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A guide to commercial awareness

updated on 16 March 2021

Commercial awareness is one of the key skills that law firms look for in future trainees – taking time to build yours is an essential part of the process of becoming a lawyer.

Being a commercially aware candidate means understanding the environment in which law firms and their clients operate. As a lawyer, you will 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 the corporate world. For example, to be a successful private client lawyer, you must understand clients who are themselves business owners.

What is commercial awareness?

There are two sides to commercial awareness – understanding your clients’ businesses and understanding the law firm itself as a business.

Understanding clients’ organisations and the markets they operate in enables lawyers to provide quality advice that helps the client achieve their aims. In today’s legal world, lawyers are trusted business advisers, expected to constantly be alert to not only risks, but innovative solutions that will benefit their clients.

Commercially aware candidates also appreciate that the law firms they are 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 need to 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.

Key commercial awareness issues to understand

There are things that you can do to help increase your levels of understanding. It is important to focus on the word 'awareness' and not mistake it for 'exhaustive knowledge'. Remember that you are going to be a trainee and are not 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 is not enough. Get yourself into a routine of following the business news and wider events, and stick to it. This enables you to develop genuine interest and the ability to spot trends. In short, you will 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 themselves in the Commercial Question section.

This feature explains 19 commercial awareness issues to be aware of in 2021. And there are insightful podcasts, videos, blogs and more over on the commercial awareness hub.

Here are some good places to start learning:

Radio and podcasts

Today programme on BBC R4

Today is the most influential news programme in the United Kingdom 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 R4

One of BBC R4’s main flagship news and current affairs programmes, along with Today and PM.

PM on BBC R4

A probing look at the day’s issues – excellent analysis and interviews with leading figures.

The World of Business podcast

Insights into the business world from Radio 4’s In Business programme. 

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.

Economist Radio podcast

This podcast offers solid coverage on current affairs, business and finance, science and technology, and global issues.


TV


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.

BBCs 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. Tune in to The Andrew Marr Show on Sundays for interviews with leading figures from politics and business (or its ITV weeknight rival, Peston). The Beeb also makes some good one-off documentaries/short series about world economics and business.

Bloomberg TV

Bloomberg West is a tech-tastic one-hour show, offering all the news from Silicon Valley.


Press


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 Times Law supplement is published on Thursdays and you can sign up for their daily law newsletter which is sent by email.

Financial Times

Paywall (can read some material free). 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, but this can be really helpful.

Other

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.

Social media

Following law firms, journalists, political commentators, and publications’ business or law-specific Twitter accounts (eg, @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 that you had to overcome?

It is not only your employment history that counts as commercial work experience. Positions of 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 be used to 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 within the family business or setting up and managing your own business (including online) can all point to commercial nous, as there is no better way to understand the fundamentals of a business than by running one.

New experiences

You may want to build your commercial skills with new work experiences before you become a lawyer. Consider what area of law you wish to practise, the type of firm you want to work in and which 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 are 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, logistics or warehousing during your holidays, you could develop an understanding of, seasonal  demand or just-in-time purchasing principles.

Another option is to consider the types of client that you would be dealing with in a corporate law firm and try to gain some experience (eg, in a bank or financial institution). If you can gain insight into how potential clients run their businesses, this will be a strong selling point at the interview stage. Alternatively, think about how a corporate firm is run and the skills you would 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 which appear to be at a very low level can produce great commercial insight. It just depends which way you look at it and how well you can explain your understanding to a potential recruiter.

For more on developing commercial awareness, head to LawCareers.Net’s commercial hub page. There you’ll find our weekly commercial news round-ups, in-depth features, commercial case study videos and more advice on developing this crucial skill.