lawyers to meet the huge demand for regulation, which soared after the 2008 financial crisis. Banks, public companies and investment firms are all now much more heavily regulated than in the past, much of it thanks to the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010. Taking up 2,010 pages of the Congressional Record, this law required the enactment of hundreds of new regulations, including a new registration requirement for many money managers. Attorneys who specialize in this complain, but their burden is the law student’s opportunity.

More Homes for Lawyers. Not all lawyers work in law firms. Demand for attorneys is growing in other venues in response to new regulations. Those who practice in government, at corporations or for themselves can find fulfilling careers often with less pressure than at law firms. And again, thanks to Dodd-Frank, there’s a whole new job option for people with legal training: compliance officers, who work with banks, financial companies and investment firms to keep institutions in line with regulations.

A once-sleepy area of the law is now a thriving epicenter of the multitrillion-dollar investment world.

Surprise: Flexibility. You do have to work hard. But not all that much harder than in other leading professions like medicine or investment banking. And unlike those careers, you may only need a laptop and a phone. Many lawyers with children or a parent to care for have more flexibility than a doctor, dentist or banker. It’s tougher for courtroom lawyers, but even for those folks, much work can be done outside the chambers.

OK, this all sounds better than the conventional wisdom. But perhaps most exciting of all, in my opinion, is my specialty:

Investment Law. This field didn’t really exist 30 years ago. It involves working with institutions that have cash to invest — firms like insurance companies, banks, pension plans or endowments — and the money managers they hire. Think: private equity, venture capital, hedge funds. As financial firms have grown and globalized, a once-sleepy area of the law is now a thriving epicenter of the multitrillion-dollar investment world. And delightfully, in a world of legal specialists, the investment lawyer gets to be a generalist — or perhaps a “multi-specialist” — being called upon to know intimately the world of securities laws, corporate issues, international law and even nonprofit law.

It’s also surprisingly human. Investment lawyers spend more time in warm-blooded settings, i.e., with clients, counseling them through complex decisions: how should you pay your investment team, how hard should you negotiate with clients? And speaking of negotiations, those, too, are hardly the war zone one encounters in other fields. Dealing with investors rather than, say, arranging a merger or acquisition between two major corporate actors means cultivating a long-term relationship. Parties often work together for years, meaning restrained egos and more cordiality.

Obviously, not all investment people are so wonderful. Being around big money can bring out big felons. Remember Bernie Madoff? Still, there’s truth in the remark attributed to Willie Sutton that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.” Big money can do a lot of good, especially since those who invest with money managers include pension funds, foundations, hospitals and other nonprofits with worthwhile agendas. It’s not all sunshine and lollipops: The work is complex and demanding; the hours can be as dreadful as other areas of practice. But it’s highly rewarding.

Any smart college student imagining her future will and should ask: Is this a flash in the pan? Likely not. The investment business keeps growing, and it’s hard to imagine the new Congress upending the many successful parts of Dodd-Frank. Plus, the job isn’t just about guarding pennies for those who have plenty. Successful regulation helps protect the futures of myriad types: a retiree depending on a pension, a purchaser of an insurance policy, a hospital hoping to build an endowment to improve care.

So forget Mr. Robinson and listen to me. But don’t sue me if I’m wrong.

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