Skills and competencies

Commercial awareness for lawyers: what aspiring solicitors should know about this essential skill

6 Dec 2023, 13:00

Discover how to develop commercial awareness and stand out as a candidate in the law recruitment process (plus much more besides), by the leading global law firm Cooley.

A trio of images of Cooley's offices: a cafe, a reception and trainees chatting in the stairwell

Commercial awareness is a vital attribute for all future solicitors, but it is an area in which most students lack confidence. Disputes lawyer Joanne Elieli and third-seat trainee Gloriya Andonova, together with legal talent manager Sarah Warnes, are here to help you understand what ‘commercial’ awareness is and how you can develop it. As they do so, they also share their insights into what it is like to work in a ‘big law’ firm.

About Joanne, Gloriya and Sarah

Joanne Elieli is a senior associate at Cooley. She is a disputes lawyer specialising in technology, privacy, cyber and life sciences and is a trainee supervisor. As well as being part of Cooley’s London office pro bono committee, Joanne sits on Cooley’s global Women’s Initiative committee and is an active contributor to the firm’s diversity, equality and inclusion initiatives. She is also a solicitor-advocate.

Gloriya Andonova is in her third training rotation (known as a seat) working under Joanne’s supervision; her previous seats were in corporate mergers and acquisitions (M&A), and life sciences. Gloriya studied law at the University of Westminster and completed an LLM at University College London. Before joining Cooley, she worked as an assistant editor for Thomson Reuters Practical Law.

Sarah Warnes is the trainee recruitment and legal talent manager at Cooley’s London office. She has been working in trainee recruitment for 17 years and was part of the firm’s London office opening in 2015.

Meet... Gloriya Andonova, a trainee at Cooley LLP; Joanne Elieli, a senior associate and trainee superviser; and Sarah Warnes, the trainee recruitment and legal talent manager at Cooley’s London office.

Gloriya Andonova, a trainee at Cooley LLP
Joanne Elieli, a senior associate and trainee superviser at Cooley
Sarah Warnes, the trainee recruitment and legal talent manager at Cooley’s London office

Commercial awareness explained (and some examples of it)

Joanne defines commercial awareness as an ability to recognise how different factors, such as economic trends, regulatory changes and market competition, can impact a client’s operations or day-to-day business.

‘Commercial awareness is not only about legal principles, which you may have learned about in law school, but also about connecting those principles to the broader world,’ she says.

Her expectations of her trainees depend on whether they are in their first seat, fresh out of law school, or in their fourth seat and about to qualify.

‘Trainees come from a wide range of backgrounds, so I do adjust expectations according to their life experience. But part of my role as a trainee supervisor is to encourage broader thinking,’ she says. Joanne highlights Gloriya’s impressive practice of pulling relevant news, opinion articles and thought pieces together; it enables Joanne to absorb the most important new information covering cyber, data, and privacy disputes and regulation. Gloriya’s round-up has proven so popular that a number of the firm’s other lawyers have asked to be included in the distribution email and Joanne often forwards relevant elements to clients to explore if they need the firm's support as a result of legal changes and updates.

Gloriya worked for Practical Law (an online legal know how service run by Thomson Reuters) before she joined Cooley and she realised her practice of keeping her legal knowledge updated through its online feed could be useful to others. She also follows the impact and implications of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) updates, using articles from a variety of sources. ‘I’ve always had an interest in data and specific fields,’ Gloriya says.

Sarah looks out for commercial awareness in aspiring trainees and likes to see applicants taking responsibility for their own learning.

‘We never expect anyone to be an expert, but we do expect people to realise they are aiming to be a business lawyer,’ she says. ‘We operate in a marketplace and we also have to think about how we do things as a law firm. We work with clients at different ends of the scale and development: from smaller clients and start-ups to very sophisticated clients. As a lawyer you will need to understand how to adapt to the context in which you are giving advice,’ says Sarah. ‘We would expect candidates to be aware of how headlines relate to the operation of businesses and to talk about that in an interview: for example, major economic trends and political events such as the recent Autumn Statement. We don’t expect them to know the absolute ins and outs, but to be able to consider what concerns a chief executive or financial director of a business might have and how that could filter through to their legal team.’

How to develop eye-catching skills and commercial awareness

Joanne says that joining a debate club or contributing to the university newspaper – anything that fosters critical thinking – is a plus. Volunteering efforts such as at a Citizens Advice Bureau or a legal clinic serve as learning opportunities. Her work experience shadowing a judge came about simply because she wrote to courts asking if she could.

‘It wasn’t a paid internship; it was because I wanted to see what that would be like. We can sometimes see trainees who have all the academic skills but lack confidence in themselves when it comes to public speaking or sharing their ideas. Develop your networking skills at university and careers fairs and just speak to people – it doesn’t have to be with the CEO of a company. Push yourself outside your comfort zone and try to practise,’ she suggests.

Sitting in the public gallery for a couple of hours at a local court doesn’t cost anything and teaches much, Joanne says, including: how the solicitors interact with each other; how the barristers address the judge; the whispers between the client and the solicitor during the hearing; and some of the directions that the judge might give that do not end up in the judgment.

‘All of those things you can pick up and can end up being invaluable by the time you walk through a law firm’s doors,’ Joanne says.

Gloriya feels her jobs while a student, including working at a clothing retailers as a sales advisor, have been beneficial to where she finds herself now.

‘Interaction will help you meet people from different backgrounds and teach you to adapt your communication style when you are talking to different people. In addition, it is important to have hobbies away from your work,’ she says.

