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LCN Says

Commercial awareness in practice: a law firm recruitment perspective

updated on 17 October 2023

In this LCN Says, we speak to Kieran Bennett and Isabella Aridas from Mayer Brown International LLP all about commercial awareness from a recruiter’s perspective. Read on for insights into how the firm assesses commercial awareness, Kieran and Isabella’s tips for aspiring lawyers and the trainee’s role in business development at the firm.

What does commercial awareness mean to Mayer Brown?

At Mayer Brown we recognise that developing commercial awareness is something that all our fee earners – from trainees to partners – have to continuously invest in. In order to successfully advise our clients, our lawyers need to develop a deep and meaningful understanding of the sectors they operate in, their strategic aims, and potential challenges they might face. A great applicant should demonstrate an intellectual curiosity in the work we do, showcase their knowledge and understanding of how a law firm operates as a business, and show genuine enthusiasm for building commercial awareness from day one!

How do you assess commercial awareness during the recruitment process?

We look at commercial awareness at every stage of the recruitment process at Mayer Brown. On the application form itself, there are no specific questions addressing commercial awareness – instead it’s looked at holistically, for example, when reviewing an applicant’s work experience or wider interests. Throughout the assessment centre and during the training contract interview, candidates can share their knowledge about the business and our practice group offering, and bring in wider market knowledge. Candidates will complete a fact-find assessment and a group exercise as part of the assessment centre and we consider it key that applicants bring in their wider understanding of what’s going on in the economy.

So, although there are no specific questions in the early stages of the application process, we want to see your commercial awareness coming through naturally. This helps us to find candidates who are genuinely interested and motivated in continuously developing their knowledge.

How can going on a vacation scheme help applicants understand the importance of commercial awareness?

Our vacation scheme is a fantastic way for candidates to develop their commercial awareness as they’ll be immersed in the firm and get hands-on experience of the work we do. It’s a great opportunity to have conversations with partners, associates and trainees to understand the deals we’re working on – as well as all the background work that goes into it.

Plus, you can bring your own theoretical commercial awareness into a law firm setting. You might already have ideas and areas of interest that you’ve read or written about but, during the scheme, you’ll be challenged on your thinking, working out how things relate and learning how to justify your arguments.

We also run some great presentations and workshops during the scheme including one session delivered by our business development team which is all about how law firms grow, generate revenue and the importance of understanding client needs. We explain what’s meant by premium work for premium clients which is a first-hand, rich and unique insight into Mayer Brown’s strategy for maintaining and winning new business.

In terms of Mayer Brown as a law firm, what do you expect students to know about the business?

Candidates should understand our practice group offering and demonstrate knowledge of the firm’s key focus areas and department. They should also have an awareness of recent big deals or cases that the firm’s worked on, and know that we’re an international law firm, not just US, which is a common misconception!

Beyond our legal capabilities and the operational side of things, it’s also important to understand Mayer Brown’s working environment, culture and how we build authentic relationships at work. Things like our diversity and inclusion employee networks and commitment to pro bono are good to research and speak about during the application process. Much of this information is available online and via social media.

How involved are trainees in business development? What should students know before applying?

Lawyers are involved in business development throughout their career journeys at Mayer Brown. We believe that business development isn’t just for the partners and senior stakeholders; it’s at every level. Our business development team is keen to emphasise that Mayer Brown doesn’t have just one relationship with its clients, it’s built up of all the smaller relationships between individual people.

We have a great initiative at the firm called NextGen, which is inspired by the firm’s associates and trainees who invite the next generation and their peers to connect and network at events, so that they can get to know each other and build relationships across a variety of sectors. This means that in five to 10 years’ time, when they’re at the more senior end, they’ll have those valuable connections to bring in new business.

We’d also say that networking begins before you’ve even started your legal career! Staying in touch with your peers at law school, student law society members or even other applicants you’ve met at vacation schemes or open days can be useful later down the line.

How much detail are applicants expected to know when they speak about commercial issues?

Our advice is always that if candidates are going to talk about what’s happening in the world and bring in their own commercial awareness throughout the recruitment process, it’s important to speak about things that they’re genuinely interested in. You need to have a genuine understanding of a topic so that you can bring it naturally into conversation, rather than just demonstrating a surface level knowledge.

Of course, we don’t expect candidates to know everything that’s happening in the political or economic space, but we also don’t want them just to use buzzwords because they think they should. Remember, you’ll be speaking to experts in these areas so you could get caught out if you’re not confident in your understanding.

What are the current hot topics you’d expect students to be following?

We don’t have a list of specific hot topics we expect candidates to discuss. Instead, you should make sure you talk about recent and relevant topics to show that you’re staying up to date. We’d encourage you to begin to ask yourself, when reading the news or engaging with current affairs: ‘how is this going to affect my clients as a lawyer?’

What are your top tips for students to develop their commercial awareness at an early stage?

Listen to podcasts, read the news, and stay in touch with what’s going on via LinkedIn and social media. Be authentic and have a genuine curiosity in the world around you. It’s a good idea to build commercial awareness into your day – for example, when you’re on a train journey or walking to work, you could listen to a business podcast. You’ll start picking things up without even realising!

Nowadays it’s not just about reading the Financial Times;  there are so many new ways to absorb information for younger generations. We also suggest making the most of your student law society at university – it’s beneficial to be around like-minded people.  

What resources do lawyers at the firm use to keep up with commercial issues?

There are regular internal emails that update us on industry alerts: big deals that are happening in the City, including a breakdown of the different legal areas and sectors, things you can expect our competitors, and our clients, to be talking about. These bitesized snippets of information make it easier to stay up to date. But, of course, part of your job as a commercial lawyer is to ensure you’re staying knowledgeable on these sorts of things.

Do you have any resources you recommend students use?

As sponsor of LawCareers.Net’s Commercial awareness hub, we really recommend students use this fantastic resource. It contains a range of valuable information, from weekly commercial news round-ups, to monthly COMMERCIAL CONNECT podcast episodes and plenty of articles and blog posts on developing and demonstrating your commercial awareness.

Additionally, open days at law firms are a great way to gain insights into commercial awareness in practice. Again, we’d also recommend utilising your university’s student law society as your peers can be a great resource. Make sure to follow law firms on social media and on LinkedIn – this’ll help you see commercial and business news in your social feeds.

Kieran Bennett (he/him) is graduate recruitment & development assistant and Isabella Aridas (she/her) is graduate recruitment & development advisor at Mayer Brown International LLP.