Feature

A lesson in commercial awareness from someone who never used to understand it

By on
85

It’s not as hard as you think

lead

What is commercial awareness? This question strikes fear into the heart of all law students — it certainly did mine.

As someone with no ‘big City dreams’, at university I completely resigned myself to the fact that I’d never understand any terminology that has the word ‘commercial’ in it. But it’s actually the second word that’s more important.

It’s only since delving into legal journalism that I’ve realised I am actually quite commercially aware — I just didn’t know what the phrase meant well enough to realise that.

But now I do, here’s my advice: if the word ‘commercial’ scares you, drop it, and focus instead on showing off your awareness. Hours can be spent agonising over what exactly you need to show an awareness of, but I think it can be broken down into four basic steps:

1. An awareness of the law

You want to be a lawyer, so it goes without saying that you know your Van Gend en Loos from your Vandervells.

But one of the best things about studying law is that it is a subject that is constantly changing and evolving, unlike something like history or maths. The cases that you think are important now may well be reserved to the history books by Christmas.

If you want to stand out, don’t wait until new cases and statutes hit the 2016 edition textbooks — keep up to date with legal affairs stories off of your own back.

The fact that you are reading Legal Cheek shows that you have a motivation to do this. We often cover judicial developments that will affect law student syllabuses, like the contract law case of Barry Beavis and the criminal law case of Ameen Jogee.

Spying out these cases and understanding how and why they will affect the law will impress employers, and probably bag you a few extra marks in exams as well.

2. An understanding of the legal profession

In university, you learn law in boxes — you do separate exams for separate modules and sometimes it seems impossible to draw links between intellectual property and medical law. But certain themes transcend these boxes and bind the profession together.

Pro bono, and the wider concept of using the law to help people in need, is one of them. Currently there is a debate raging about the proper role of pro bono work in City firms. Following swingeing government cuts to legal aid, leaving vast swathes of the population without access to state-funded legal help, some, such as Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, want the top commercial law firms to do more free legal work. Others, however, insist that this will only encourage the government to slash funding more.

Whether you agree or disagree with Gove’s vision doesn’t really matter — but following the debate does. In doing so, you get a sense of how the legal profession sees itself, and how its publicly funded branch interacts with its corporate law cousins at a time of great strain for the former.

Another theme that is revealing of the legal profession’s collective identity is the debate about gender in the law. For years, deliberation about the proper role of women at the top has simmered across the entire profession — and has boiled over since outspoken rookie barrister Charlotte Proudman took to the stage to announce her pro-quota standpoint.

What do lawyers do at these moments of tension? In monitoring their reactions, you start to understand their values. In the context of the gender diversity debate, many, like Lady Hale, have broadly supported Proudman’s revolutionary attitude, whereas other, more conservative players, like Lord Sumption, would rather see gender equality develop organically without external prompts.

These may well be the challenges facing you in years to come.

3. An awareness of the context in which the legal profession operates

No matter how important lawyers think they are, they are only one cog in a much bigger machine. The legal market is a product of the events happening around it — and perhaps nothing demonstrates this better than the 2008 financial crisis.

For someone with little interest in economics and finance, my temptation is to dismiss the banking crisis as an isolated issue. But 2008 was a crucial catalyst — in many ways, the legal market of the noughties is unrecognisable to the legal market we know now.

Legal aid cuts, for example, are a reaction to the crisis, which was itself caused by a huge build-up of consumer and mortgage debt. In an effort to improve the economy after the banks were bailed out by the state, the public purse was slashed, and access to justice took one of the biggest hits.

The world is always looking out for its next crisis. The Chinese economy and emerging market wobbles could well be the beginning of the next one. Alternatively, we may be in for a period of growth. This is all about economics and economics is characterised by uncertainty, but think about how the legal profession would react in both scenarios.

