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

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By Katie King on

It’s not as hard as you think


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.