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Building a career in M&A? How to get started

Qualifying in law or accounting, and preferably both, can be a good way in

Fancy a career in mergers and acquisitions? Qualifying in law or accounting, and preferably both, can be a good way in.

An understanding of the law is a huge asset, as whether you’re buying or selling contracts need to be watertight.

“Any merger or acquisition requires many different areas of law to be considered on both buy side and sell side,” says Andreas McConnell, a partner in law firm Philip Lee’s corporate department.

“Even a small transaction is likely to have multiple corporate, commercial, tax, employment, property, data protection, litigation, intellectual property and regulatory issues to be considered. The larger the transaction, the greater the complexity.”


An M&A specialist must also have in-depth understanding of the business in question. That includes the sector in which it operates as well as the business itself, to find out how it works, where does it derive its value, what are its core assets, how is it funded and who are its key staff.

The M&A legal specialist must have the ability to identify all the legal issues likely to impact a deal.

“The key skill of the M&A specialist is then to harness the expertise of colleagues in other sectors of law to identify risks, but crucially to then create solutions to any identified risks which work and are accepted within the deal,” says McConnell.

“This requires the ability to interrogate issues across multiple areas of law, which involves a lot of teamwork with colleagues, and then to negotiate and document practical solutions to those issues.”

M&A lawyers also need to drive transactions to completion. “Deals do not complete themselves,” he points out. “This requires consistent communication of the net issues with clients and their advisors as well as creating an agreed process of regular meetings with counterparties.”

Another route into the sector is to qualify as an accountant at a top advisory firm. "The benefit of accounting is that you understand what's going on in companies," says Katharine Byrne, head of the BDO corporate finance team and a member of the BDO International M&A Group.

Byrne is a law graduate who qualified as a chartered accountant in BDO’s business assurance and advisory department.

Each year BDO actively recruits graduates as part of what is known as the university “milk round”. About three quarters of the recruits who come into BDO this way have business degrees. However, increasingly graduates in areas such as engineering and science are sought too, and particularly IT, as long as they can demonstrate an interest in business and in developing deals.

Regardless of your primary degree, what is also required for a good M&A specialist are soft skills such as a strong ability to work with people, good communications, analytical abilities and problem-solving skills.

Of the 50 graduates BDO takes in each year as part of the milk round, only six or seven will get to specialise in mergers and acquisitions, while others concentrate on audit and tax.

It typically takes 3½ years to achieve their professional qualification. After that, some will stay and work in its M&A advisory team while some will move out into industry and work as part of an in-house M&A team. Those with M&A advisory experience are also much sought after as chief financial officers.

With only 10-15 per cent of graduate programme recruits making it into the M&A stream, it’s a highly competitive process, so any achievements outside of your academic abilities will stand to you. If the team sees a good fit in other ways, you don’t have to have a first-class honours degree behind you, points out Byrne. “You do need to be quite academic for the study element of the programme but you also have to be able to think on your feet,” she explains.

To really boost your chances, try to get on one of the work placements professional services firms like BDO offers college students, or their summer holiday work experience programmes.

“It’s a great way to get a taster of what working in M&A is like,” she says.

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times