Commercial nous: how I developed mine and why you should work on yours

Isla Grant - Commercial nous: how I developed mine and why you should work on yours

I won’t lie to you: I cannot claim to know huge amounts about the complex world of business, but prodded into action by my involvement with CityLawLIVE and NationalLawLIVE, I know a lot more since I first started putting together LawCareers.Net’s weekly commercial round-up. I’d hope that you recognise my motivation to try and improve my commercial understanding as similar to your own; the earlier you start and the more often you do it, the better at it you will become.

How I put it together

The Thursday commercial news round-up is primarily a collection of that week’s tweets from @CityLawLIVE. As such, it all starts with a daily commitment to look at the business pages of the BBC, the Guardian, The Economist and other online sources. I try to work out which are the top stories and identify those that may have implications for the wider business community and, by extension, its legal advisers. For example, Brexit is the obvious topic at the moment – whether the UK stays in or leaves the EU is the main story on the business pages, with comment and conjecture from all sides. Regulatory matters also slot in here – for example, the Competition and Markets Authority recently warned cloud storage providers that they must treat consumers more fairly when it comes to pricing.

I also look for big deals that are being reported, such as the recent $5.2 billion purchase of Anacor by Pfizer, or the blocked takeover of O2 by Three. Another important thread is the way individual UK businesses are performing. I often include links to news about supermarkets and other big high street retailers, as their successes or failures often seem to make a broader statement about the economy as a whole. Sports Direct and BHS are two big names that have been in the headlines over the past couple of months for their respective spectacular unravelling.

Why it’s worth it for you

None of the above takes much in the way of time – 15 minutes a day, maybe – but it has proved to be a crucial way for me to learn more about the business world. The aim of this not-very-onerous research is to understand broad themes, not just facts. Being able to talk about topics in a way that shows you have an understanding of underlying themes and how they relate to one another, and the legal world, is impressive and sought after. It is hard to define what being ‘commercially aware’ really means, but we do know that firms want to see it embodied in their lawyers.

Having said that, you don’t need to turn up as a new trainee on day one as the finished article – firms would prefer to mould and shape you! – but you have to at least have an interest in the business world and the gumption to keep up with the big stories. It helps you to understand the world better and, practically, helps you to answer questions at interview or when you’re out networking.

Why firms are keen on it

More than ever, lawyers are much more than legal advisers – they’re also business advisers and analysts. Law firms need their lawyers to connect with clients, advise them practically and effectively, and hold on to them. Because don’t forget, law firms are businesses too. So for a firm to thrive, it has to retain its existing clients and attract new ones, and the solidity or otherwise of the relationships formed and advice given will dictate whether those clients stay or take their business elsewhere.

Of course lawyers need to know the law and how to apply it, but they also need to have a strong commercial sense and judge when a practical solution may be more important to a client than getting the most legally correct outcome. For example, it could be that pursuing a claim through the courts is not best way to proceed.

Where to look

The obvious way to kickstart things is to follow some of the many excellent online resources and commentators (the BBC’s Kamal Ahmed or ITV’s Robert Peston are good examples) on Twitter as way of getting a quick idea of what’s happening each day. Specific online resources include The Economist, which takes a global perspective and isn’t written in too impenetrable a way. There is normally a paywall, although there may be a student subscription and some material is designated ‘free to read’, and there is now a daily section called “The Economist Explains” – not always economics-related, but it is frequently updated and often relevant.

Other resources include:

  • The Today Programme on Radio 4 – Change your morning habits and listen to this on Radio 4 (or catch up on iPlayer if you must). It touches on the key stories of the day – be they to do with politics or business, or economic, societal, domestic or international issues – in an intelligent manner, with great interviewees.
  • The Bottom Line – Presented by Evan Davis, this is a really interesting radio show which brings together business leaders, from all different industries and sectors, and dissects how they make decisions.
  • Question Time and Newsnight – Not only will you tap into some of the big issues of the day, you will get a master class in the way people present their ideas and themselves, helping you to you understand how to handle group exercises or how to behave at assessment centres. For example, take note of which panellists are annoying (interrupting others, not listening) and which are good (present clear arguments in a well-structured manner and stick to their point of view).

As I say, little and often is the key, so building this kind of research into your day is the way to slowly (and painlessly) understand more and immerse yourself in the themes and ideas of the business world.

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