Another good starting point to think about is the upcoming EU referendum. Opinion polls are becoming increasingly tight, and if the UK decides to leave the EU, or to stay within a reformed EU, then the legal market is set for a dramatic make over.

The nature of this change is unclear. It’s fair to assume that, in the event of a Brexit, a ‘boom’ period would ensue for lawyers — constitutional law would be turned upside down, and business agreements would have to be rewritten. But what about in the long term?

You don’t have a crystal ball, so you won’t be held to account if, in five years time, it turns out that your answer in your vac scheme application was wrong. Showing employers that you have thought about how the legal profession might react is good evidence of commercial awareness.

4. An enthusiasm to operate in the real world

It’s easy to forget that a law firm is just a group of people working together under a brand name.

Human nature does not transcend the workplace. Lawyers will want to work with you if they like you, so interviewers will hire you if they like you. Show that you can see beyond the firm’s branding to the people at its heart. Show that you want to indulge in the messy world that is the legal profession.

Working in a law firm is not like working on your degree, where you can spend endless hours in the library poring over books, operating in the realm of the theoretical. Legal practice is about using the imperfect information you have to get things done to a certain standard by a specified deadline. Interviewers have to filter out the perfectionist types that, regardless of their legal knowledge, cannot hack the reality of the commercial world.

Once you’re in, the allocation of work is more down to earth than people realise. As Elaine Penrose, partner at Hogan Lovells, explains, succeeding in the workplace depends a lot on the relationships you build up, be that with colleagues or clients.

Twitter and other social media outlets allow no holds barred access into the lives of the profession’s elite. Before long, you will see that these bigshot lawyers are actually very human, despite being painted as God-like figures. Just look at Simon Myerson QC’s propensity for outspoken tweeting, and Charlotte Proudman’s struggles with the pressure of media fame.

These lawyers are, at the end of the day, just people — and an interest in people is perhaps the most important prerequisite for commercial awareness of all.


85 Comments

Anonymous

History and maths are constant and don’t change?
Clearly never studied either subject.

(42)(4)

Anonymous

I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure history changes everyday.

(17)(0)

Inquisitor

Wake me up when it’s all over

(4)(0)

Anonymous

It’s over…no, I’m only kidding, keep sleeping.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Good piece.

(9)(19)

Anonymous

Of course Charlotte Proudman got a mention – it wouldn’t be a LC article without her name being mentioned.

(17)(0)

Anonymous

You’ve never been a full time fee earner, Katie. Until then you will never really understand commercial awareness.

(29)(10)

Anonymous

Is this a Liz Jones article?

(10)(0)

Ron

Who?

(3)(0)

Liz Jones

Who are you?

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Ron is the Tarquin troll

(1)(0)

Ron

Nope, just Ron – sorry if its confusing for you

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Thanx 4 clarifying

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Not sure someone who failed to get a TC should be giving tips on commercial awareness.

(22)(11)

Anonymous

Katie, go work in an insurance company, loss adjusters or panel law firm for a year. That is more likely to result in you learning ‘commercial awareness’.

Reading articles on law is no substitute for first hand experience. You’re in your early 20’s and have no understanding of true commercial awareness by sitting on your backside in LC towers.

(30)(7)

Anonymous

Why does everyone hate this Katie girl so much? Serious answers please. I don’t ever see this level of spite on other articles on here. Just wondering if there’s a justification for it or if people just find her irritating?

(17)(12)

Anonymous

Poor quality articles. Simples.

(5)(2)

Anonymous

Because the comments section has become overrun with misogynistic trolls of late, and when they’re tired of their explicit bile being moderated by the website they retreat back to insulting intelligence and ability. I genuinely think it’s just a small group of frustrated, angry young men who are so terrified that spending their lives as lawyers may be unfulfilling that they use their energy trying to bring down anyone that makes them question themselves.

