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‘Commercial awareness is more than reading the FT and using buzzwords’

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A panel of lawyers and legal experts from Ropes & Gray, Gowling WLG, Irwin Mitchell and ULaw consider the hot commercial themes of 2022 and how students can prepare for the changing world of work

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Commercial awareness is an important part of any aspiring lawyer’s knowledge base when they are looking to secure a training contract.

In the latest edition of Legal Cheek’s virtual student events, we discussed ‘The Big Commercial Awareness Themes of 2021-22 — with Gowling WLG, Irwin Mitchell, Ropes & Gray and The University of Law (ULaw)’. On the panel were: Ben Stansfield, real estate partner specialising in environmental and planning law at Gowling WLG; Christopher Kardahji, senior associate and team leader in the serious injury team at Irwin Mitchell; Lisa Kaltenbrunner, senior counsel in the antitrust team at Ropes & Gray; and Caroline Carter, campus dean at ULaw Moorgate and former head of employment and senior equity partner at Ashurst.

The pandemic’s impact on the panellists’ practice areas

The discussion first looked at the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had upon each panel member’s practice area.

“For Irwin Mitchell, the big takeaway is that we can work effectively remotely,” Christopher Kardahji said, adding, “It has led to a realisation that geographical location is not the important factor that it once was… we have a colleague here in Sheffield working on a project with the Cambridge office. Before the pandemic, that was almost unthinkable — logistics would have seemed a big challenge. Now, it’s second nature.”

Indeed, adapting to remote working and communicating with one another from afar using new applications, such as Zoom and Teams, has been one of the major changes brought about by the pandemic. But technology is being leveraged elsewhere throughout the industry to streamline and save time on tasks traditionally carried out by lawyers and paralegals. “Clients with large property portfolios can work with us to personalise an app that can produce simple heads of terms for their transactions,” Ben Stansfield said. “Similarly, a lot of information and data about properties is held on the Land Registry. We have worked to co-design software that can produce detailed spreadsheets highlighting key issues relating to those properties — which would otherwise have taken our team of lawyers hundreds of hours to review — it has been a real game changer for some of our clients.”

Although the audience at large believed that green energy is likely to be the fastest growth area of 2022, the panel was not so sure, with Lisa Kaltenbrunner, Caroline Carter and Christopher Kardahji sharing the opinion that technology is more likely to take center stage. For example, at ULaw, you can study a legal technology or operations course, or attend a coding club. This, Carter explained, was to help students become accustomed to honing different skills and provide new approaches to clients once they enter practice.

Find out more about studying for the SQE at ULaw

For Carter and ULaw, the pandemic offered its own unique challenges with university closures meaning teaching had to take place in virtual classrooms using the latest technology. With sponsoring law firms wanting to ensure that their pipeline of talent was still able to join them at the times anticipated, Carter admitted to feeling “duty bound” when ensuring that students were suitably prepared for the world of work, notwithstanding multiple lockdowns. She explained that provision had to be set up quickly to ensure that students were in the best position for when they started at ULaw and for those leaving to join their employers. She said:

“We immediately placed lectures and workshops in a remote, virtual streaming environment, but that’s only part of the story in how to educate. A vocational law school environment needs human interaction… so we returned to face-to-face teaching when permitted to do so in between lockdowns and from mid-May this year. Within reason, students can ‘choose’ their option, and move freely between the two, namely face to face and streaming to manage the continuing impact of Covid. We have very much adapted our model, delivering a new, hybrid way of teaching at Moorgate. Separately ULaw has a fully online, virtual campus too.”

While for Stansfield the pandemic was largely a continuation of the status quo — a continued focus on planning for the development of sustainable commercial facilities — for Kaltenbrunner and antitrust, a practice area dealing with numerous healthcare sector clients, the public health crisis had highly disruptive implications. While on one hand, agencies from throughout the world were eyeing up the potential to take advantage of market havoc to make acquisitions, antitrust practices also found themselves having to adapt as governments sought to develop policies designed to counter the effects of the pandemic.

“With regard to foreign direct investment, governments have expanded their rules on in-bound foreign investment, particularly during the pandemic,” said Kaltenbrunner. “Governments also want to protect supply chains, such as PPE equipment and other Covid-related supplies, while governments also wanted to ensure that companies with depressed valuations (as a result of the pandemic) did not become cheap targets for foreign investors.”

Careers advice: how to build commercial awareness?

Finally, the panel took the opportunity to discuss how an aspiring lawyer can build the commercial awareness they need to impress in an interview and start building their career. While commercial awareness is just one aspect of the many required skills to succeed as a lawyer, the panel agreed that an in-depth knowledge of your chosen practice area and the markets in which it operates is crucial for students to help make their applications stand out.

Kardahji advised, “remember that a law firm is a business”. Kaltenbrunner elaborated, saying “when reading the Financial Times or similar publications, choose particular news stories that interest you and think about why certain decisions were reached and the possible implications. Don’t just learn buzzwords. They’ll [interviewers] ask you to explain further. It is also important to understand the profitability structure of a law firm so you can make the best case as to why they should hire you. Understanding that is key.”

Carter, in explaining how commercial awareness can manifest and how it can be demonstrated, explained further: “Show where the trends are… think about business all the time and in everyday context too, for example, what happens when an Aldi sets up next to a Morrisons? Commercial awareness is as much about being aware of when things go wrong — reflect on business failure. Look at some start-ups — get involved and watch how people invest. There are many different ways — be curious and interested.”

Find out more about studying for the SQE at ULaw

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