Where to look?
This article is aimed at students who have very little understanding on what firms want when they seek 'commercially aware' candidates
What is commercial awareness?
In this day and age you will have no doubt noticed that what many employers seem to be talking about is “commercial awareness”. What is commercial awareness and how can I ensure I have it?
Put simply, commercial awareness is having some understanding of the business world in which we live. It is about being able to look at situations from a business or commercial perspective.
This can mean understanding what makes a business successful and an appreciation of the factors that influence success. This is extremely crucial for a career as a lawyer, especially that of a commercial lawyer.
"A really good way of gaining an insight into the company is to look at the company’s annual report"
Why do I need it?
As your career progresses up the chain in private practice you will not only be expected to provide commercial and sound advice, you will also become more involved in decisions which affect your firm as well.
You will probably also be unsurprised to hear that what clients want in terms of legal advice is a user-friendly product which is based on an understanding of their business and not advice which is delivered in a relative vacuum.
Even at a student level, employers will be looking for some appreciation of commerciality. This will be tested at interview level whether it be in the form of direct questions of topical issues in the news or press, in the form of a group exercise where you will have to apply commercial considerations to a given scenario, or in the form a report writing on a particular subject.
Without at least some preparation you may find yourself struggling which could mean the difference between that crucial job offer and a path back to the next application!
How do I get it?
Everyone has at least some exposure to commercial awareness.
Any work experience, be it voluntary or paid employment in a company or organisation will have enhanced your commercial awareness in some way. For example, you may have worked in retail or telesales. What did you learn about the company? How were the needs of clients or customers met? How did the organisation market itself. Was there any legislation impacting on the delivery of its goods or services?
If you are intending on a career in law it is important to gain as much legal-related work experience as possible, whether it be a paid vacation placement run by a large law firm or an unpaid placement at a high street firm.
Speaking to the HR functions of firms and sending copies of your CV along with a covering letter are an effective form of finding out more about a company and ensuring that your request for work experience reaches the right department to deal with it.
Once you have worked in a law firm, whether it be for a series of days or a few weeks, this should give you a good insight into the workings of a firm and some appreciation of how it operates as a business.
Similar considerations apply to any extra-curricular activities you may have been involved in. Did you manage a student society? Did you have to publicise any events or deal with budgets and cost considerations? How did you attract new members?
Think about the various activities you have been involved in and take a step back at look at them with a business mind. The more you question actions and their motivations, the more you will become comfortable with noticing and discussing their commercial implications.
How can I improve my commercial awareness?
The obvious source is reading broadsheet newspapers such as The Financial Times or The Telegraph. If these seem a little dry at first target the business areas of their websites or try setting up e-alerts. This way you will have the main headlines sent to your email inbox with the option of clicking through to the full-length article if you would like to find out more.
Watch the news. Some people find it easier to understand and remember information which is delivered in an audio-visual away. Whichever medium you use, the trick is to be generally aware of what is going on in the business world around you.
If you are applying for a particular firm or sector, look at the websites and mission statements of various companies. Before going to an interview you should research the company’s current activities, any publications they have recently released or any press articles, and what their current deals are. Research one or two that are of particular interest to you.
A really good way of gaining an insight into the company is to look at the company’s annual report, if it is publicly available. This will be introduced with a statement from the Chairman who will talk about the past financial year and the company’s future ambitions, and will also include all the financial data you need to get a good understanding of how the company is doing.
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