Jane Drew, associate careers consultant

In her latest blog Jane Drew, our associate careers consultant and former graduate recruitment specialist, shares her top tips for boosting your commercial awareness.

If you’re an aspiring solicitor in the process of applying for an internship, vacation scheme or training contract, it won’t have escaped your notice that commercial awareness is an important skill that law firms look for during the recruitment process. Unfortunately, time and time again, it’s a skill many students struggle to demonstrate on paper and / or at interview.

What is commercial awareness?

I’d define commercial awareness as having a ‘genuine’ interest in, and an awareness of the socio-economic, political and business issues that drive forward (or indeed backward!) the world around us. Being commercially aware also means having a general understanding of how world events or a new craze can impact a law firm and the advice it provides to clients. Whether you’re considering a top City law firm or a smaller niche practice, it’s really important to get to grips with this.

Incidentally, you’re not expected to know it all. That would be nigh on impossible! But it’s not a box ticking exercise either. Rather, commercial awareness is knowledge you’ll acquire over time and through varied experiences that goes well beyond flicking through a newspaper on the morning of your assessment centre. Ultimately, you must be inquisitive and eager to discover more about the legal profession and the wider business world law firms operate in.

Remember employers are looking for potential, not the finished article. When it comes to commercial awareness, law firms want to know you understand and appreciate that fundamentally they are businesses that exist to make a profit. You’ll be expected to have a basic awareness of how they operate, their most prominent practice areas, trophy clients, target sectors and key competitors.

Being a successful lawyer isn’t as simple as regurgitating the law to your clients. It requires a decent grasp of your client’s business objectives against the backdrop of the sector in which it operates. Only then can you offer relevant and innovative advice that offers pragmatic solutions to the legal issues you’ve been instructed to handle. For example, when advising clients on disputes, it’s not just about confirming whether they have a legitimate claim that would stand up in court. It also requires you to consider plenty of commercial points, including the cost of pursuing the perpetrators and any potential damage to your clients’ reputation if the issues were to come out in public.

As an aspiring lawyer, you’ll therefore be expected to have a general awareness of current affairs, especially business and economic news. In addition, I’d recommend picking a couple of commercial topics that you have a genuine interest in and are ‘relevant’ to your short-listed firms. If you’re not sure what’s relevant check our firms’ rankings in legal directories to determine what each one is known for. Additionally, look for clues on the media or client briefings sections of each firms’ own websites and you’ll soon spot a theme.

Then make a conscious effort to regularly follow any related news stories. As well as the legal and business press, keep an eye on CheekyLittleCareers’ commercial awareness page for updates and insights into hot topics. Elsewhere, Investopedia is helpful for swotting up on business jargon. Business podcasts, including Watsons Daily, Deal of the Week and the Commercial Awareness Podcast are also must as are podcasts produced by your target firms.

Other ways to enhance commercial awareness

Commercial awareness isn’t only developed through desk-based learning. Work experience, part-time roles, voluntary work and even managing budgets for student societies are all great ways to further enhance your business acumen. Roles that involve sales, marketing, business development are especially good for building your commercial awareness as well as time management, organisation and people skills.

The key here is looking at previous jobs and work experience through a commercial lens. What did you learn about the business you worked for beyond your day-to-day responsibilities? What were its priorities? What about threats and opportunities? What strategy did the business adopt to deal with or take advantage of these? Did it decide to launch a new product or marketing campaign? Did it have to make redundancies?

You can also build your commercial acumen in other settings, including law fairs, insight / open days and even 1-2-1 chats with mentors. And remember not everything you do has to be directly related to law. Did you know when Husnara Begum, CheekyLittleCareers’ associate editor and former magic circle lawyer, applied for her vacation schemes she referred to book-keeping and menu design for her dad’s restaurant as examples of how she developed her commercial awareness?

Test yourself!

Below are examples of some of the questions you’re likely to come up against in either a training contract application form or during an interview. Have a go at answering them and see how you get on. If you’re struggling to articulate your answers or come up with ‘specific’ examples it will help pinpoint areas that need your further attention.

  • Tell us about a recent news story that has caught your attention? How might that impact us [insert name of law firm you’re considering applying to]?
  • What do you feel are the key challenges facing commercial law firms at present?
  • What do you feel are the key challenges that [insert name of the firm you’re considering applying to here] senior partners/executive committee will be grappling with right now?
  • How does our firm compare to our competitors?
  • How do you feel that you could demonstrate commercial awareness as a trainee solicitor?
  • How would you define commercial awareness?
  • What do you think of XXXXX event/development/news story? How might that affect our firm/clients?
  • What qualities do you think clients look for in their lawyers?
  • What changes do you predict taking place in the legal sector over the next five years?
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