From Potential to Practice: Commercial Awareness

I recently had the pleasure of sitting on the panel of a commercial awareness webinar organised by Pietra Diaz, a Law student at the University of Warwick. I was joined on the panel by two incredible barristers. Firstly, I was joined by Lawrence Power, Head of Chambers at Whitestone Chambers – you can find his profile HERE and secondly, Charlotte Pope-Williams, an employed barrister with Pinsent Masons. You can find a write up of Charlotte HERE.

The webinar was a combination of questions that had been asked in advance and some live from the attendees. Whilst the webinar was focused on commercial awareness, my particular angle was in relation to my journey of building commercial awareness from a student perspective, the resources I used and applying & demonstrating it in Vacation Scheme and Training Contract applications. In this blog, I’ll share the questions I answered and my tips & tricks for building commercial awareness.

1 – Building commercial awareness: the student perspective

Commercial awareness is, in my opinion, best seen and tackled as a large research task – it’s not something that can be gained overnight! You must start early if you are to develop a deep enough level of commercial awareness for your applications/interviews.

Commercial awareness is a large combination of things but in a nutshell, it’s an understanding of trends/patterns that will affect the legal market, the way law firms work and the firm’s clients. Then, being able to best advise your clients. This involves looking at many external factors such as social, political and economic factors. Take a recession for example (an economic factor) – this may mean that clients are doing less business transactions, which affects the cash flow of law firms or if the client is in the middle of a transaction, they may now be looking to withdraw in light of the recession. This is a very simple example of how external factors affect how law firms work and the firm’s clients, highlighting how important commercial awareness is.

You must make time into your daily routine to build your commercial awareness. Charlotte mentioned that she spends around 30 minutes each day reading commercial awareness emails/news at the start of her day. For me, I tried to use whatever free time I had during the day (commutes/short breaks during the day) to read up on my commercial awareness resources. If something particularly interested me, I would save it and spend some time in the evening researching more about that topic.

2 – Resources

Click on the button to find my previous blog on commercial awareness containing a large list of my favourite commercial awareness resources! There are loads of sources out there that you can use – these are just a few of the ones I use more regularly!

However, it’s not enough just to know/read some articles and be able to recite them. You have to be able to analyse the impact of what you’ve just read and be able to apply it to the firm you’re applying to. For example, let’s say that ‘Firm A’ represents ‘Company X’ and ‘Firm B’ represents ‘Company Y’, ‘Company X’s competitor. Then, let’s say ‘Company X’ wants to merge with ‘Company Z’, making the newly-formed ‘Company XZ’ one of the largest in the market. This will affect ‘Company Y’ and it’s the job of ‘Firm B’ to be aware of the effects of the ‘Company XZ’ merger and be able to best advise ‘Company Y’, so that they remain competitive.

3 – Applying and demonstrating commercial awareness in Vacation Scheme & Training Contract applications and interviews

So, you may have built up quite a lot of commercial awareness knowledge, but the next question is how you’re able to demonstrate it. My preferred method is to pick a couple of topics that interest you and be able to discuss them in depth, as opposed to trying to cover lots of different practice areas. For example, when I did my assessment centre interviews, I had a particular interest in real estate and litigation. I then narrowed my commercial awareness research to a more specific topic within that sector – I chose high street real estate. I focused my research on high street real estate and I discussed the decline of high street real estate, some recent administrations/mergers and the effect that this would have on the real estate sector as a whole and at that time, there was also a new Google search inventory system partnership in the works.

In an interview setting – you tend to get the generic questions like “why commercial law” or “why this firm”. In short, you should try and align your interests with that of the firm’s. For example, I discussed how CMS is highly ranked in real estate, discussed why I have a particular interest in real estate, how I had been following some recent real estate transactions, then I was able to demonstrate some commercial awareness by discussing the decline of the high street shops and the new Google partnership. There must be clear links between yourself and your interests, the firm, and then your commercial awareness.

Don’t panic…but start early…

The term ‘commercial awareness’ is inevitable in Vacation Scheme or Training Contract applications – but don’t panic. Start early, build research time into your daily routine and analyse carefully. Find whatever sector area you’re more interested in and this passion will come through in your application/interview. Remember, it’s commercial awareness, not commercial expertise – no one expects you to know everything going on!

Pietra did such a great job of organising the event, hosting and taking questions from attendees! Thanks, Pietra!

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