Doing so could mean a trial process, known as litigation. It could also mean arbitration, where a verdict is reached by an arbitrator; or mediation, where a resolution is found with the assistance of a mediator. Lawyers might also help a client settle a dispute through negotiation.
Litigation and dispute resolution matters at a commercial law firm usually involve a claim that one party has breached a complex business contract. Also, highly technical financial regulation litigation is an important part of the work that the largest City firms do - for example, where financial services firms or employees are accused of breaching market rules, or even of fraud or financial crime.
Mayer Brown, a global law firm with a longstanding strong presence in the City, is a market leader in commercial litigation and dispute resolution. The firm is top-ranked in this area by industry analysts Chambers and Partners and is particularly highly regarded for banking-related litigation.
To find out more about Mayer Brown and working in commercial litigation and dispute resolution here, we spoke to a partner and a first-seat trainee in Litigation & Dispute Resolution at Mayer Brown.
Alistair Graham is a partner in Mayer Brown's litigation and dispute resolution department in London. He works in both litigation and arbitration and is also an accredited mediator.
He is particularly expert in complex financial litigation. He has worked on a number of high-profile cases in this area and spent time as Enforcement Counsel at the Financial Services Authority (now the Financial Conduct Authority).
What made you decide to become a litigation lawyer at a large commercial law firm?
This area of legal work is really exciting - you're sorting out problems relating to the big issues of the day. The last 25 years in the City have seen many fraud scandals and financial crises and I've found it fascinating to see these up close.
Focusing on drafting contracts, which is what non-contentious lawyers tend to do, is not for me - I enjoy the cut and thrust of disputes.
Why did you decide to join Mayer Brown?
Litigation & Dispute Resolution is Mayer Brown's largest department and at the centre of its business and its identity as a law firm. So as a litigator here you're in the firm's engine room, which isn't the case for litigators at all large commercial law firms.
Because of Mayer Brown's reputation, we get excellent quality work here - two cases in a recent article listing the 20 most high-profile cases scheduled for 2014 are ones in which Mayer Brown is involved.
What do you enjoy about financial litigation specifically?
In the City we have sophisticated banks staffed with intelligent people doing complex deals using a lot of technical jargon. But when you apply common sense and try to work out what's really going on you sometimes find that the jargon masks poor conduct, fraud and incompetence.
So the essence of this work is not being afraid to ask for a simple explanation. Cases in this area are like big jigsaw puzzles. Piecing together all the different aspects and working out what really happened is fascinating.
What are you working on at the moment?
At the moment I'm working on a case that centres around the fallout from a number of banking deals done in 2006/7, the height of the pre-financial crisis boom.
We're now seeing many of the disputes that arose in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and which have been festering since then, come to trial - there are quite a few more to come.
You've worked on a number of high-profile cases during your career. Which has stayed in your mind the most?
During my career I've been fortunate enough to act for the Bank of England, to work on behalf of financial institutions suing Robert Maxwell for fraud, and to advise in relation to the collapse of Barings Bank, the Enron scandal, and the battle for control of Formula 1. Often these cases have not only been exciting, but gave me the feeling that I was doing the right thing.
Perhaps my most memorable case was defending a chief executive of a UK plc from price fixing and obstruction charges brought against him by the US Department of Justice who were trying to extradite him to the US. It was fascinating seeing how the US justice system differs to ours and how individuals get caught up in the machinery of justice.
You're a very experienced advocate who has appeared in the High Court, the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords and the Privy Council in London and in arbitrations. Is Mayer Brown a good place to be for junior lawyers interested in advocacy?
I did a lot of advocacy in the early stages of my career, and there are plenty of opportunities at Mayer Brown for junior lawyers to get into court.
And even if advocacy isn't your passion, it's a valuable experience for junior lawyers - the prospect of presenting in a hearing really helps you to identify and focus on the key issues in a case.
What are the big issues in litigation and commercial dispute resolution today?
Technology is becoming crucial to the handling of big cases, in terms of document management, trial preparation and presentation of evidence in a trial - we have some exciting new tools.
At Mayer Brown our work is nearly always international and we're dealing increasingly with jurisdictional and governing law issues, debates over in which state and under which state's laws a trial or arbitration should be conducted. It's a fascinating area of law.
What advice do you have for students interested in being a commercial litigation and dispute resolution lawyer?
