What is commercial awareness?
Commercial awareness can be one of the most important skills in helping you secure a job. It has become one of the most employable attributes for jobseekers to have, and not just in the legal industry. Despite the importance placed on it by recruiters, a survey conducted in 2017 by the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services showed that nearly half of graduate employers thought that applicants lacked commercial awareness. This is definitely something to take note of in such a competitive jobs market. Demonstrating commercial awareness is one of the few ways left in which you can really stand out from the crowd.
So what exactly is commercial awareness?
Also referred to as business awareness or commercial acumen, it is essentially having an up-to-date understanding of the business world. Throughout your legal education and career, you should stay up-to-date on what’s happening in the business sector as well as the legal sector and look for the influence that each has on the other. As you move through your legal career, you will benefit from and understanding of how the economy, politics, and even socials issues impact markets and what this means for businesses and the decisions they make.
As commercial awareness is such an important part of being a lawyer, recruiters are likely to test you on this in interview or on application forms. You will need to be prepared to discuss current commercial news and its impact on the relevant industry. You will also need to be able to demonstrate how the business interviewing you operates and the part you would play within this structure to add value to their operations.
Developing your commercial awareness might sound like a daunting task and it can be tricky to know where to start. That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you understand why employers look for commercial awareness, how to develop it, and how to showcase it in an interview or application. We’ve also included plenty of resources to help you get started.
Why do employers look for commercial awareness?
You will find ‘commercial awareness’ listed as a required attribute on many job descriptions these days and there is a very good reason for this. Lawyers need to have a full understanding of their clients’ businesses before they can begin to offer them legal advice. After all, businesses don’t exist in a void, they are constantly reacting to changes in their industries. Therefore, effective advice is always offered in the context of what is happening in the wider industry. In order to do this, lawyers will need knowledge of that particular industry, how the business runs, and issues are currently affecting the industry.
Recruiters want candidates who are not only commercially aware, but who are proactive in applying this knowledge. They want decision makers – but they also want those that will make the right decisions. Being well informed will ensure that you are well on your way to making those right decisions. They want lawyers who can react to industry issues affecting their clients, but also lawyers who will be able to spot trends and preempt any issues that might affect their clients in the future.
It’s worth keeping in mind that as your career progresses, you will be expected to help make business decisions on behalf of your law firm (after all, they are businesses too). This is another reason your interviewers will be so keen for you to demonstrate good commercial awareness skills.
How to develop your commercial awareness
Unfortunately, this is not something that is developed overnight. Commercial awareness is something you will have to work at for a while before you are fully versed in the workings of the business sector. This is a warning that you shouldn’t leave it until you are just about to finish your studies to start thinking about your commercial awareness. It is not something you can stop doing once you’ve secured a job either. It is a lifelong skill and you will need to work at it continuously. If you’re prepared to put the effort in, the rewards for your career will be well worth it.
One of our top pieces of advice is to follow your interests. If you have a particular interest in an area of the law, for example, human rights, make sure you keep up with the news in this area. Not only will you find it more interesting and engaging, it will help you get a job in a sector that you are interested in. It is also worth acknowledging that if you aren’t finding this an engaging or interesting task, that particular area might not be for you after all.
Here are some of the ways you can develop your commercial awareness:
Read, watch, or listen to the news: There are so many ways that you can consume news these days. Some people find that watching the news is the best way for them to digest the latest stories, others prefer to sit down with a broadsheet newspaper, or to listen to the radio or a podcast. Find out what works best for you and get into a routine of checking the news every day. For broadsheets, we recommend starting with The Times, The Telegraph, or the Guardian. If you want more of a commercial focus, go for the Financial Times. It’s often good to get your news from a variety of sources so their websites might be more convenient for keeping up on a day-to-day basis. Be aware that you may encounter some pay walls. The BBC and Channel 4 News might be better if you prefer watching the news and Radio 4 is a great place to start if you want to listen.
Follow industry blogs: There are blogs out there on almost every topic imaginable. It’s good to find a couple relating to the industry that you’re interested in and check these regularly. Take a look at our list of top law blogs in the UK. We have an Industry Insights section on the Simply Law Jobs blog. Here you will find regular legal industry news updates, as well as a weekly commercial news round-up.
Register for industry news: Plenty of sites have a newsletter that you can sign up for which will deliver relevant articles straight into your inbox. We recommend the updates from lawcareers.net, The Lawyer, and The Student Lawyer. You can also set up alerts which will deliver articles that mention a topic or firm to your inbox.
Social Media: Believe it or not, social media can really help with your research into specific businesses. This can give you a real insight into things like company culture and any articles they share will indicate what stories are of importance to them.
Networking: Not all of your networking efforts need to be online. Go to networking events and conferences and get chatting to those working for law firms or in business. This will help you to start making connections and will help you learn the language of business.
Work experience or volunteering: There is rarely a substitute for hands-on experience and work experience is one of the best ways to see business in action. It doesn’t even have to be in the legal sector; any experience of working in a business will be valuable. Many university law schools have a law clinic which helps their students gain pro bono experience. This can be a great way to gain experience that will develop your skills as a lawyer as well as your commercial awareness. See our guide on pro bono to find out more.
How to showcase your commercial awareness
The next question is how do you make sure that recruiters notice all the hard work you’ve put in? Before an interview, there is some research you should do into the company:
- What are the goals of the company?
- How do they seek to achieve these goals? i.e. what services/products do they provide?
- Who is their target market?
- Who are their competitors?
- Has there been any mention of the company in the news recently?
- Are they affected by any of the current issues in their sector?
- Are there any trends emerging in the industry that might affect them in the future?
- Where would you fit in the structure of the company and what value would you add by being there?
If you’ve managed to answer all of these with your research, you should be set to answer any commercial awareness questions based on the company you’re interviewing for. You should also do some research into the industry that the business specialises in. If they specialise in a certain type of client, make sure that any examples you use in your answers relate to their industry.
Make sure you’re keeping an eye on the headlines right up until you arrive for your interview. You don’t want to miss anything important that has happened that day and you should be able to comment on it if it’s relevant.
If an application form asks you to demonstrate your commercial awareness, don’t just say that you read the Financial Times. You’ll need to demonstrate that you understand the impact of what you’ve read. For example, a great answer would say that you read about X topic in the Financial Times. The topic interested you, so you followed up and did some more research. Then, mention how this eventually helped you when you did some Pro Bono work with your university law clinic when helping a client whose case related to X. Of course, if you use an example like this, make sure it’s true – never lie in your application as it’s highly likely that you’ll be found out when it comes to interview.
Remember that your interviewers will likely have many more years experience and will their own commercial awareness will be highly developed. You won’t be able to blag your way through it.