What they don’t teach you at law school

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By Baljinder Singh Atwal on

From time recording to ‘playing the game’ — solicitor Baljinder Singh Atwal shares lessons and tips from his time in practice so far

With the ever-changing landscape of legal academia — whether it is through apprenticeships, the SQE, CILEX and others — it is important to note that legal education often can’t replicate the good old fashioned lessons and tips you pick up from the working world. Whether that is in a legal environment or not, there are so many skills and abilities that can be obtained from the working world, sports teams, societies and more. Here are some of the top things they don’t teach you at law school.

Time recording and billing

For such a large part of most lawyers’ work life, the mechanics and logistics of time recording and billing are not really introduced in academia. The ability to produce good quality legal work is often overshadowed by the act of recording the time and then billing it. The metrics of time recording and billing can often be deciding factors when it comes to targets and promotion hence it is super important to understand how it works and how to be efficient at it. However on a more practical point for development it can be a really good tool in understanding and evaluating your progress on similar matters and seeing how long tasks take you over time.

Commercial awareness

Often the buzz word at every student recruitment event. Commercial awareness can mean many things but in this instance it can be broken down into understanding how the business works and the impact it may have. People can often forget at the early years of academia that law firms are businesses and are no different to the local supermarket, butchers and barbers in your local town. Each operates to make a profit and has a product which it sells. For law firms it is legal services — time which is being sold to clients. Understanding how this works at different levels, across departments, offices, sectors and more are key. On a more local level simply understanding if a client is profitable, the impact of a news story, change in legislation and others are all examples of commercial awareness.

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Easier said than done but being able to have a productive, positive conversation with people is fundamental. From explaining concepts to a client to talking through matters with colleagues to speaking to new contacts at events, communication is a tool we all have and there are a number of techniques and styles you will pick up on the way.

If you have ever been in a sports team you will understand how to communicate with people with different personalities and utilising people’s strengths and weaknesses. The art of conversation is powerful and can be the difference between succeeding and failing in an interview, making a good impression and often persuading people.

Playing the game

This phrase has been used in many different contexts and can mean different things. Often it is used to articulate navigating the social and cultural make up of an office, a department or team. This can include: understanding the hierarchy (if there is one), appreciating the different types of communication people prefer — whether that is the modern virtual communication or traditional in-person meetings, social interaction — how active a team is for business development (internally or externally) and more.

Regardless of the academic route that the modern lawyer will take, I think we can all agree that nothing can substitute or replicate the core skills and abilities that you’ll pick up from hands-on work experience and practice.

Baljinder Singh Atwal is a solicitor, co-chair of Birmingham Solicitors’ Group, and has recently been elected to the Law Society as a council member representing the interests of junior lawyers.

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