Law solicitors

Commercial awareness and how to achieve it, by trainee solicitors and law recruiters

Many law firms will ask about your commercial awareness and experience during the application process to get a training contract. We asked trainees, graduate recruiters and solicitors at a range of law firms for their advice on how to respond.
Commercial awareness is a way of thinking – it can be practised before an interview.

Commercial awareness is important to graduate recruiters at all law firms, but what it means in practice depends on where you want to get a job. For example, if you've set your sights on a leading national or international firm, you could develop relevant commercial awareness by reading the Financial Times and being aware of developments in the world of business, such as mergers and acquisitions among market-leading companies. If you want to work locally, familiarity with the ins and outs of local businesses will demonstrate your commerical nous, and if your career goal is a training contract with a firm that specialises in a particular area, such as shipping, you'll want to be aware of the most important players in the field and the sort of transactions that take place.

We asked trainees and solicitors at a selection of law firms how they ticked the inevitable ‘commercial awareness’ box and why that awareness counts. 

Clients want a commercial not academic answer to their legal problems

Students who understand the commercial aspects of studying law are impressive: those candidates who can show me that they are both bright and commercially astute. Being a lawyer today is different to 20 years ago: business acumen is vital; the practice of commercial law is not for those who are fascinated by the academic study of law. Clients want a confident answer to their legal problems; they may not be too interested in how you reached that answer.

Rob Wilson, partner at CMS

Commercial awareness is about knowing how a law firm operates

'Looking back to the application process, I wish I'd had a better understanding of how law firms operate as a business and what's important to them, aside from providing advice to the clients. As with any other business, a law firm needs to keep a careful eye on the bottom line, its profitability and cash flow. Interview panels are keen to hear an appreciation of that from candidates. 

An understanding of the implications of ABSs or alternative business structures is key as this will inevitably have an effect on how law firms operate in the years to come. A candidate who has an appreciation of how that will affect the day-to-day running of a law firm would stand out.'

Hannah Dow, solicitor, DWF LLP 

Using Twitter to improve your business know-how

'There’s a lot of information on firms' websites, and candidates should also read legal publications such as The Lawyer and Legal Week. Twitter is another good way of following firms and finding out what they’re up to – our marketing team will tweet about particular deals that we’ve been involved in or, for example, our recent mergers in Spain and Italy. It’s a quick and easy way to keep up to date with us and they can then mention that information when explaining why they want to work for Osborne Clarke.'

Zoe Reid, trainee recruitment officer, Osborne Clarke

Taking a commercial interest helps in the role of a trainee too

Trainees stand out is if they are making an effort to read around the subjects we’re working on, monitoring the press around key clients and building their broader knowledge rather than getting completely bogged down in trainee tasks. It makes the job more interesting for them and enables us to get them involved in more exciting work.

Nicola Higgs, partner, Ashurst. Interviewed for our our sister publication The Guardian UK 300 2017

Commercial awareness is not about knowledge; it's a way of thinking

'Students often think that commercial awareness is about knowledge or fact-learning. Rather, commercial awareness is a way of thinking – it involves genuine interest and intrigue in the profession and the market it operates in. Think about the business aspects of a law firm. Some law firms get their trainee solicitors involved in business development within the firm – they go to client events and marketing events. Going on client secondment gives trainees a good insight into the commercial world.'

Graduate recruiters at the TARGETjobs Law Recruiters Forum 

Applying commercial awareness to assessment day tasks

'During our assessment day, we ask aspiring trainees to participate in an exercise that involves advising on a fictitious global transaction. These exercises often draw out candidates who have a better understanding of what’s important to the client and how law firms operate. We’re not expecting candidates to have all of the right answers, but someone who can identify the key elements that need to be considered in a transaction is impressive. It demonstrates that they are asking the right questions and thinking things through in advance.'

Rob Wilson, partner at CMS 

There are ways to improve your commercial awareness and organise your thoughts when reading about companies in the news. In her commercial awareness workshop at a recent TARGETjobs Law How to Get Hired Event, Monika Ciereszko, graduate recruitment adviser at Shearman & Sterling, recommended asking yourself the following questions when reading about an organisation in the press:

  • What is the organisation there to do?
  • How is the business organised? Who are the key stakeholders?
  • Who are its customers? What are its services? How well does it market itself?
  • What are its costs and overheads?
  • Who are its competitors?
  • Is the organisation innovative and responsive to change?
  • Where are the risks to its business?
  • What legislation or guidelines does the business adhere to?
  • What issues effect the business: staff morale? The stock market? New technology? New innovations? Location of office? Movement of clients?

Monika advises that commercial awareness is something than can be practised and, with practice, you’ll come across as more confident in interviews. ‘Join Facebook groups and university societies as a useful way to exchange knowledge. Get used to talking about companies in the news with friends – you’re more likely to remember the information, plus it’s good practice for interview discussions with partners.’

Monika Ciereszko, graduate recruitment adviser at Shearman & Sterling

Solicitors must think about the client

'When I first began training, I had to adjust to the fact that advice must be commercially focused. It is not simply a case of knowing the law; you need to know the client’s objectives and must tailor your advice to those objectives. Before beginning any research or preparing any advice, it’s important to understand the setting within which the client is asking for advice.'

Stuart Pibworth, trainee at Sidley Austin LLP

Read the business papers and financial press

‘You need to have a genuine interest in the business world and some basic commercial understanding. If you can use the jargon and talk intelligently about current market trends and deals in the press it could get you the job. 

At law school I founded the trading and investment club which managed a portfolio of equities and provided an immediate focus to my interest when reading the financial press. It also gave me a useful talking point at interview.’

Simon Saitowitz, associate at Weil Gothal & Manges LLP

Find aspects of the business world that interest you

‘As annoying as it may seem to keep being asked about ‘commercial awareness’, it’s important to remember that firms are asking for a reason. Nobody expects a trainee to understand all the fine details of a complex transaction but you will be of more value to the firm and, more importantly, your life will be much easier and more fun if you do have an understanding of the business world and the kind of deal that is happening. 

If this really isn’t your cup of tea, my advice would be not to treat it as something that you can swot up on before interview and then ignore, but to find an area you are genuinely interested in.'

Barbara Forman, consultant at Forman Law 

'To improve your commercial awareness, read about deals and stories in a business sector that genuinely interests you, be it a football club’s administration if you’re a sports fan or the merger of two retail giants if fashion is your passion. Doing so will make the whole process easier and more enjoyable, and ensure that your enthusiasm for the business world really comes across at interview.'

Samantha Hope, head of recruitment and marketing for trainee solicitors at Shoosmiths 

Make sure you can think on your feet in an interview

‘I would say that it is less important to read the Financial Times every day and more important to be clear minded and willing to think clearly on the day of the interview. I do not believe that interviewees are expected to know the ins and outs of the latest M&A deals. It is more important to be able to think on your feet about how a particular industry operates.'

Richard Pinckney, trainee at Bristows 

Interviewers want to hear commercially practicable solutions

‘During training contract interviews I found that some firms wanted me to demonstrate commercial awareness by commenting on a recent business deal or topic of debate in the business press, while at other firms I was asked to prepare responses to a commercial case study. 

However an interview is conducted, demonstrating commercial awareness is not simply a matter of knowing the finer details of the latest deals. It requires an appreciation of the commercial considerations influencing clients. Interviewees need to show an understanding that lawyers are required not only to provide accurate legal advice, but also to assist clients as far as possible in finding commercially practicable solutions.’

Jennifer Roberts, trainee with the Covington & Burling London office