How to apply commercial awareness: the former trainee’s perspective

A former trainee at RPC shares his insight into what commercial awareness is, why it’s important and how you should apply it.

  • Last updated Aug 2, 2019 9:41:11 AM
  • By Chris Whitehouse

If you Google "commercial awareness" you'll come across millions of search results. A quick perusal of some of the hits shows that commercial awareness involves:

· An interest in business generally;

· Comprehension of the market that your company/firm operates in;

· Knowledge your firm’s principal clients;

· An understanding 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 you’re interested in and chatting to people who are already working in law is an excellent start.

However, it’s essential that you know how to apply the commercial knowledge that you have and will continue to acquire. My two suggestions are to develop a proactive working mindset and to 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 is to ask yourself the question: how can I make or do this better?

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, client goals can be achieved for a lower cost.

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

RPC's recent awards show that the firm as a whole is also asking this question and constantly looking at ways to meet clients' needs more efficiently.

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—is to adopt a broader curiosity about business and business-related concepts.

The benefits of doing this are perhaps less obvious than those of 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 sector-specific or client-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 frequently-updated blog, in which we write about a wide range of business topics and explore the lessons we can learn from them. 

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 have also avoided pinning down exactly what I think the term means, but I hope my suggestions on how to use it effectively are helpful. 

If you think you might like RPC’s culture and philosophy, the firm might be for you. To find out more about training contracts at RPC, please click here.

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