Demystifying commercial awareness for law students
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Commercial awareness: the skill all law students must show!
The Cambridge Business English Dictionary defines commercial awareness as "the knowledge of how businesses make money, what customers want, and what problems there are in a particular area of business." In other words, it means understanding the business environment within which a law firm and its clients operate. Whichever area of law you decide to go into, you will need to demonstrate you are commercially aware to convince law firms that you can drive their business forward (beyond just securing your training contract).
Thus, it’s important to stay up to speed with the latest developments in the areas of law or business that interest you. However, improving your commercial awareness needn’t mean slaving away over the Financial Times (FT) on a daily basis. In my view, the trick is to diversify the way you approach commercial awareness to ensure you remain interested and split the news into more manageable chunks.
Here are a few tips I have found useful.
Take out a subscription
This is a cost-efficient way of gaining some really in-depth knowledge in particular areas of law, especially in the lead up to interviews for vacation schemes or training contracts. Start to develop your commercial awareness by subscribing to law journals, financial reports, websites and blogs.
Here are a few offers that are around at the moment:
Newspaper clipping challenge
Find an article and read it. Then challenge yourself to summarise it in one or two minutes (timed!). You could do this in front of the mirror or with a fellow aspiring solicitor! This is an effective way of testing yourself to see how much information your brain has retained – before you know it your brain will be trained to do this automatically.
Clever use of apps
Utilise news sites such as the BBC, the FT, The Economist or Bloomberg to keep yourself updated on the go.
The BBC is an excellent source of all kinds of news – general and business. There is a dedicated business section and a helpful section in 'Business News' which focuses on a current story and analyses it in a question-and-answer format.
The FT is one of the world’s leading business news; its full range of optimized mobile and tablet apps gives you constant access to award-winning global news, comment, data and analysis.
The Economist is well-known for its comprehensive website packed with lots of different news section.
Bloomberg’s website is full of detailed financial information on organisations, with access to the News section on their site.
If you have the BBC app on your phone or laptop, for example, you can edit the headings you have at the top of the app to make it bespoke to your interests. So, you could, for example, add in the following tabs:
- Transport/Energy/Infrastructure/Life Sciences
This means you can easily flick through the top stories in the business world before you go to sleep or while on the tube. Another trick is to change your internet browser’s homepage to a news page such as the BBC or The Guardian – even if you don’t have time to read the article, keywords and headlines will stand out and stick in your mind.
If you want to be at the cutting edge of legal information and discussion, you should head over to Twitter. This is where you will find a wide range of lawyers from all fields, ranging from QCs to wannabe solicitors; academics to other professionals involved in the legal system, all engaged in discussions about the Law. Twitter is the place to catch breaking legal news before it hits mainstream media and it’s an excellent source of links to articles and blogs. Have a read of Bethany’s article on how to make the most of Twitter.
BBC Radio 4
The Today programme runs from 6:00am - 9:00am and usually features a really good round-up of the most important stories of the moment. Quite often they include legal and business issues. This is something you could have on in the background when you’re getting ready for a lecture. You’ll be surprised by how much information your brain is soaking up by simply having this play in the background.
Wake Up to Money is very good (and free!). It is an early morning financial radio programme on BBC Radio 5 Live, broadcast from 05:15am - 06:00am each weekday. The podcast provides you with news and view on business, the world of personal finance and the latest from the financial markets around the globe.
Law in Action is Joshua Rozenburg’s excellent Radio 4 show about the law; it tends to focus on public law, crime, policy, the courts and family law.
Commercial awareness is a key requirement if you want a job in law; it’s important that you can speak confidently about commercial and legal trends affecting law firms, their clients and the legal industry as a whole. Reading blogs is a great way of staying informed of current affairs and spotting themes and trends. You will eventually be able to see things from a business person’s perspective and develop a more connected understanding. Blogging has really helped me to keep up to date with what’s happening on the legal scene and prompted me to formulate opinions and ideas about business issues that interest me.
Here is a list of legal blogs I would recommend (besides law firms' blogs):
- LawCareers.Net - every year they publish ‘The commercial year’ which looks at key themes in the commercial world and provides pointers on how they are relevant to lawyers;
- Lawbore.net - the legal portal offers materials for study and ways to keep you up-to-date with what’s going on in the legal world beyond;
- Legal Cheek - they host commercial awareness question style events at law firms;
- Aspiring Solicitors - they hold commercial awareness competitions annually in the UK; and
- Finimize - subscribe to understand the commercial world within three minutes.
Legal blogs are an extremely efficient way of reinforcing your commercial awareness and legal knowledge, allowing you to gather information at your own pace. And who knows, maybe visiting will encourage you to contribute or begin your own blog!
Commercial awareness is not simply about acquiring a body of knowledge, but rather a continuous dynamic process of recognising what affects law firms and could do so in the future.
Eventually, you will be able to answer the following interview questions (designed to test your commercial awareness):
- What do you know about this company?
- What do you know about its competitors?
- How would you sell our company to a potential client?
- Tell me about a recent business story that took your interest.
- What are the greatest challenges facing the legal sector in the next five years?
Rome wasn’t built in a day; thus, it will take some time to build an understanding of the legal profession and you can’t achieve commercial awareness sitting behind a laptop, clicking from site to site. An efficient way to improve your commercial awareness is securing legal work experience, networking and connecting to people in the legal sphere. Good luck!