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Husnara Begum, owner & careers consultant

Commercial awareness isn’t simply a case of memorising recent news stories and regurgitating them at a job interview or assessment centre.

Many law firms include ‘commercial’ scenarios and / or case studies in their assessment centres to test a would be solicitor’s abilities in the following areas: following instructions; attention to detail; writing and / or presenting skills; assimilating and analysing complex information; providing reasoned solutions and suggestions for next steps; time management, prioritisation and organisation.

In most instances, you won’t receive exercises in advance making it virtually impossible to prepare answers before attending the interview or assessment centre. However, below are some simple techniques that will help you tackle whatever’s thrown at you with more confidence.

Key stakeholders

For case studies that require candidates to argue the pros and cons of a project / certain course of action it’s important to consider the impact on all the relevant stakeholders. The most significant stakeholders typically include owners/investors, employees, customers/clients, suppliers/vendors, governments and local communities.

Remember in almost every scenario there are likely to be winners and losers. For example, which stakeholders will benefit most from the building of a new crossing on the Kent section of the River Thames and why? And which ones are likely to be disadvantaged?

As well as considering the economic and business impact of a project, aim to weigh up other costs particularly environmental, social and governance (ESG). ESG criteria are of increasing interest to businesses (including law firms), investors, and other stakeholders. With growing concern about the ethical status of public companies (these are companies with shares listed on a stock exchange), these standards are the central factors that measure the ethical impact and sustainability of investing in such businesses.

Health warning: when considering the pros and cons of an idea/project on different stakeholders be mindful of your own biases.

Law students at an assessment centreSWOT & PESTLE methods

Conducting a SWOT and / or PESTLE analysis on a client in advance of offering advice helps to identify pertinent points to flag/highlight that extend beyond the legal position. This allows the client to make an informed decision on what is the best course of action from both a legal and commercial perspective. In other words, though it might be legally permissible to pursue options one and two, commercially option two is likely to be more appropriate.

SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Strengths and weaknesses relate to an internal assessment of the client being analysed. For instance, relevant factors might include:

  • finances – income, fixed costs (eg rent and salaries), revenue, profit margins and capital expenditures
  • physical assets – real estate (eg office premises or factories) or specialist equipment
  • human assets – key personnel and trophy clients
  • digital and non-tangible assets – copyrights, patents, branding, trademarks, designs and social media followers

In contrast, opportunities and strengths consider the external environment, including.:

  • economic growth / contraction, political crises, or natural disasters
  • trends – changing consumer / client habits, social media influencers
  • supply chain – relationship with suppliers, distributors and other partners
  • new laws, regulations, or taxes

In the example below I’ve conducted a SWOT analysis on (CLC) to illustrate how one works in real life. Once you’ve had a read, I’d recommend having your own go. The more familiar you become with this framework the better you’ll be at applying it on the hoof.

  • Strengths– what does CLC do well? What are CLC’s unique characteristics, and other selling points? CLC is different to its competitors as it is the only website serving the legal community on a cradle to grave basis. Content covers careers and well-being and is relevant to law students through to senior associates. It is run by a very experienced legal journalist and careers consultant who is a former magic circle lawyer. She is also an already well-established brand in the sector and well-known for her campaigning to increase D&I in the legal sector.
  • Weaknesses– where is there room for improvement? In what areas is CLC lacking resources, expertise and/or assets? CLC is currently run by one person. The legal publishing market is also already very crowded particularly in the area of graduate recruitment marketing, which is occupied by several well-established brands.
  • Opportunities– what trends, markets, events or consumer behaviours can CLC take advantage of? The social media generation prefer a personal touch, which favours the way in which CLC has positioned itself in the legal market. Its owner already has existing relationships with potential advertisers who have already reacted favourably to the content, particularly in relation to its design, rich content and simplicity to navigate.
  • Threats– what has CLC failed to adequately prepare for? What are its competitors doing? What changes to the legal market or user / follower behaviours may impact its future goals / approach to business? Where might its weaknesses leave CLC exposed? Students are a fickle bunch meaning it’s more difficult than ever before for legal publishers to keep their audiences engaged. Lawfluencers are on the rise and gaining market share from traditional online legal publishers. With a large chunk of CLC’s revenue coming from recruitment advertising and events any future shock to the economy caused by the Covid-19 pandemic or the cost of living crisis is a potential risk.

Meanwhile, PESTLE is a tool used to gain a macro picture of an industry environment. It can play an important role in a case study because it helps candidates to view a scenario from all the important angles that could affect the advice offered to a client. PESTLE stands for:

  • Political factors
  • Economic factors
  • Socio-cultural factors
  • Technological factors
  • Legal factors
  • Environmental factors

Why not have a go at doing a SWOT and / or PESTLE analysis in relation to the following scenarios?

  • advising a leading tobacco manufacturer on switching from making and distributing cigarettes to vape products?
  • advising a toilet roll manufacturer on taking over a company that has designed an innovative environmentally-friendly cleansing gel that can be added to toilet paper to turn it into a wet wipe.
  • advising a top 100 law firm on launching a new office in India.