The Path to Success for Lawyers on Wall Street

When people think of jobs on Wall Street, they often imagine a bunch of accountants, analysts, stockbrokers, mathematicians and other brainy types. But not everyone in the financial sector follows the same path. There is more than enough room for people with other backgrounds — particularly lawyers.

“If people want to go into this industry, there are a lot of things to think about,” Zachary Ziliak, an attorney at Mayer Brown, told StreetID. “One is the 33 Act, not the 40 Act. People who talk about wanting to do securities work, do they mean working at large companies and helping them file their 10-Ks and whatever else? Dealing with the SEC because they’re a listed company?

“Or are you thinking fund managers — registered investors and buyers, CTAs, CTOs, all that sort of thing, under the SEC, under the CFTC. There you are looking more at the Investment Advisor Act, the Investment Company act. It’s a different kind of law. They’re related but which one do you want to specialize in?

“If you’re going in-house, you’re going in-house at different places. If you’re working at a law firm, you’ll have different kinds of clients. So that’s a question for what interests you.”

Ziliak said that his career path was unusual in that he started in the financial sector. “I think plenty of lawyers come straight out of a random undergrad degree, go into law, and then say, ‘I need to represent someone, maybe it’ll be investment advisors, I’ll learn about them,'” he explained. “That works because the lawyers know the law side of things. You can, as a lawyer, learn that side of the law just fine without that kind of an industry background.

“I think some lawyers leave the law to go pursue asset management because they have these clients for so long and see what these clients are making and say, ‘I could do that.’ Some people leave to work on Wall Street in that capacity, which is fine. Others leave to go in-house at fund managers. All of those are viable strategies.”

Whatever path you choose, Ziliak said that his basic question is this: “What is your competitive advantage?”

“Why, eight years down the road, is someone going to want you as a lawyer rather than someone else?” Ziliak questioned. “You need to be able to tell a story. Maybe what that means is that right now you study like crazy — the Investment Advisors Act, the Investment Company Act, whatever else — so you know the thing backwards and forwards, and you follow the federal register as everything comes out, and you subscribe to news groups and learn all the details. Maybe that’s your thing — you say, ‘I know this stuff.’

“Maybe it’s that you go work for the NFA or FINRA, the SEC, the CFTC or whoever else for a couple years, five years, however long. So now when you come out you say, ‘I see how the other half lives. I see what they’re going to do. I see how their processes work. You will want me on your side because I know their processes.’ That’s a viable story.

“Maybe you go like I did and work in the industry for a while so then you can later say, like I do now, ‘I’m not just an attorney, I’m someone that understand that side of things, what you’re doing, so I can make other attorneys more efficient because I can explain to them what you’re doing. I can help you spot your problems earlier because I understand your needs. That’s another viable path.”

But if you’re simply going to a law firm to see what happens, be prepared for a rude awakening. “Competition is fierce enough now that I don’t see that as the best strategy,” Ziliak warned. “I think it helps early on to think what your long-term story is going to be — what you’ll be able to tell people later on is the reason to hire you rather than any of the 50 other attorneys on the same street.”

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