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LCN Says

A guide to commercial awareness

updated on 06 April 2022

Reading time: six minutes

A student law society plays a vital role in getting your feet through the employability door, in particular the commercial awareness aspect of it. Commercial awareness is a skill that many students have difficulty grasping, but they need to understand that it takes time to develop. You will not find a single article out there that will make you ‘commercially aware’ instantly after reading it. All you need to do is take the first step: just get started.

What is commercial awareness and why is it important?

‘Commercial awareness’ is an umbrella term for the understanding of how businesses and industries work. It is the ability to analyse contemporaneous events and connect its impact to firms, sectors or companies.

It is a key skill that is tested and expected in most industries, but it is essential for those wanting to pursue a career in law, finance, banking or accountancy. For example, if you are thinking about a career in law you will obviously need to know how the legal system operates, but it’s also important that you can think even wider:

  • How do firms work as a business?
  • Who are the major players in transactional deals?
  • What recent environmental, social and governance changes might have impacted the industry and what are the potential implications of these changes?

Aspiring lawyers must remember that law firms are, first and foremost, businesses. When they look for prospective talent, they look for an investment. Firms are expecting to raise you into future partners and take the firm to even greater heights than what the firm has hit at the time of the current application cycle. Consequently, firms are likely to test your knowledge of the sector in which it operates by tasking you with critical thinking activities in applications, psychometric tests, and always in video interviews and assessment centres.

More generally, commercial awareness is a skill that tests your ability to analyse context, which reflects the expectations of a lawyer in practice. Anybody can pick up a statute book, revise it, and subsequently hand out direct advice to anyone on the provisions they have memorised. However, a good lawyer knows that client advice cannot operate in a vacuum. Any advice that a good lawyer will give will be evaluated within the framework of the particular context the client finds themselves in and the business objectives the client wants to achieve. In order to provide this advice, commercial awareness is absolutely necessary. 

Applying this to the application process, whether your interview involves a case study or not, there will at least be one question where the firm is expecting you to correlate your answer with knowledge of current affairs, market trends and prospective regulatory changes. Most members of graduate recruitment will tell you to apply the SWOT and PESTLE techniques which are great to begin with, and it shows to an interviewing partner that you are approaching the question with a viable method to problem solving.


How to improve your commercial awareness

This is probably the most difficult aspect of the journey to becoming commercially aware. The first thing I would recommend is to stay switched on and up to date. I know that during university life, with looming deadlines, that staying aware of the news and legal changes can be onerous and laborious, but the variety of resources available in today’s age definitely makes the job easier.

You do not have to read the Financial Times or the Economist every single day, for example. Podcasts in particular have become more popular in recent years and are easy to access.

For the top 15 podcasts LawCareers.Net thinks all students should listen to, read this LCN Says.

For general knowledge, you do not necessarily need to go any further than outlets like BBC News, the Guardian and LinkedIn. For more in-depth legal-specific stories, I would recommend using CITY A.M and LawCareers.Net. And for the true commercial veterans out there, the Economist and Financial Times are of course great.

Resources that I have found invaluable over the course of this year are newsletters. LawCareers.Net gives you the opportunity to sign up to the LCN Weekly email for example, which features a summary of the key stories of the week (among many other useful articles and videos). If you prefer something smaller, signing up to daily newsletters like the ‘Morning Brew’ will provide you with bitesize summaries of commercial stories. If you want something more complex, Matt Levine’s ‘Money Stuff’ makes for a very intriguing read.

You should also watch out for LawCareers.Net’s newly-launched Commercial Connect newsletter which will land in your inbox on the first Friday of every month for a host of sources designed to support you and your commercial learning. Register for a free MyLCN account to ensure you don’t miss out!

What is most important though is finding something that works for you and helps you to proactively engage in critical thinking. You should also find resources that interest you. The commercial world is extensive and offers great flexibility on the stories you can read. There is nothing wrong with reading the stories that interest you the most first.

It should also be known that skilling up is not an individual endeavour, your university’s law society is there to support you and provide you with opportunities to develop your commercial awareness. I would encourage everyone to get involved in any firm events your society hosts, especially during application season as there will inevitably be a discussion on commercial awareness and how you can improve it.

Head to LawCareers.Net’s Events page for a list of webinars, workshops and more!

There are of course many more resources available than what I have mentioned in this article, but whatever it is that you pick, the key to becoming commercially aware is to stay consistent and truly engage in the reading.

Advice for future societies

At Manchester University Law Society, we made it our mission this year to focus on commercial awareness. To make the process more member-friendly and easier for students to feel engaged, we have held student-to-student workshops this year, which were designed to break down everything commercial awareness. This also formed the foundations of our four-round commercial awareness competition, which focused on developing our members’ critical thinking and the ability to pay attention to detail.

We also tried something new this year: complementing our blog is a weekly commercial newsletter written by myself, which focuses on not only current affairs issues, but past commercial events that still affect business today. I cannot vouch enough for all societies to follow a similar plan to this as it not only introduces members to commercially awareness casually, but also allows them to realise their strengths and weaknesses, so they can build on them accordingly.

Declan Larkin is the careers officer at Manchester University Law Society – the society won the award for Best society for commercial awareness at the 2022 Student Law Society Awards. For a full list of winners, read this News story