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The buzz word of applications: 'commercial awareness'

The buzz word of applications: 'commercial awareness'

Northern Law Student


Reading time: four minutes

When I began applying for vacation schemes, questions about commercial awareness and how to demonstrate this scared me. For most applicants, it can send shivers down our spines as a well-educated solicitor asks us what we know about the commercial world and its implications for the future of the legal sector. 

I personally feel that a lot of this anxiety comes from a lack of understanding of what commercial awareness is. Let’s start with what it isn’t. It’s not purely about reading the newspaper every day from back to front, storing up statistics about how much the steel industry has suffered due to covid or how many days late supply chains have been made due to a lack of certain materials. Commercial awareness isn’t just showing that you’ve initiated a business project as a young entrepreneurial student and now know all about business accounts and the financial side of a business. 

These are all amazing things to talk about at interview and in an application form if they’re relevant to you. But if these things aren’t what you’re used to, there are much simpler ways to exemplify your knowledge of commercial awareness. 

For example, in a meeting I had with my mentor at the start of the last academic year, he asked: “What are you most worried about in this application process?” I replied, “my lack of commercial awareness” and his response changed my confidence level regarding this crucial skill. He explained that commercial awareness can be about how you decide to commute to university instead of living in the city because it allowed you to save money or explaining your process when weighing up the cost implications and benefits of where to live while studying. He also said that it can be about how you found ways to save for a large purchase like a car, why it was a worthwhile investment and how you handled the money saving process. These things that seem so small all demonstrate your knowledge of how current markets affect your own personal financial decisions. 

I now often wonder why I’d not thought of this before. The definition of commercial awareness in the Cambridge Business English Dictionary is: “The knowledge of how businesses make money, what customers want, and what problems there are in a particular area of business.” 

Check out the Commercial Question from LawCareers.Net, a weekly article written by a leading firm designed to get you thinking about commercial issues.

As a student, your knowledge on the inner workings of businesses will undoubtedly be limited. But what you’ll know, and what you’ll be able to talk about with confidence, is how this has been done on a smaller, individual level. The problems in the housing market for example may have affected your decision to commute to university, or the cost-of-living crisis may have meant that you didn’t want to pay out for rent and electricity bills. So, you analysed the market and placed your needs within this. As a solicitor, that’s what you will be doing for a client and so the exact same skills are needed. 

This knowledge filled me with confidence in my applications. I began to think of more examples to show my commercial awareness. What surprisingly came after this was an interest in current affairs and politics. When I stopped forcing myself to read newspapers cover to cover, and instead picked a paper up when I was in the supermarket for some reading on the train home, I started to enjoy engaging with what was going on in the world around me. I started to have conversations with friends about the daily political situation, and I learned another valuable lesson – don’t put so much pressure on yourself to learn everything about the news. It may mean that you stop enjoying, learning and engaging with it.

Commercial awareness requires an understanding of what’s happening globally, but also organically learning how to engage with these news outlets and the vast amount of news produced daily is a skill that comes with time. To start, pick up a newspaper when you feel like it and read a few articles that interest you, and maybe a few that you wouldn’t normally read. Slowly, your knowledge will increase, and I think you’ll find your interest will too. 

Commercial awareness is a skill that develops over time. You have the beginnings of it already and just need to understand what you’ve done to show it. A knowledge of current politics will help support this, but it’s a skill that progresses with time. As you qualify and progress in your legal career, you’ll understand what clients want and how to support them, but don’t expect to know it all now! Focus on what you know and what you’ve done instead.