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How to become commercially aware (and enjoy doing it)

Daphne McRae, LLB English and Law Student

Commercial awareness is the single biggest buzzword currently being used by law firms. Also known under various other guises such as commercial acumen and business sense, it’s possibly the most important quality firms look for in their prospective hires.

6 June 2016

As such, it’s an element that takes up (or should take up) a significant amount of law students’ time, and the earlier you start the better. Commercial awareness is the ability to understand a client’s business needs, the environment they operate in and the practical realities of what they do. In short, law firms expect candidates to have a well-informed interest in how the business world works and how lawyers fit into this. In my view, this can be undertaken in three steps.

The Immersion Phase

Far from being an obligation to read the FT cover to cover every day – you won’t understand a thing if you use that as a starting point and will get bored as a result – commercial awareness is a very practical concept. The key to fostering your own is to go out into the world and see for yourself what people are on about. By that I don’t just mean legal work experience. Every business uses lawyers in one form or another and inside knowledge on any one of a firm’s clients will always be valuable. In short, you need to immerse yourself in the business world.

I started off by tagging along to work with my dad one day. Although it was at a small mining company – not an obvious source of work experience – I ended up in the human resources department drafting employment contracts and secondment agreements. Not bad for a first year law student! I followed that up with a summer working at a charity which also happens to have a large investment portfolio. Financial institutions are some of law firms’ biggest clients and so although the experience had nothing to do with law, firms are super interested to hear about it.

The Broadening/Deepening Phase

So you’ve got work experience under your belt – you’ve got your commercial awareness sorted, right? If only it were that easy! Having that experience is an integral part of commercial awareness, but candidates also need to keep that knowledge current and expand on it. This is where the FT and other publications come in. Because of all that practical experience you’ve accrued, you’ve now got elements in there you can relate to. This is key: start by following stories you’ve got a connection to or specific interest in. Once you’re comfortable with that, you can move on to the more complex stuff. Just remember to be patient and take things slowly.

For me, the new world and language I discovered during my time in asset management led to a seemingly miraculous result: all of a sudden I could read and understand the FT. The best bit was that I even enjoyed doing so! I didn’t mind reading the papers because I was genuinely curious about what was going on. Things caught my eye and the more I read the more I began to understand. Soon I could talk about them for hours – pretty boring for my friends!

Once you realise the significance of business news stories in practice and how they affect us all, you’ll be intrigued to know how things pan out. Reading up on commercial issues and developing your awareness of them won’t be something to bemoan, it’ll come naturally to you and you’ll look forward to following the important stories day to day. It’s almost like dying to know what happens next on your favourite TV series! Ok, maybe not quite so extreme.

The Tailoring Phase

Your interest for the business world having been piqued, it’s time to take that curiosity and channel it according to your career aspirations. Try to narrow down the firms you’d like to work at (no more than six firms at this stage) and be sure to read stories of particular relevance to them.

  • The most obvious solution is to go onto firms’ websites and look at their news sections. You’ll find details on the recent deals they’ve been working on and any important initiatives of theirs.
  • A second way to go about this is to keep an eye out for relevant stories in your general readings (which you should continue – firms want you to have a well-rounded view of the world). For example, if you know that a firm has a large private equity practice, keep an eye out for stories relating to this industry. Again, the news section on their website should help you narrow down what their big sources of revenue are.
  • Yet another way to keep up to date with firms is to set up a Google News Alert for employers you really like. You’ll get a weekly email listing every press article the firm was mentioned in over the last week. The most useful ones are opinion pieces that have been written about them as they give you a fantastic insight into how the firm is perceived in the industry.

Most importantly, don’t go overboard – it’s all about quality over quantity. Don’t read everything and don’t read up on every firm that remotely interests you. Steps 1. and 2. should have helped you narrow down the list of firms to look into in step 3. Plus, we all have topics that interest us to a greater or lesser extent and you shouldn’t ignore this. The news stories that catch your eye may change – go with it and listen to yourself. It may be that you stumble upon a whole different career path you’d never thought about going down before.

Finally, something that applies whatever stage you’re at: take a proactive approach to your learning, especially when you’re out of your comfort zone. Investopedia was an absolute godsend for me during the early days and I still use it every now and again. During my internship at the charity I made an enormous spreadsheet of all the notions I didn’t know. I put the word or expression in the first column, then read up on it on Investopedia (they’ve also got great little video explanations), defined it in my own words in the second column and listed an example to help me remember it in the third column. Yes, it takes a long time, but it’ll all be worth it when your stellar commercial awareness gets you that training contract!

 

 

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