Commercial awareness: an introduction

Even as a law student attending a law firm open day, you will be expected to exhibit a certain degree of commercial awareness. The amount of commercial awareness expected of you will increase as you progress through a vacation scheme, a training contract and finally your first few years of practice as a fully qualified lawyer. This is one competency you will not be able to “cram” the night before.

  • Last updated Jul 18, 2019 3:54:58 PM
  • David Carnes

What is ‘commercial awareness’ anyway?

The best way to sum up the essence of commercial awareness is to answer a question with a question: “Do you know what is going on out there?” Legal advice does not take place in a vacuum—rather, it takes place within the context of complex commercial, financial, social and political considerations. Sound legal advice always reflects this reality, to the extent that a good commercial lawyer might be better described as a business adviser with a speciality in law. 

Commercial awareness can be divided into two concepts—understanding the business dynamics of a law firm, and understanding the business dynamics faced by a law firm’s clients. To meet the expectations that will be placed upon you over the next few years, you will need to begin developing commercial awareness during your first year of study—and you will need to stick with it throughout your career. 

How to begin developing commercial awareness

Try to think of your commercial-awareness project as a long-term self-study project. Following are some tips on how to start developing your commercial awareness during your first year of study:

- Connect your commercial-awareness project with your personal interests, at least to some extent—if you are interested in football, for example, strive to keep track of business and legal developments in this area. You will learn much faster that way.

- Read at least one business newspaper regularly. If you plan to practise corporate or commercial law, consider the Financial Times, BBC News and Sky News.  

- Study the Legal Services Act 2007 until you thoroughly understand it. You will need to understand what a partnership is, how legal relationships are structured among partners, and between partners and associates. You will also need to understand how law firms find clients and how they charge these clients for their services. 

- Sign up for email alerts and free updates for publications such as AllAboutLaw’s The Principle, ‘The Brief’ from The Times and The Law Society Gazette. If you have already identified any law firms of interest, sign up for newsletters published by those law firms and keep up with their Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts.

- Try different forms of communications—listening to podcasts and two-way interactions on law-related forums, for example. Different people learn in different ways, and you should consider tailoring your programme to your preferred learning style.

- Attend law firm activity weeks, open days and insight schemes. Prepare in advance to take advantage of any opportunity you may be given to demonstrate your budding commercial awareness. These activities give students the opportunity to attend sessions run by external speakers from the legal profession 

- Work during the summer following your first year. If you cannot secure a vacation scheme after your first year, even working in a business that is not directly related to law will help you understand how businesses operate and how commercial realities drive decision-making—especially if you approach your internship from this perspective.

Read, listen and observe with a critical mindset

The foregoing activities will do you little good unless you actually understand the material you are attempting to absorb. When it comes time for a potential employer to evaluate your commercial awareness, the ability to regurgitate facts will not impress your interviewer any more than regurgitation of academic material will impress your professor. Do your best to answer any questions that arise, using outside sources if necessary. Challenge everything until it makes sense to you. 

Next article: Law summer school 

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