10 top tips on how to develop your commercial awareness

‘Commercial awareness’ is a phrase you will hear a lot when researching law firms, especially City and international firms. Commercial awareness essentially means an understanding of how businesses operate and what are is currently going on in the business world. When it comes to applying for training contracts, to demonstrate commercial awareness you will need to show that you understand how law firms interact with other industries.

1) Read the news

The news provides context to the legal advice a solicitor may have to provide to a client. You should read the business section of a quality newspaper on a daily basis in order to ensure that you know the latest deals and disputes occurring across the world, as well as the latest government policies being implemented. To further boost your understanding, read the newspaper editorials and opinion pieces so that you can formulate your own view on the latest commercial affairs taking place.

2) Undertake non-legal work

Don’t underestimate the power of a part-time job. Working in a shop, restaurant or call centre or anywhere that leads to direct contact with customers/clients and management will improve your commercial awareness. You will be able to better understand a client’s needs and expectations, as well as the important decisions management have to take in order to meet them.

3) Attend firm open days

A firm open day can often be the best way to find out what particular deals a firm is working on. At such events lawyers are often willing to discuss the work they have recently done, as well as the challenges they faced. This affords you an insight into the commercial world from the perspective of someone working on the front line. Sometimes a firm will host a panel discussion or talk which is themed around a particular topic or sector. At events such as these you can often gain more insight than would be obtained simply from reading the newspapers.

4) Research the firm you are applying to

Research the structure of a firm. Undertaking such research enables you to learn more about the practices of a firm. Remember that law firms are businesses, too and their working methods are likely to be, in principle, replicated by companies working in other sectors. If you do find differences in working practices between companies then you will be in a better position to explain how a firm should operate and distinguish itself from its competitors, impressing interviewers.

5) Find aspects of the business world that interest you

Follow a market or sector that interests you by reading specialist and trade publications. Most firms specialise, or have an especially strong reputation, in a particular sector or area of law. Therefore, conduct a thorough analysis of that sector, the major companies in the market and how they differentiate between themselves as well as the challenges they may face in the future. Make sure to undertake such research over a sustained period of time. Interviewers can easily identify those candidates who may have swotted up on a particular topic just the night before.

6) Brush up on basic numeracy skills

Good numeracy skills are often underestimated by potential applicants. Most assessment centres and interviews will involve at least one question requiring some numerical calculation. Remember the deals which firms work on involve big numbers, so failing to solve a simple maths problem can put off interviewers.

7) Join a business society

Joining a business- or enterprise-based student society is an easy way to gain access to firm presentations and company workshops. Such societies often organise entrepreneurial activities, be that through a ‘negotiations competition’ or a Dragon’s Den style project pitch. These types of activities can help you get into the mindset of pitching to clients and meeting client expectations. You will often find that negotiation activities make up an important part of a vacation scheme or an assessment day too, so the more practice you get beforehand, the better.

8) Gain a position of responsibility

Take on a position of responsibility, either as a committee member of a student society or as a volunteer. University societies are often run like small companies, requiring internal management, providing services for members and liaising with external organisations in order to negotiate venues or sponsorship deals. Working within a society can help you develop the communication and analytical skills necessary to work in a commercially-orientated organisation.

9) Undertake sector-related work experience

Before applying to a firm, you should develop commercial awareness in the particular sector or area of law the firm specialises in. For instance, if you want to apply to a firm specialising in financial services, it’s important to have  knowledge of the financial sector. Working in a high street retail bank, an insurance company or in an accountancy firm could give you an insight into the industry.

10) Don’t overthink it

It’s important that you don’t undertake all these activities as a simple tick-box exercise. If you don’t have time to do all of the above (students and career changers tend to have busy schedules!),  focusing on some of these activities and completing them to a high standard will ensure that you’re in a strong position to explain them at your interview.