Don't be put off by the doom and gloom you hear about the graduate job market. In City law at least, there are fantastic employers doing great work, and an intelligent, enthusiastic person with common sense and an interest in the way a global financial centre works will always find a good job.
To work in commercial litigation and dispute resolution specifically you need to make sure you can both work on legal technicalities and also step back from a mass of detail to see the big issues and solve practical problems.
I'd also say that commercial litigation and dispute resolution isn't as macho and argumentative as it's sometimes portrayed in films and on TV. The reality is that a sophisticated, subtle strategy and a thoughtful, measured approach will always prevail over bluff and bluster.
Erin Daly is in her first six-month seat at Mayer Brown, in Litigation & Dispute Resolution in London. She holds a degree in Land Economy from the University of Cambridge.
During her degree, she did a Easter vacation scheme at Mayer Brown and subsequently received the offer of a place on the firm's graduate scheme. She then studied at BPP Law School and Kaplan Law School in London before joining the firm as a trainee.
Why did you choose to join Mayer Brown?
Mayer Brown is a large international law firm but the London office is smaller than those of some of the massive City firms so here you're one of 20 trainees rather than one of 100, which I like - you get to know other trainees and the graduate recruitment team very well.
I also chose Mayer Brown because I wanted to be at a firm that was highly-regarded in a number of different areas - I'm not sure yet what I want to specialise in. Here Litigation & Dispute resolution is strong, and Banking & Finance and Corporate are also good - so I'll get great experience in all the main areas of commercial law.
I also like the fact that you're guaranteed a secondment as a trainee here. You get to spend six months working in a client's in-house legal team or in one of the firm's international offices.
How are you finding working in Litigation & Dispute Resolution so far?
I've been working mainly on a very large and very interesting banking case that's going to trial later this year.
It's very complicated and every time I get to grips with one element, there's something else to understand. But that's a good thing in terms of gaining experience.
What kind of tasks have you been doing?
I started off by helping to prepare the witness statements and expert reports, reviewing the documents and preparing the versions that will be used in court. It was an important job as it's crucial that there are no mistakes or inconsistencies in these.
Recently I've moved on to analysing the statements of each side's case, considering which issues have now been resolved and which are still in contention.
I've also been involved in getting ready for a case management conference, a meeting between both sides and the judge to discuss preparations for the trial.
What's the atmosphere in the department like?
There are a number of senior lawyers who are very highly-regarded in the market, a large number of junior associates, and four other trainees at varying levels of experience. That means you can learn from very experienced people, and from those who are just a few years or months ahead of you.
It's a friendly department with a collegiate atmosphere - many of the lawyers have worked in the team for years, often having joined the firm as graduates.
Every month or so we have drinks in the office, and we've also had a few department events out of the office. There was also a party for everyone working on my case when we'd got all our witness statements in - it was a big milestone and we were pleased to get there.
What kind of hours do you work?
There's always plenty to do, but the hours are more predictable than in transaction-focused departments because the work is based around longstanding court and arbitration schedules - I tend to leave between 6.30pm and 7.30pm.
There have been some late nights, but because we have a large team in this department and a good teamworking culture we can find extra people to help if something urgent comes up.
What kind of training have you been given?
Every intake of trainees has a couple of weeks of intensive training when they join the firm. Since starting in Litigation & Dispute Resolution I've also had litigation and dispute resolution-specific training, on academic issues such as legal privilege and more practical ones like how to instruct barristers.
I've also found that I've learnt so much just through working on such a complex case with senior lawyers. Reading their notes to clients, listening to how they consider something, or seeing the tactics they use is a constant learning curve.
What are the most important things you've learnt since joining the firm?
Drafting - writing legal documents - is a important thing for any junior lawyer to learn. Legal documents have to be written in a particular style, and there's also a firm style to become familiar with. You have to pick up both the correct way of expressing particular elements of content and how documents should look.
I've also learnt a lot about how to work with other people, both through some very good training we had and just through being in a professional environment. It's all about appreciating what other people's goals are and making sure that I'm giving them exactly what they need.
What's been the highlight of your time at Mayer Brown so far?
At the end of a tough week the senior partner on my case came into my office and personally thanked me for my work. It was great to be reminded that what I'd done was useful and appreciated, and will hopefully go towards a success for our client.