Commercial Awareness – What is it and how to get it?

Commercial awareness is one of the most important factors for you as a trainee solicitor. Law firms are searching for candidates who are commercially aware and can appreciate how this relates specifically to their firm. So it pays to understand and keep up to date with the developments in business and commercial law,.. The bottom line is, commercial awareness is a vital component of any professional and capable solicitor, and something you will need to master in order to be considered as a candidate.

What is commercial awareness?

Commercial awareness, simply put, is developing an understanding of the business environment in which law firms and their clients operate. The second point is critical; not only will you need to practice the technical aspects of the law but your clients will also expect you to be a sound business advisor. Say the firm you are applying to has a large supermarket chain as a client. In a partner interview they might ask you your take on the potential sugar tax. Have you been keeping on top of such stories over the last year to be able to hold a fierce debate?

As being commercially aware is about understanding how changes in current affairs and business will impact the businesses of your clients, your first step should be to find out who their clients are. Consider what industries they operate in and how you can get the insider track on these industries.

Expectations from your potential employer?

Even when you’ve just sprung straight from University with a keen sense of accomplishment, you will still be expected to foster a certain understanding of commercial awareness. Expect to put your knowledge to the test during your interview, either through a series of questions regarding certain issues in the news, writing a report on a given subject, or in a group session applying commercial considerations to a specific situation. Of course these exercises have other advantages; not only do they test a candidate’s commercial acumen, but a group exercise for example will test team work, time management, communication, and a host of other skills. It’s difficult to prepare for such scenarios but there are plenty of things you should remember to do to score well such as keeping an eye on the clock and moving the group on if it becomes bogged down in the minor detail, using team members names and encouraging quieter people to give their opinion, putting yourself forward as the leader but not being too overbearing, allowing everyone to have their turn and not coming over as too opinionated even if you think you are right and others are wrong. Graduate recruiters say the most common reason for an applicant falling down in this type of exercise is for failing to see the bigger issue; “Rather than working as a team to come up with a logical answer, applicants go at each other determined to win a supposed fight. It just makes them appear aggressive and not particularly the sort of lawyer we want in the firm meeting working with our clients” said one.

How to become more commercially aware?

At a very basic level the best way to gain a deeper level of awareness is simply to read a good quality broadsheet every day. Sprinkle in the Financial Times once or twice a week for good measure (you may find it a bit dry to read every day). Get into the habit of watching the news and other current affairs programmes too such as the Andrew Marr show and Talking Business with Linda Yueh. Many lawyers now prefer to use Twitter to capture the most relevant news and claim it is the most up-to-date source for breaking stories. If you have a daily commute, try listening to Radio 4 Today – it can be downloaded as a podcast.

There are some excellent books on the subject that are well worth investing in; ‘Commercial Awareness’ by Christopher Stoakes, ex Hogan Lovells lawyer turned journalist is a great starting point for demystifying the workings of the city.

Always research the firm you’re interested in before the interview and gain insights into their key competitors. Go well beyond their website! Review their annual report if it’s available to you as this will give you information about their financial standing in the last year, what they propose for the future and a general overview of how that company is performing. Considering most law firms cite innovation as one of their key values, the annual Innovation Report by the Financial Times is a great document for researching just how innovative a particular firm is in reality. Some of the big accountancy firms including Grant Thornton produce annual reports on specific industries which are worth reading and see if there are any industry events you can attend. If you are successful in gaining an invitation, ask the event organisers who is attending and do your research in advance. If there is a lawyer from a firm you are interesting in attending, politely approach them and explain why you are there. This sort of active networking will look great on your applications and by gaining the opinions of influential key players you will be able to have intelligent conversations at interview. Ultimately you need to demonstrate transferable skills which can be applied to your chosen law firm. Signifying your understanding of the environments you work in is the key here, and potential recruiters will want to see how well you’re in tune with what’s happening in a commercial setting.

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