An introduction into developing commercial awareness

article by Jack Mason-Jebb

Commercial awareness is a phrase which prospective trainees will hear repeated over and over during training contract applications and interviews.

This is usually in the form of a daunting question, such as asking for examples of how the candidate has demonstrated this particular trait in the recent past. But what even is ‘‘commercial awareness’’ in this context, and how does one go about obtaining it? 

Interestingly, 'commercial awareness' actually has its roots in an ancient Chinese proverb directly translated as ‘student and wider general legal and marketable understanding in perfect motion.

Fortunately (or unfortunately), commercial awareness isn’t something which can be faked (well, certainly not in an interview situation). Rather, it requires a continuous approach over time, which, after a while, will (hopefully) become second nature. See it akin to adopting a healthy lifestyle - it is not achieved with one session at the gym (again, unfortunately so), but rather it is the result of a sustained effort encapsulating numerous different aspects.

A continuous approach

Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, one practical step you can take to achieving true Commercial Awareness is to follow and read the news. (Un)fortunately, this doesn't include the Daily Mail's sidebar of shame; instead, the Financial Times and the Economist (if you have access) are both excellent resources for developing an understanding of the latest trends and movements in the political, legal and financial world. Don’t fret about reading every single line and paragraph of these publications however, just incorporating the latest updates into a daily routine can be as simple as listening to a podcast on your daily commute, or flicking through CityAM over breakfast – you’ll find that after a while words and colloquialisms which previously sounded alien will become part of your daily vocabulary.  

Law firm specifics

Graduate recruitment will be keeping an eye out for your understanding of how certain law firms differentiate themselves. True, every law firm will repeat that it is unique ad nauseam, and will stop at nothing to hammer home the point that it is their people which truly separates them from the rest of the field. 

To cut to the chase, focus on the below:

  • What sectors does the firm focus on? For example, does it offer a full service to clients, or does it have a particular slant, be it Real Estate or Litigation?
  • Which part of the legal market is it? Is the firm fighting for a position in the 'Silver Circle’, or is it a top 50 law firm? The answer will have a strong impact on how the firm operates.
  • Type of business? Since Gateley led the way with its floatation, several other law firms have followed suit (and more undoubtedly will). Make sure you are aware of why firms would convert into a plc and which firms have done so, as well as the context behind these moves in the legal market, which started with the Legal Services Act 2007.

It may go without saying, but an obvious point which can be missed is the work solicitors actually do on a day to day basis. This will largely be influenced by which firm or sector the solicitor works in, but ensuring you are aware of what it is lawyers actually do will stand you in good stead for any potentially hazardous questions at interview. For example, take your time to understand the differences between contentious and non-contentious work, as well as how current issues in the news are impacting firms in different ways.

What is the best approach?

Whilst you may not be aware of it, it is likely you are able to provide plenty of real-life examples of where you have demonstrated commercial awareness in the past. Think back to retail jobs, volunteer work or extra-curricular activities at school where you have had to think practically about what needs to be done, and how you went about achieving this.

There is no right or wrong approach to developing this skill, but adopting a holistic approach and incorporating a few tweaks to your daily routine can go a long way in helping you respond to the dreaded commercial awareness question in a natural and confident way.