Jul 08, 2022

Written By Robert Greene

What is a commercial thinker?

Jul 08, 2022

Written By Robert Greene

Commercial thinking or commercial awareness is something which gets many students twitchy. But what exactly is commercial awareness and how can you become a commercial thinker?

Commercial thinking

Commercial thinking is, in simple terms, the ability to understand the business world and how it affects your clients. Law firms are businesses that provide services to clients in many different industries; therefore, understanding clients’ businesses and the sectors they operate in is a key skill for aspiring solicitors.

After all, solicitors do not advise clients in a vacuum; clients do not just want to be told their legal position, they want commercially sound solutions to their problems. Lawyers are therefore expected to be equally fluent in the law as they are in the commercial realities of their clients.

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How to develop your commercial thinking

Commercial thinking is a skill. And like any skill, practice makes perfect. If you find yourself frantically skim-reading the headlines of the Financial Times or The Economist the week before an interview, you probably aren’t going to demonstrate your commercial awareness.

This is a skill you need to develop over time: only then will you be able to spot trends, compare and contrast stories or phenomena, and provide your own analysis or commentary. Commercial thinking, as the phrase describes, requires you to “think” (and by extension understand), not just to reel off information you have crammed for the interview.

Fortunately, developing your commercial awareness isn’t rocket science. And the more you work on it, the easier it becomes.

Tips for developing your commercial awareness

1) Set yourself a daily or weekly goal – Start small (for example, five minutes a day) and build up as and when you can. If you try to understand everything at once, you will soon feel overwhelmed and unmotivated.

2) Use a variety of resources – It may be easier to start off with materials that summarise and explain business news (such as Watson’s Daily, Commercial Law Academy, or Legit) before tackling content directly from media outlets (such as the Financial Times or The Economist).

3) Consume a variety of media – Podcasts, online papers, YouTube videos – add some variety to the media you use to keep your learning interesting and manageable. For example, listening to the FT News Briefing on your phone on the way to work or uni in the morning is an easy way to get to grips with the latest business news.

4) Track stories – Students are often asked about news stories that interest them in their vacation scheme or training contract interviews. To prepare for this, it is a good idea to follow one or two stories over time that interest you. You could keep a log of articles or analyses on the story to re-read closer to your interview. As you track a story over time, you start to spot emerging trends and developments, which provide you with scope to give your own analysis or commentary.

5) Keep a commercial awareness glossary – As you read more business news, you are likely to come across new words and concepts. It is a good idea to make a glossary of the new terms or concepts with a link to where you found them. This will help you to contextualise them and commit them to memory.

6) Discuss the news with other people – Try to engage in discussions with friends or families about the stories you come across. This will help you to articulate your understanding, and gain confidence in giving your opinion. It will also expose you to other people’s opinions, which may give you food for thought. If you are comfortable discussing business news with your peers, you are far less likely to be thrown off by an interviewer asking you commercial awareness questions during an interview.

7) Think about your work experience – If you have any work experience, this is a great way to contextualise your learning. Ask yourself questions about the organisation: what sector does the organisation operate in? Who are the organisation's competitors and how does it distinguish itself? What are the biggest challenges for the sector?

8) Test your knowledge – There are lots of opportunities to put your commercial awareness to the test. For example, Aspiring Solicitors run an annual commercial awareness competition, the prize being a vacation scheme at a top law firm. Many universities also run commercial awareness competitions.

Commercial awareness questions

If you are applying for a vacation scheme or training contract, you are likely to be quizzed on your commercial awareness. Providing you have been developing your commercial awareness, you should not be daunted by such questions. This is an opportunity for you to showcase your skill.

Whilst it is impossible to predict what questions you may be asked, below are some potential questions you could be asked:

- Describe a news story that you have been following?

- What do you think are the biggest threats to the legal sector?

- Who are our firm’s competitors?

- What do you think sets our law firm apart from its competitors?

- Where do you get your news from?

- Name a company you admire and tell us why.

- What could our firm do to gain more business?

- Which market should our firm enter next?

- How do you see the legal market progressing over the next 10 years?

It is important that when it comes to law firm interviews, you understand how the business news affects that particular firm and its clients. For example, the introduction of new laws regulating Bitcoin is unlikely to be of much relevance to a firm that exclusively serves private clients.

Often firms will publish articles on their website about stories that are likely to be of interest to their clients, so this can be a good starting point for understanding what business stories are relevant to that particular firm.

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Commercial Awareness