(10)(11)

Anonymous

Didn’t realise Ms Proudman was a commenter

(9)(1)

Anonymous

This post has been removed because it breaches Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Yeah this BS against the poor girl has to stop. I vaguely think she’s an undergrad (which explains why the posts aren’t that great) but it’s a good starter for many who need the info, and it’s probably good for her future chances of getting a TC. Well done to her.

(7)(7)

Anonymous

She graduated from a Russell Group uni with a first and the highest mark in two subjects so I think people should probably stop insulting her intelligence..

(7)(1)

Katie

Thanks for sticking up for me, dad.

(6)(1)

Anonymous

*four

(1)(2)

Anonymous

U make no sense, bro.

#fourskin

(3)(0)

shadowy figure

because she’s a woman

(1)(1)

Phuc Mi Phuc Yea

This post has been removed because it breaches Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(3)(0)

Jezhop

Congratulations, assorted anonymous critics. Clearly your words bear so much authority that you needn’t bother with any reasoning . Or perhaps you are too busy in your day jobs of City partner or QC. We’re all very impressed, and looking forward to the wisdom you will no doubt add to these pages in 2016.

(19)(9)

Anonymous

Pipe down, knob head.

(17)(5)

Jezhop

To be fair, I was asking for a response of this sort. But I wasn’t expecting it to be so eloquent.

(4)(5)

Anonymous

There’s been responses that include reasoning, so you’re definitely a knob jockey.

(12)(1)

Jezhop

Not sure you’d recognise reasoning, or grammar, if it slapped you in the face. Do they not have Beano online or similar, so you can go and comment there till your heart’s content?

(5)(10)

Anonymous

Jezhop on dicks.

(11)(1)

Anonymous

Fuark bruv, burned!

(2)(1)

Anonymous

I sympathise Jezhop. This place has become overrun with tedious, semi-literate potty mouths. They get off on making nasty comments to female posters. But they’re particularly preoccupied with, and apparently scared of, homosexuals.

(8)(4)

Jezhop

Gosh. Worse than I thought. I must stay in more.

(2)(3)

Anonymous

Jeremy Hopkins, you’re just another leech trying to get a commission off placing lawyers. Don’t pretend to understand commercial awareness.

Anonymous

Fuq off pinhead.

Anonymous

Jezhop’s mum has an eloquent style of insulting.

Grouchy US associate

Commercial awareness is having some understanding of what the client does, what will make them happy/angry, what will make their lives easier, what they expect from the firm, what developments are key in their industry and what major mergers/successes/failures have happened in that industry (amongst other similar things)

It depresses me no end when someone turns up for interview talking about legal aid cuts or access to the legal profession. All important issues, but not really relevant in making me think you really understand what you’re trying to sign up for. Occasionally someone walks in who actually understands what commercial awareness is, but lord they are the minority.

(25)(2)

Anonymous

Kudos on identifying how important it is to make the client’s life easier. They don’t pay £x hundred an hour for a more difficult life. Likewise, they want concise reports with their options, financial consequences, and a recommendation rather than fence sitting.

(13)(0)

Anonymous

Wait, do you mean to tell me that large law firms don’t care about my opinions on Charlotte Proudman!?!

(5)(0)

Anonymous

I wrote a piece on commercial awareness with a slightly different stance to this article in the summer.

https://secretsofalawstudent.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/commercial-awareness-what-is-it/?preview=true

(8)(4)

Anonymous

Bro, you just linked to your own blog which was an article filled with other links. Try adding your own analysis as opposed to referencing.

(12)(7)

Ohmergerd

Thnx 4 ur blog bro, changed my lyfe.

(5)(0)

Bored Solicitor

I agree with you – commercial awareness really is very simple. It’s just knowing your client’s business and what advice they need which will help, and giving them solutions. Whilst things Katie mentions are useful for some law firms awareness of their own market, I’m not sure it’s true for all. For example, I’ve not heard anyone in the City firm I work at discuss legal aid cuts. Perhaps the views of those working as a solicitor could have been sought for this article?

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Is that potentially representative of the calibre of applicants to your firm?