Sarah finds the people she meets at careers fairs often feel that if they want to come into big law, they need to show sophisticated legal experience because they consider that most valuable and relevant. Instead, Sarah recommends looking for what they gain from any work experience, rather than where it is. Keys to success include being able to show curiosity, self-motivation and proactive self-development.

‘Service, particularly in a student-level role, is relevant, even if it’s at a job you don’t want to do for the rest of your life. Working hard is not always glamorous. Sometimes you might be serving someone who is being difficult, or you need to figure out what a person needs even if they are not communicating that to you. I encourage people to think laterally, to treat things they have done in a critical way and pull out the points relevant to something that they might do in the workplace.’

As a student Gloriya used LinkedIn to follow people who worked for Cooley to understand more about the firm and to keep up with posts related to the firm.

‘I learned about the clients and industry that way. I was also part of a legal technology competition called LawWithoutWalls and I did mooting and negotiations as part of The Negotiation Society .’

Sarah adds that careers websites, blogs and other free resources are invaluable, though it can sometimes prove hard to weed out what is useful.

‘There are podcasts available now that you can listen to on a train journey, for example. You can make it part of your everyday existence without too much trouble. Find reporters and podcasters that you like, who fit with how you learn,’ she says.

While echoing Gloriya’s earlier recommendations for striking up conversations, Joanne recognises that having connections in the first place can be a privilege that is not open to everyone.

‘The most accessible way for someone to develop their commercial awareness is to follow reputable business news resources. That will help you stay informed about industry trends, market changes and legal developments. You don’t have to have a subscription to the Financial Times or Economist – obviously, it’s great if you do, but the BBC’s business and technology new sections were my go-to resource for a very long time as a student. Also, as Gloriya says, you can set up alerts for a particular industry or sector you want to follow. The BBC was always my go-to and it doesn’t cost a penny.’

Listen, watch and learn to improve your skillset

Gloriya didn’t enjoy presenting and public speaking, but through training she has improved those skills. She also developed her networking ability by striking up meaningful conversations with colleagues over lunches and meetings.

Trainees can pick up a lot by observing and listening to associates and partners talking to each other, Joanne points out. Joanne is mindful that remote working practices can hinder trainees’ access to more senior lawyers’ exchanges if they are done over the phone or by video call, so she has developed a habit of asking to include a trainee on such calls. If specific areas need addressing, all trainees and associates have access to the firm’s professional development coaching resources.

How to choose a law firm

Joanne originally considered becoming a barrister, rather than a solicitor – she even work-shadowed a judge for a couple of weeks. She wanted to combine intellectual challenges with problem solving and when she started applying for vacation schemes she sought a firm that suited her personality type.

‘At that early learning stage in my career, I knew I wasn’t someone who would thrive in a large trainee cohort environment, so I wanted to be among a smaller number of trainees,’ she explains. As an undergraduate at York University, Joanne attended a Leeds careers fair, where she met Sarah with a group of trainees. She was struck by their warmth and the firm’s interesting clients. Though she received a number of training contract offers Joanne made her choice based on that warmth, plus the respect and care she was shown through the application process.

Gloriya wanted a job that would help people solve problems while making the most of her fondness for using detailed research and analysis to come up with innovative solutions. She was an A level student when she realised law would marry all those elements together. Later, friends highlighted Cooley as a good fit for her, something confirmed by her experience of the firm’s vacation scheme.

‘The size of the trainee cohort was a factor, I wanted to go to somewhere that I could take on more responsibility than I would have in a big firm with lots of trainees,’ she says. Gloriya secured a training contract at Cooley at her second attempt, despite being hospitalised with Covid-19 during the assessment process. ‘The firm was very supportive, understanding and kind to me,’ she says.

All three interviewees agreed that, despite being a US ‘big law’ firm, Cooley maintains a one-firm approach, giving it a family feel, regardless of the department worked in and the fact they are based at its London office.

‘We’re big on diversity and inclusion, and giving back to community. That’s important to me, I come from a very international background and I wanted to join a firm that valued that,’ says Gloriya.

Joanne points out that, even where a good culture exists, it has to be maintained through the concerted efforts of the people there, especially as big law can mean working long hours. ‘It’s easier to maintain an inclusive culture when you are working with people who have similar values and beliefs,’ she says.

Career highlights – from the first sense of achievement to major case law

Gloriya says her earliest rewarding moment came when her first seat supervisor trusted her to lead a call with a client. ‘The client was grateful for my work and when I moved seats to life sciences they kept in touch with me. That kick-started my career and I felt I had achieved a lot, even though it was a small task,’ she says. The vaccine work that the life sciences department undertook while she was there also felt rewarding. In addition, Gloriya also started working on a pro bono case in the earliest weeks of her training contract and she is pleased that it is continuing to progress.

Joanne’s highlights also include a pro bono case. ‘We undertake work for the National Deaf Children’s Society,’ she says, explaining that when teens and children lose disability allowances serious financial hardship can follow. She advocated for a mother and son on such a case five years ago. At tribunal the son received the highest benefits that could be awarded. ‘It was really emotional for all of us and we still write each other a letter at Christmas… From a heartwarming perspective, that is my favourite story,’ she says.

Joanne also was lead associate on a complex life sciences dispute relating to a clinical trial. The matter took two-and-a-half years to come to court and the trial continued for about eight weeks. ‘Ultimately our client prevailed and the judgment was the first to enshrine in case law the standard for companies conducting clinical trials on behalf of sponsors… Knowing we were involved in producing a case that has precedential value, that felt very meaningful,’ she says.

People reading this also searched for roles in these areas:

Related careers advice

undefined background image

We've got you

Get the latest jobs, internships, careers advice, courses and graduate events based on what's important to you. Start connecting directly with top employers today.