If you’re looking to break into the world of commercial law – or almost any client-facing role, really – commercial awareness is a critical skill that you’ll need to develop in order to excel. A lot of candidates often struggle to understand why it’s so important, which in turn can lead to a lack of appreciation as to how important it is before beginning the application process. This article aims to break down a few of the reasons you should keep your knowledge of recent events, business acumen and commercial thinking up to date.
Clients expect it, therefore lawyers use it
A common misconception about lawyers is that they’re just there for clients to help solve legal problems. Of course, this is a big part of what they do, but it’s not the entirety of their role. Clients don’t want their lawyer to just regurgitate case law or state what they found in their research – if they did, they’d probably try and Google the answer themselves. Instead, clients want commercial and concise advice that considers the full context behind their issue, their company/background, their industry, the counterparties involved and anything else that might affect their decision-making. I’ve referred to this in other articles as a ‘two-part commerciality test’ and it can be a great way to think about how lawyers give advice to clients (and, by extension, how you can answer case study interview questions):
By using their commercial awareness, lawyers can appreciate the full ‘bigger picture’ behind their client’s problem and as a result present all options and amend their advice accordingly. If you were asked to guess from several options what a jigsaw was depicting as it was being put together, you’d want as many pieces on the board to help you make that decision. Clients are no different! They want the full picture (pardon the pun) behind what you’re proposing as solutions to their problem and they want to know how you’ve accounted for their needs, budget, timelines and factors you’ve both deemed important when doing so.
It helps you stand out
The above paragraph makes the point that commercial awareness is indispensable to being a good commercial lawyer. However, like with all skills, there’s a huge learning curve to explore. There’s a big difference between knowing a few of the most recent headlines and being able to succinctly understand how trends of stories are developing across industries, for example.
Ideally, you want your commercial awareness to be more than just knowledge of recent stories and events – for example, it should also be a way of thinking, as well as a model of approach to problem-solving that you can use in as wide a variety of scenarios as possible. SWOT and PESTLE are often touted as good starting points to understand this concept and to have a go at practising it. If you can do this well enough, you’ll demonstrate to a recruiter that you have the inquisitive problem solving and critical thinking skills that the firm will be looking for in its lawyers.
It gets outdated – quickly
Like a lot of skills, it’s simply not enough to try and pick up commercial awareness for a month and then forget about it later on, for two reasons.
First, news stories and business developments can evolve at breath-taking speed. The covid-19 pandemic is a perfect example of how presumed patterns of behaviour and day-to-day norms can be turned upside down in an instant. While ‘big-ticket’ headline stories like these can be disruptive quickly, smaller, more niche developments will contribute towards cultural, economic and commercial shifts in the status quo. It’s imperative that you at least maintain your current level of awareness and understanding of recent events on a monthly basis so you don’t fall behind.
Second, commercial awareness takes time and effort to practice. No one is an expert at anything on their first try, so it’s good practice to familiarise yourself with basic concepts before major application windows roll around. You simply won’t have the time to pick up commercial acumen and its associated ways of thinking the week before your interview. Instead, get your reading and practice in early to not only give yourself more time to learn the requisite skills, but to also create a historical base of knowledge you can draw from to make comparisons later down the line.
Finally, like law degrees generally and other ‘legal skills’, commercial awareness is readily transferable to a number of other career paths, industries and roles. Even if you decide to move away from the corporate world later in your career, the analytical, problem-solving and critical thinking skills you’ll have picked up along the way may serve you well in your next role.
Given the above, don’t put off the importance of commercial awareness – ensure you give it the time and attention it demands prior to major application windows. You’ll need to have it in place before you apply and you’ll want it as a habit for your legal career long term.