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What ‘commercial awareness’ means when you’re a trainee

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By Tom Capel on

Norton Rose Fulbright newly qualified solicitor Tom Capel — who’ll be speaking at Commercial Awareness Question Time this Thursday — on how the hard-to-define concept beloved of law firms manifests itself in real life


When I was applying for training contracts during my second year of a law degree at the University of Southampton, I thought I wanted to become an IP lawyer. My dissertation was about copyright infringement, and I chose to study IP and IT law.

I developed my commercial awareness through reading about important IP cases in the news at the time, such as the Newzbin file-sharing case. It was an area that I was genuinely interested in, so following stories like these wasn’t a chore. I think that enthusiasm probably came through in my interview, and my understanding of how businesses could be affected by external pressures such as IP laws helped me to answer the commercially-based interview questions.

I knew much less about some other commercial topics. You don’t have to sell yourself as being an expert in every industry, but you do need to be able to think about how certain events or circumstances might affect your client or, in the context of training contract applications, the practice overall. Over the course of my training contract I have developed a much broader knowledge of how law and business interact. Despite my interest in IP law at university, the seat I most enjoyed — above even the technology work I did while with the corporate team — was in an asset finance team, into which I’ll shortly be qualifying.

It’s not hard to enjoy the work because at the end of the day, you’ve helped finance a tremendous piece of equipment, be it a plane or an oil rig. The aviation and offshore industries are so dynamic and interesting that being able to work in and understand those industries is a really rewarding and enjoyable aspect of the job.

For example, a big issue affecting the financing of offshore oil projects is the oil price, which has plummeted over the last year. This happened after I concluded my asset finance seat. As the industry had become a genuine interest, I closely followed the commercial implications of the oil price collapse. I saw how it really shook up the industry, creating challenges but also creating opportunities for some. Our clients rightly expect us to be up to speed with these issues so we can provide commercially sensible legal advice.

One of the great experiences as a trainee which helps your commercial understanding grow is that the legal sector attracts people with interesting backgrounds. For example, I share an office with someone who is a master mariner and worked on oil tankers before he became a lawyer. There are also former naval officers and engineers, amongst other professions, in the office, who are experts in their field. Listening to them on the phone discuss commercial issues with clients is an experience in itself and one of the real perks of working at Norton Rose Fulbright.

The partners you are working with tend to be so immersed in their respective industries that they are aware of developments before they hit the mainstream press. As a trainee you are steadily building up a base of knowledge that will hopefully one day put you in the position of those partners. The industry knowledge you can develop in the legal profession is quite amazing. Plus, knowing about the wider context of the documents you are working on helps inform your drafting so that the documents work in the commercial context in which they are being used. So, continuing to develop commercial awareness as a trainee is a very important process.

In contrast, as a student you are jumping in at the deep end, going from being someone who knows very little about law and business to attending assessment centres and being asked big picture strategic questions, such as “Where would you open another office?” and “Who do you see as our competition?”. Unsurprisingly, these types of questions don’t tend to crop up in conversations with partners during your training contract.

In that sense there is a disconnect between what commercial awareness means as a student and as a trainee. However, in both instances you are being tested on your understanding of how wider commercial issues, the law and the legal sector interact. One of the most important things to remember is to demonstrate that you understand that clients don’t operate in a world of neat law student-style problem questions.

Tom Capel is a newly qualified solicitor in Norton Rose Fulrbight’s London office. He will be one of the panellists at Legal Cheek’s inaugural Commercial Awareness Question Time this Thursday evening. You can apply for one of the final batch of places available from today here.

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