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Revealed: what ‘commercial awareness’ actually means

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Despite the term’s omnipresence in the world of legal graduate recruitment, few wannabe lawyers properly understand what is meant by “commercial awareness”. Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, we got together a hotshot junior commercial barrister, a magic circle trainee-to-be, a final year law student, a solicitor-turned-lecturer and a graduate recruitment specialist — and forced them to come up with some hard answers…

Sitting alongside me in one of Hardwicke Building’s sparkling meeting rooms — where the discussion was hosted — is Imogen Burton (lecturer in commercial awareness at the University of Law), and continuing from left to right, André Flemmings (mentor at Rare Recruitment), Leon Glenister (barrister at Hardwicke Building), Tom Webb (editorial assistant at Legal Cheek), Abdurahman Moallim (Clifford Chance trainee-to-be) and Alex Lau (law student at Nottingham University).

So what did our experts conclude?

Commercial awareness exists on three levels, they decided.

The first is understanding the broader context in which a particular practice area exists. To start with a fairly obvious example: corporate lawyers need to have some idea about the health of the Eurozone and whether China’s rise will prove unstoppable. Allied to that, they need to know a bit about the state of the legal market — i.e. that some big City firms are feeling the squeeze, while commercial barristers’ chambers are thriving as counter-cyclical disputes work floods in.

Level two is a very different — yet not entirely unrelated — practical ability to operate in a commercial environment. Essentially that means being able to negotiate.

Finally, there’s level three, which is putting levels one and two together in order to make good decisions. That may mean deciding if a particular case is worth pursuing — having weighed up the wider issues affecting it, and tested the various parties’ resolve in preliminary discussions. Or it could involve going about a deal in a particular way that takes into account both the bigger commercial picture and the quirks of the individuals sitting round the negotiating table.

The first two levels can, to a certain extent, be taught, the team agreed.

But the third level — which at its best represents a kind of Zen state of commercial awareness possessed only by a select band of top lawyers — can only be reached through many hours of on-the-job experience. This obviously precludes law students from demonstrating true commercial awareness in their training contract and pupillage applications. But that’s OK. The important thing is that they understand the term, and by doing so send out a signal to interviewers of their potential to make it to the top.

Listen to the full discussion below.

Additional reporting by Tom Webb.