updated on 08 August 2023
Commercial awareness is one of the key skills that law firms look for in future trainees so taking the time to build yours is essential to becoming a lawyer.
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Being a commercially aware candidate means understanding the environment in which law firms and their clients operate. As a lawyer, you’ll need commercial awareness as well as legal skills to help both your employer and your clients achieve their goals.
Commercial awareness is an important skill across the whole legal profession, not just in the corporate world. For example, to be a successful private client lawyer, you must understand clients are business owners themselves.
What's commercial awareness?
There are two layers to commercial awareness:
Understanding clients’ organisations and the markets they operate in enables lawyers to provide quality advice that helps the client to achieve its aims. In today’s legal world, lawyers are trusted business advisers, expected to be constantly alert to not only risks, but innovative solutions that’ll benefit their clients. This is why lawyers were the first ones to be called when the government announced Brexit and when the covid-19 pandemic broke out.
Commercially aware candidates also appreciate that the law firms they’re applying to are commercial enterprises. Whichever area of law you decide to go into, you must demonstrate that you can help to drive your firm’s business forward.
As an aspiring lawyer, you must understand the importance of client relationships and the need for businesses to be cost effective. Make a habit of reading the business and politics sections of high-quality news sources to improve your grasp of the issues. Try to apply the PESTLE analysis technique when delving into news stories.
Read LCN’s ‘Wrestle with PESTLE’ article on the UK strikes to see this technique in action.
Key commercial awareness issues to understand
There are things that you can do to accelerate your level of understanding. It’s important to focus on the word 'awareness' and not mistake it for 'exhaustive knowledge'.
Remember that you’re going to be a trainee and aren’t expected to know everything about the law firm or its clients’ businesses from day one.
However, a last-minute skim of the Financial Times before your interview isn’t enough. Get yourself into a routine of following the business news; it’s useful to be aware of any patterns, trends or how wider economic conditions might affect a particular sector. A routine will enable you to develop genuine interest that’ll build on your ability to spot trends. In short, you’ll take on the media habits of a good professional before you become one.
LCN is a great place to start. You should read our weekly commercial news round-up, as well as our explainers of key commercial awareness issues, written by lawyers in the Commercial Question section.
This Feature identifies the trending commercial issues to know about in 2023. And there are insightful podcasts, videos, blogs and more on the Commercial awareness hub, sponsored by Mayer Brown International LLP.
Here are some good places to develop your commercial awareness:
Radio and podcasts
|LawCareers.Net’s COMMERCIAL CONNECT podcast||LawCareers.Net’s Niamh Gray breaks down trending commercial issues to boost aspiring lawyers’ commercial mindset, highlighting key talking points for those all-important training contract and vacation scheme interviews.|
|Today programme on BBC Radio 4||Today is the most influential news programme in the UK and sets the day’s political agenda each morning. If you want to quickly build awareness of current affairs in politics, business and society, then listen to this.|
|World at One on BBC Radio 4||One of BBC Radio 4’s main flagship news and current affairs programmes.|
|PM on BBC Radio 4||A probing look at the day’s issues – excellent analysis and interviews with leading figures.|
|FT News Briefing podcast||A rundown of the most important global business news stories every weekday morning direct from the newsroom of the Financial Times.|
|Business Daily podcast||BBC World Service’s daily podcast on the world of money and work from across the globe.|
|The Economist podcast||This podcast offers solid coverage on current affairs, business and finance, science and technology, and global issues.|
|Channel 4 News||The hour-long show allows time for special reports to explain issues more deeply – by far the best news journalism on British TV.|
|BBC 1 and 2||The BBC’s business and economics team contributes regularly to BBC News and also has blogs and stories on the BBC website. The BBC also makes some good one-off documentaries/short series about world economics and business.|
|Bloomberg TV||Bloomberg West is a tech-tastic show, offering all the news from Silicon Valley.|
|Lexology||Lexology, the intelligent global legal research platform, provides easy access to forward-looking analysis, expert guidance and intuitive tools, helping you stay abreast of change and respond quickly and accurately to legal questions from around the world. It publishes in excess of 40 articles every day from over 900 leading law firms and service providers worldwide across 50 work areas in 25 languages.|
|The Economist||Try discounted trial or student subscription for full access, or choose your limited free reads carefully. The app is free to download.|
|The Times||Behind a paywall. The Brief is a daily law newsletter that's sent by email.|
|Financial Times||Also behind a paywall. Good international features and interesting opinion pieces.|
|Guardian||The Guardian law section used to be very well regarded, although there are claims of a slip in quality since it lost its dedicated team of writers. But there’s no paywall!|
|Reuters||Heavy on the financial markets and good for fast news reports.|
|Wall Street Journal||Interesting to read about European issues from another perspective.|
|BBC News website||Pitches many stories at the non-expert in a clear and helpful manner.|
|LCN’s Commercial Connect newsletter||
LawCareers.Net’s monthly commercial newsletter summarises the latest commercial awareness content from the site, including Commercial Questions written by leading law firms, blog posts and LCN Says articles from external contributors, as well as tips and advice to help you develop your business acumen.
