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How firms test for commercial awareness

How firms test for commercial awareness

Harry Clark


Commercial awareness is one of the most important and sought-after skills aspiring lawyers must demonstrate when applying for training contracts, vacation schemes or other graduate positions. Despite this, a survey by the Association of Graduate Recruiters in 2017 revealed that recruiters believe it is one of the most lacking areas for many prospective candidates. Therefore, it’s no surprise that nearly every law firm incorporates some form of testing for commercial awareness throughout their recruitment processes.

In this article, I’ll explore the various ways firms test for commercial awareness so that you can take every opportunity to demonstrate it throughout the recruitment process.

Written application questions – “tell me a story… ”

One of the most common ways firms test your commercial awareness is by asking a variant of:

“Describe a business story you’ve been following. How will it impact [the firm] and our clients?”

Among others, some of the driving purposes behind a question like this are to test:

  • your ability to succinctly describe the key takeaways of a piece of information;
  • how you identify and explain key stakeholder interests (eg, the firm, its clients and the industry generally);
  • your thought process when commercially analysing significant developments;
  • whether you’d be able to blend letter of the law legal knowledge with commercial aspects to give great advice to clients;
  • how up to date your interest in and knowledge of the business world is;
  • your key interests, motivations and passion behind why you’ve selected a certain topic or practice area; and
  • your understanding of the firm and how they internally function as a business.

It’s important, therefore, to select a relevant and recent news story that interests you and about which you have enough knowledge and understanding to satisfy the above principles. Make sure you understand the firm’s key strengths and practice areas and find a news story that is relevant to the firm. Once you’ve found a relevant story, using models of thinking and analysis, such as SWOT or PESTLE can be a great starting point to appreciate its commercial significance.

Interview questions – “the big issue”

In a similar fashion to the above method, firms might also ask you to comment on a particular trend, news story or development and give a reasoned perspective on it. This can be quite common at the interview stage when you won’t have the opportunity to research or even select your question before answering it, as you would for a written application question. For example:

“What role will lawyers need to play in the future if technology can take up most of their place?”

Again, this usually involves satisfying the aforementioned principles, albeit with less degree of control as you’re unable to pre-select a story that you’re comfortable with before you’re asked to comment. As a result, it’s absolutely critical that your commercial acumen is as up to date as it can be if you get invited to an interview. Headline-worthy topics – historically things like Brexit, covid-19, cryptocurrency investment and notable election results – are fundamental talking points that you must have a basic level of understanding of, as it’s very likely firms might ask for you to ‘commercially appraise’ the significance of these.

However, there is a possibility that firms will ask you to comment on something you perhaps haven’t read in a lot of – if any – detail. Don’t be tempted to try and bluff a level of understanding above the one you have, as you never know whether the interviewer practices (or worse, manages) in that area of law and is a resident expert within the firm.

Instead, initially caveat your answer by briefly outlining your level of understanding and then give a reasoned, structured argument that extrapolates based on any relevant knowledge you might have on other ancillary areas. For example, you might draw similar comparisons to other news stories you’re more comfortable with, or perhaps try to identify whether the ‘big issue’ is part of a trend of events or a significant turning point. Such questions are designed to evaluate whether you have a basic understanding of how key stakeholders would respond to certain situations, rather than expecting you to walk into an interview as a go-to expert on every topic imaginable.

Case study interviews – indirect testing

The case study interview – like the rest of the examples hereafter in this article – is an example of firms ‘indirectly testing’ candidates throughout their recruitment process. What I mean by this is that a recruiter will be less likely to directly ask you “What’s the commercial significance or element to be aware of in your answer?”. Instead, firms will look to ‘litmus test’ their candidates for commercial awareness. In practice, this means using any outside knowledge you might have to inform your approach to analysing the problem in front of you and effectively relaying that to the recruiter.

For example, in my Baker McKenzie interview, I was asked to comment on a situation where a company’s board were concerned about the significance of changes in their share pricing and what ramifications it might have on other proposals they were considering. At the time of interview, Elon Musk had recently caused a furore on Twitter (and in the financial markets) by declaring that Tesla had secured private funding to buy out shares in his company at a value significantly above the share pricing at the time of his tweet.

In order to link the Tesla story with the one in front of me, I first explained how it was relevant to the situation at hand with a brief overview. Then, I extracted the ‘key takeaway’ of the incident – namely that companies must be careful about making such declarations and abiding by the relevant regulations. After a few follow-up questions by the interviewers to ensure I had a substantiated level of understanding about the topic, I moved on to discuss other areas.

The above is an example of satisfying the minimal two-part test any lawyer must be aware of when giving advice:

  • Legally, can we do X, Y or Z?
  • Commercially, out of X, Y, or Z, what are the appropriate options and what are their strengths?

Group exercises – client-first thinking

In a similar vein to the above case study, group exercises will often have a client-centric focus to them. Candidates will often be asked to evaluate certain proposals in light of client requirements and either come to an agreement together or negotiate their respective client’s interests against each other. Again, be sure to satisfy the two-part commerciality test outlined above and to use outside knowledge where it is relevant. Almost every element of any advice or proposal you give should fundamentally meet or assist a client’s need. Doing so successfully will help you stand out against other candidates.

Presentations – your ability to give advice

Finally, while presentations can be less common than the other examples in this article, they are a great way for firms to test your commercial awareness alongside your general public speaking, presentation and communication skills. Firms may ask you to prepare a topic in advance, or instead give you a short period of time to select a topic and prepare a 15-minute presentation. In some cases, firms may allow you to choose any topic you like. Selecting a non-commercial story, such as your interest in a certain sport or hobby, clearly does not warrant much ‘commercial’ thinking, but rather an ability to explain concepts clearly and deliver key points with clarity. However, should you choose a commercial topic, it is still important to demonstrate its commercial significance even if you’re not directly asked to.

As you can hopefully tell from the examples above, firms will often blend direct and indirect forms of testing for commercial awareness throughout their recruitment process. It’s vital you ensure your knowledge and understanding is as up to date as it can be before you reach the interview or assessment centre stage so that you can leverage and demonstrate your outside knowledge to its fullest extent.