What do firms expect?
Commercial awareness, unfortunately, is easy to spot but hard to define. This article will ask a number of questions and, if you are able to answer them (well), chances are that you're well on your way to having it.
The UCAS (remember them?) definition is that a candidate "understands the business benefits and commercial realities from both the organisation's and the customer's perspectives"; a looser, but perhaps more relevant, definition is simply a candidate that is "switched on".
To demonstrate commercial awareness, you need to show that you understand our business. You are not expected to know everything about it, but do some research; the answers are all out there. Where are our offices? What are our main practice areas and specialities? How are we doing financially? For which deals and clients are we engaged?
You then need to take that, and be able to apply it to real world scenarios. What happens if there is an economic downturn? How might it affect our clients, and how can we continue to keep them satisfied? Which departments are likely get busier, and which are not? What's happening with the legal industry in general?
And, perhaps most importantly, when are things likely to pick up again? You are not expected to know the definitive answer to that one!
"You need to understand what is important and relevant to the client, rather than merely what the law is."
Let's say, for example, that a client wants to sue a supplier for £1,000. We could go ahead and do that, of course, but what if the supplier was about to go bankrupt, or the court fees would amount to £2,000?
What if maintaining the relationship might be more important in the long term than litigation now? What if, worst of all, the other side had invested all its money with Bernie Madoff?
As legal advisors, clients expect us to know the law and will assume we do. These days, however, we also need to be able to 'add value' i.e. to build a relationship and demonstrate that we understand their business and its complexities. In the scenarios in this paragraph, you will hopefully have realised that litigation may not have been the best idea, and we would be expected to both (1) spot and (2) suggest that.
You need to understand what is important and relevant to the client, rather than merely what the law is; what's the answer to their problem? How can they do what they want to do?
If, in an interview, you are asked why you want to work for us, this would be a near-perfect answer. "I am keen to gain international experience, working in your Dubai office for example because I would enjoy the corporate work done there [give reasons and/or examples, link it to your work experience if you can]."
Then as the conversation develops "I am aware, however, that the Gulf is being affected in many ways by the global slowdown and that corporate clients are likely to wait and see how things go there before deciding to set up businesses, and also that a number of law firms have set up there recently and may provide more competition for the limited work that is available, so there may not be as much of a need for more lawyers at present.
As such, I would also enjoy working in litigation, which could become busier in a slowdown as clients seek to recover unpaid monies from others and as companies resort to litigation to protect their interests."
This 'perfect' candidate shows awareness of both our business and the current marketplace.
You do not need to walk in to an interview and immediately start talking about what you would do if a client wanted to sue someone, or explaining the causes of the recession in Dubai. You do, however, need to be prepared to deal with that well if you are asked. So read our website, work out who we compete with, read the business press, and get copies of industry magazines.
Speak to your lawyer friends – that is not an oxymoron - watch the news, and try to keep abreast of any relevant developments. A practical, pragmatic approach is the best way to demonstrate commercial awareness.
- Related Article - What are firms actually looking for?
- Related Article - What is Commerical Awareness?