Most candidates will be ‘commercially aware’ at the top city firms.

(0)(1)

Not Amused

I think this is a good and helpful piece.

The problem with understanding commercial awareness fully has a lot to do with the way that British society is structured. You see in Britain, money is dirty.

So for the first 21/22 years the subject is not discussed around children. It is Taboo. Hush hush. It does not form part of the rosy narrative that we want our children to grow up believing.

The fact we do this is marginally silly. But it is also deeply endearing and really rather sweet. I fully understand *why* we do it and I don’t want us to change. But I do recognise that it can hamper children as they shake themselves out of the cocoon we put them in, dry their naivety and learn to fly in the real world.

Money is phenomenally important. It powers everything we do. Very few grown ups actually do anything that is not, at least in part, connected with money. Money is an eternal competition. A global fight in which both individuals and society can win or lose.

Now for some people that truth conflicts with their politics – but they are still in the cocoon (remember that just like choosing to live in your parents attic, you can stay in the cocoon of childhood if you chose to). But for most people that isn’t true. For example most left leaning people recognise the truth – they just want to change it (and good luck to them).

In terms of understanding ‘the commercial world’ all you need to know is that: it is so brutal that no one who is in it has any delusions. Money is everything. How do we make money. How do our clients make more money? How do we make them richer so that we can charge more? How can we make the quest for money more successful?

That to me is commercial awareness. Once you have that fundamental understanding then I think it becomes easier. I don’t think HR help kids understand this. They usually talk of the ‘symptoms’ of commercial awareness (i.e. how you would act if you knew that money was king) instead of just stating the truth plainly. But then if you live in a society were the truth is taboo – why would you risk sticking your head above the parapet?

I hope I haven’t created a dystopian vision of reality. Most humans only live in the commercial world for part of their life. They get to leave it, go home and you know, have fun. But If I were a young person today, both trying to show I was ‘commercially aware’ in order to ace an interview AND wanting to be honestly informed about how things are, then I would start asking questions about money.

(26)(4)

Sir Viv

Great comment.

(3)(2)

Anonymous

You’ve got it right about why the kids don’t get it, but also exposed you don’t understand commercial awareness either!

(3)(3)

Fucko

Down with Katie King, bring in Not Amused! This is someone who can actually write!

(6)(1)

Anonymous

That’s because he’s like, 90.

(1)(0)

Anonymous

Lol!

(0)(1)

Knob Jockey Marketer

The term means different things to different firms. Ive never met a lawyer who truly understands the term so I find it laughable that TC seekers are placed under scrutiny.

‘Commercial awareness’ put simply is having an fundamental understanding of the firms capabilities and matching them with the needs of the client. This matching process involves not only having a thorough understanding of what the needs of the client ‘are’ and the environmental factors that affect client needs but more importantly constantly shaping the firms capabilities so that they continue to align with the ever changing needs of the client.

Lawyers like to see themselves as ‘commercial animals’ but they are not. They are the current beneficiaries of a closed professional monopoly.

Commercial my arse. A fookin spoonfed, out of touch whinging bastards of an oversubscribed profession.

(4)(6)

Anonymous

HAHAHAHAHAHHAA

“‘Commercial awareness’ put simply is having an fundamental understanding of the firms capabilities and matching them with the needs of the client.”

WRONG!

Commercial awareness is an interest in business and an understanding of the wider environment in which an organisation operates: its customers, competitors and suppliers.
It might also encompass understanding of the economics of the business and understanding the business benefits and commercial realities from both the organisation’s and the customer’s perspectives.
Generally it includes awareness of the need for efficiency, cost-effectiveness, customer care and a knowledge of the market place in which the company operates.

STILL LOLLING AT MARKETERS THINKING THEY UNDERSTAND BUSINESS!

(21)(2)

Knob Jockey Marketer

Everything you have mentioned was covered by my fundamental and narrowed down explanation you fuck wit.

