Developing commercial awareness at university

  • Last updated Jul 12, 2017 11:01:40 AM
  • By Peter Coe, Senior Lecturer in Law, Buckinghamshire New University and Barrister and Door Tenant, East Anglian Chambers

What is commercial awareness?

 The world is  becoming more commercially focused and driven by economic efficiency, and you can't really argue with that. As a Senior Lecturer in Law, and a barrister, I am constantly being told by lawyers and clients that ‘commercial intelligence’ or ‘commercial acumen’ are vitally important attributes of any graduate they may employ.

But what on earth do employers mean when they talk about these rather abstract terms?! Do they mean that they expect you to be able to understand and interpret the technicalities of the stock market, or the intricacies of a merger and acquisition? How about the ability to start a company from a shed or garage and turn it into global name within a few years?

The fact is they do not mean any of these things (although I’m sure employers would very much welcome it if you could do these). They do not expect you to have the knowledge of an investment banker or a corporate solicitor or barrister; that’s what graduate schemes, training contracts and pupillages are for. Equally, they do not expect the entrepreneurial genius of a Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. What they do expect is a certain ‘awareness’ of what is going on in the world generally, and in a commercial context and, of course, if you are applying for jobs in the legal profession, what is happening in the ‘legal world’.

How to become commercially aware

So how do you gain this awareness? The good news is that it’s quite easy although it does involve a teeny bit of effort on your part. My advice would be to read a quality broadsheet newspaper regularly. If you are set on practising corporate or commercial law, then I would also advise reading The Financial Times on a fairly regular basis. Equally, read the news on media outlets such as BBC News and Sky News as both have dedicated business sections.

With regard to keeping tabs on what is happening within the legal profession, there are loads of great sources you can use. For example, The Times has a weekly law supplement and its own dedicated website, but you’ll have to cough up a subscription charge for this. I would also recommended signing up to receive free Legal Week updates, and Young Lawyer magazine is also a useful source of (free!) information.

How can your university help you?

What can you expect from your university? This is a difficult question to answer as every uni is different. Some, such as the university where I work, are particularly focussed on developing the employability, professionalism and commercial awareness of their students. When thinking about what universities to apply to, the various institutions’ respective focus is something to bear in mind, and something you should keep asking about. I can only tell you what we do, so you can see what universities could (and should) be doing:

  • Our Law Department is made up of a mixture of lecturers who come from or are still in practice, as well as career academics and researchers.
  • All of our modules teach and assess students using different methods to develop skills, values and attitudes relating to professionalism. These include communication, advocacy, time management, client care and the awareness of ethics.
  • Throughout their degrees students undertake ‘Professional Skills’ modules. These focus on developing transferrable skills, values and attitudes attributed to being a professional. They also focus on skills such as CV writing, career planning and interview techniques.
  • We work closely with the industry to give our students ‘professional’ experience and to develop their commercial awareness. For example, we run ‘Activity Weeks’ which give students the opportunity to attend sessions run by external speakers from the legal profession.
  • We have excellent links with the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, as well as the local judiciary and legal profession to enable students to access legal work experience.
  • We have very active mooting and law Societies, who arrange trips, talks from guest speakers, mooting competitions and advocacy development workshops.

These are just a few of the things we do at Bucks New University in an effort to enhance our students’ commercial awareness. We aren’t perfect, but it gives you an idea of what you can access.

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