How to apply commercial awareness: the trainee’s perspective

  • Last updated Aug 12, 2016 2:45:42 PM
  • By Chris Whitehouse, Trainee Solicitor, RPC

If you Google "commercial awareness" you'll find over 40,000,000 search results. A quick perusal of some of the hits shows that commercial awareness seems to involve:

  • An understanding and interest in business generally;
  • Comprehension of the market that your company/firm operates in, its principle clients and what differentiates it from its competitors.

How you acquire this knowledge will vary depending on what stage you are in your law career. At the application stage, keeping up to date with legal news, following the activities of firms of interest and chatting to people who are already working in law is an excellent start.

However, rather than try to further define commercial awareness or discuss other ways in which it can be obtained, this article will focus on how to apply the commercial knowledge that you do have and will continue to acquire.

My two suggestions with this in mind are: develop a proactive working mind-set and expose yourself to as many new and novel concepts (business or non-business) as possible.

Commercial awareness as improvement

One of the best pieces of practical advice to implement once you start your career is to repeatedly ask the same question: "how can I make or do this better?"

Quite simply, commercial awareness helps you come up with strategies to answer this question. For example, you could improve how you give advice to a client by focusing on the aspects of a problem that they really care about and addressing them first.

In many cases, the answer to the question will be "do less". Lawyers are expensive and by considering what legal tasks are essential or extraneous, a client's goals can be achieved for a lower cost.

Through understanding how clients operate, you can learn from them and take inspiration from the things that they do the best. For example, increasingly in litigation the various possible outcomes for a case are mapped out in spreadsheets, their costs (both monetary and otherwise) identified and the best cause of action is decided in an almost scientific manner. This is something our clients often do very well and historically law firms have been criticised for doing poorly.

RPC's recent shortlisting for an 'Innovation in Enterprise' award, shows the firm as a whole is also asking this question and constantly looking at ways we can meet our clients' needs more effectively.

Understanding business concepts

Gaining an in-depth understanding of particular groups of clients or a particular legal sector is invaluable but what should not be neglected, and is easy to do so, is adopting a broader curiosity about business and business-related concepts.

The benefits of doing this are perhaps less obvious than my previous suggestion. Admittedly, it's trickier to see an instant tangible benefit. But how about applying Belbin's team role theory to a staff meeting or thinking about Porter's five competitive forces when trying to understand why your corporate client is behaving in a particular way?

By making a concerted effort to get to grips with wider concepts and ideas such as these, you build yourself a larger framework to hang your client/sector specific knowledge on, enabling you to approach problems from a wider range of perspectives.

This kind of intellectual curiosity is valued at RPC. A great illustration of this is our Business Blog, an innovation of the firm's trainees, which has been running for just over a year now. In the blog we write about a wide range of business topics and explore what lessons we (and RPC) can learn from them. We hope to have the blog available on the firm's external website soon, so please watch this space.

The bottom line...

When applying to firms, it's relatively easy to develop a kind of word blindness to the term commercial awareness. Law firms all want you to have it but often fail to define precisely what they mean by it. Unhelpfully, I too have avoided pinning down exactly what I think the term “commercial awareness” means, but I hope my suggestions on how to use it effectively are helpful. At the very least, I hope this article provides some food for thought and if you do find yourself agreeing with what's been said, then maybe RPC is for you.

To find out more about training contracts at RPC, please click here.

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