(4)(9)

Anonymous

No son, you didn’t.

More bandages needed for your burns.

(12)(1)

Knob Jockey Marketer

Save your bandages to pad the gaping chasm in your swede you thick cunt.

(4)(9)

Anonymous

Oooh, calm down princess. U mad bro.

(15)(1)

Anonymous

Jesus, calm down. Maybe Internet comments sections are not the place for you.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Marketers aren’t cut out for much.

(5)(0)

Zyzz wuz ere

This post has been removed because it breaches Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Ron

We don’t have that problem in the US of A, y’all should come on over sometime, plenty of work for the DA’s office/ city hall or the office of public defenders. And you won’t be asked about commercial awareness either – which sure would be a fucking blessing

(0)(1)

Anonymous

On the other hand you do have crippling law school debt

(0)(0)

U kno it

Good luck paying off your law school debt by working for the DA. Epic fail.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

The fact that a profession is over-subscribed largely only means that those that make it through are likely to be of a high standard, since there is a larger talent pool from which to select. It therefore seems odd that you say that as if it somehow reflects badly on lawyers.

(0)(0)

Ron

It is little wonder those in Britain are not familiar with the term commercial awareness, it being an american term which has only recently come across the pond – back home of course it has been in usage since roughly 1971 (at least in the state of West Virginia) so we have had longer to figure out what it actually means.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Strange how Katie always seems to slip in mentions of gender equality, diversity, and Charlotte Proudmans in all her articles when they’re completely irrelevant to the topic at hand. It’s almost as if she is being made to do so.

(13)(4)

Anonymous

Who is saying Proudman is a “God like figure”!?!

(6)(0)

Anonymous

“Shirley” it should be goddess.

(7)(0)

Charloote

I filled my pamps when I read about little me being relevant

(0)(0)

john

i’m currently undertaking a tc and will happily admit that i have no idea what commercial awareness is

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Fair play to you. A good place for you to start is asking questions. Try the client relationship managers at your firm as your first port of call.

(4)(0)

Exhausted NQ Solicitor

“Working in a law firm is not like..” – said nobody who has never worked in a law firm before. This website is like a wotsit – all puff but no substance!!

(7)(1)

Anonymous

Check the bitter NQ out.

Bet he shits all over the trainees, forgetting he was one a short time ago.

A well balanced chap with a chip on each shoulder.

(5)(1)

Anon

The tone and content of so many comments on this and other Legal Cheek stories depresses me beyond belief. There are honourable exceptions of course – Not Amused, amongst others, always writes appropriately. The crude, spiteful, childish vitriol which is regularly dished out in response to others’ opinions has me asking what kind of twisted and bitter people make them? Is it a reaction to the need to craft elegant, beautifully written advice/opinions/submissions in “real life” that compels many of you to resort to vicious profanity when protected by the anonymity of the forum? Can we hope for better in the New Year?

No prizes for the first witty person to reply with a four letter word.

(6)(3)

Anonymous

You’re lovely.

(4)(0)

Anon

That’s better. You can play nicely if you try.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

[insert mum joke here]

(2)(0)

Anonymous

J/K bro, ur a big stiff idiot

(6)(0)

Zyzz wuz ere

This post has been removed because it breaches Legal Cheek’s comments policy.

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Charlotte Proudman = ‘the profession’s elite’?

Vom.

(2)(0)

Anonymous

Commercial awareness is fundamentally about recognising that the purpose of a law firm is to make money, not to dispense shiny pearls of carefully-crafted wisdom.

The biggest problem with the article is that the writing is clumsy. It reads like it was written by a fairly average sixth-former. On a website aimed at a profession where facility with the written word and ability to persuade are (or should be) critical, it appears surprisingly amateurish.

(1)(1)

Anonymous

I daresay this website isn’t quite aimed at the profession itself, more those who take an interest in it.

(0)(0)

Comments are closed.