Commercial awareness is a tricky one. You know what to do as you’ve heard it a million times: read The Economist, study the Financial Times, bla and another bla. But then you realise that either it’s quite difficult getting to grips with those papers, or you get it, but afterwards realise you still have no idea how to answer questions on how business works.
As chief editor of doovice, a website that shares advice on how you can succeed in your legal career, I’ve interviewed many people who’ve secured training contracts, vacation schemes and more. They’ve told me how they developed commercial awareness and how it helped them get top jobs at big firms. Here are three of the best tips I’ve found on how to develop commercial awareness.
There’s nothing like actual experience
Get a job. Aside from helping support your Chinese takeaway addiction, getting a regular job at a small business (perhaps part-time or on the weekend) is hands down one of the most effective ways to develop commercial awareness. This doesn’t mean at a law firm or a bank. It means part-time as a waiter or doing the books at a car garage. These less ‘glamorous’ type of roles give you the opportunity to see the innards of a business, how it’s run and why certain decisions are made.
When you have a personal incentive working in a business, you naturally begin to understand it in a way that you won’t if you just read about it in an article. Doing a job like this regularly over time will increase your understanding of what drives a business, what concerns it and what it needs to do to grow or survive. Once you understand that on a small level, it becomes easier to understand big business.
Reading isn’t the only way to consume information
A misconception that students have is thinking they need to read to become knowledgeable and understand business (or to appear smart in general). The problem with this is that, if you don’t enjoy reading or find it more difficult to understand, you’ll end up parrot reading or eventually not bothering at all. In today’s climate, you don’t need to do this.
You can learn about business in a million ways. There are podcasts that you can listen to on the way to work. You can have a chat with someone about a topic in the news or join a discussion group where you might make friends in the process. Oh, and don’t forget the big one: YouTube. There are thousands of videos on topics from how the economy works, to current-affairs stories, to even some more light-hearted videos that explain business jargon with clever animations. So if you’re finally bored of the ‘watch this man eat his own laptop’ type videos, it may be time to check out the more educational channels.
It doesn’t have to be about complex business
Don’t forget that while all industries and businesses work differently, they’re all businesses. So you don’t have to learn complex stories about finance or debt restructuring to develop commercial awareness. One of the best ways to develop an understanding of business is to pick an industry you’re genuinely interested in. It could be a player in the music industry or a football club you support. Follow them, look at the deals and decisions they make as a company, and think about why they’re doing that. You’ll learn to understand business just as well—and probably better—by doing this than if you tried to read up on some obscure but seemingly important business story you have no interest in whatsoever.
So, to sum up: find the industries you’re actually interested in, discover the way you learn best and keep abreast that way. Oh, and get a part-time job. There are also lots of interview articles at www.doovice.com where you can read what other law students did to develop their commercial awareness. Ultimately, it takes time, so make sure you find a way to enjoy it.
Krishen Muthoo is chief editor at doovice