|Finimize||A free daily email that summarises the top financial news in three minutes. Great for those who just want to get the gist of the big stories.|
Following law firms, journalists, political commentators, and publications’ business or law-specific Twitter accounts (eg, @ComAware_4S and @BBCBusiness) on social media can help to keep you up-to-date with the latest events and analysis in bitesize chunks. There are also several accounts run by students for aspiring lawyers.
Use your commercial experience
Consider your employment history and see whether you can identify any previous examples of commercial work experience. For example, have you worked in a service environment (eg, a shop or bar), interacting with customers or clients? Did you gain insight into how the business you were working within was run? Have you ever undertaken a specific project or devised a solution to a business problem? Was there a particular challenge you had to overcome?
It’s not only your employment history that counts as commercial work experience. Positions of leadership and responsibility can also demonstrate that you have the necessary skills. Did you belong to any societies at university and, if so, what was your role? For example, if you were the treasurer of a sports club, this can be used to demonstrate your ability to manage finances and budgets.
Not-for-profit work can also demonstrate commercial awareness as, depending on your role, you may have been involved in promoting events or persuading companies to sponsor you or provide free products. These activities help to show that you understand basic business processes. Working in the family business or setting up and managing your own business, on Depop for example, can all point to a commercial mindset, as there’s no better way to understand the fundamentals of a business than by running one.
Read ‘Understanding gen-Z lawyers and their influence on hiring trends in law’ for a commercial insight on the legal hiring market.
Alternative ways to unlock your commercial awareness
You may want to build your commercial skills with new work experiences before you become a lawyer. Consider the area of law you wish to practise, the type of firm you want to work in and any skills you may be lacking. Next, work out where you could gain the skills that may be relevant to the firm of your choice. For example, if you’re interested in banking or corporate finance, then consider gaining experience in a corporate setting (eg, an accountancy firm or a tax office).
Commercial thinking can be developed in any employment setting, particularly if your role allows you access to the rationale for decisions made by your employer. For example, in the publishing industry, you might learn about the challenges faced by legacy media in light of the growth of social media. If you work in retail, arranging delivery and writing trade reports could develop your understanding of, seasonal demand or just-in-time purchasing principles.
Another option is to consider the types of client that you’d be dealing with in a corporate law firm and try to gain some experience with them (eg, in a bank or financial institution). If you can gain insight into how potential clients run their businesses, this’ll be a strong selling point at the interview stage.
Alternatively, think about how a corporate firm is run and the skills you need to work there (ie, working on large complex deals as part of a large team). Ultimately, what matters is that you learn about and understand the environments you work in. Even positions that appear low level can produce great commercial insight. It just depends on your mindset and how well you can showcase your business knowledge to a potential recruiter.
For more on developing commercial awareness, head to LawCareers.Net’s Commercial awareness hub page. There you’ll find our weekly commercial news round-ups, in-depth features, commercial case study podcast episodes, videos and more advice on developing this crucial skill.
And if you’re signed up to LawCareers.Net, you’ll automatically receive our monthly commercial awareness newsletter, Commercial Connect.
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