Think you know? You should do! That old chestnut – Commercial Awareness. I’ve heard and seen it described in all manner of ways but for me, the most straightforward way of understanding commercial awareness in this context can be summed up as “knowing what your client wants to achieve and how to use the law to do it”.
This therefore implies two things:
1) You know your client’s business very well, including the sector in which the client operates
2) You know the law in that area and can use it to try to find a solution to your client’s needs.
So what firms are after then, are not those people who take a purely legalistic view, but people who can use their legal knowledge to find a solution for a client that makes the most ‘business sense’ for that client. (And just as an aside, this is why I don’t think it’s a good idea to include “helping people” as your motivation for becoming a commercial lawyer. Sometimes the most sensible economic decision isn’t always the one that will “help” the most people!)
But, how can I demonstrate Commercial Awareness when I haven’t worked in a law firm and I don’t know enough about different business sectors yet?
Law firms are looking for candidates with an active interest in the wider world of commerce and a common-sense understanding of what businesses do. One way you can demonstrate this ‘business sense’ is by talking about your part-time jobs and showing an understanding of your role in context. For example, if you have worked as a Sales Assistant for a large retailer, you might show an awareness of how your customer-focused approach and working well in your team led to your department exceeding sales targets for a particular month, leading to increased profit for the store. Likewise, if you have been a waitress in a small café, you could talk about the importance of good communication skills in keeping a loyal customer base as you recognised the fact that the small business you worked for was competing against larger cafes in the area. So perhaps you focused on providing a personal, friendly service to your customers to keep them coming back.
The SWOT analysis can be a useful way to break down the tools for commercialism: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. Using this as a prompt, you can weave your business sense into other answers in your application form and at interviews. For example, when talking about why you have applied to the firm, or why you want to be a commercial lawyer, you can show that you understand the firm’s position, who its competitors are, what the challenges it faces are, and so on.
So what else do law firms want to see in their future lawyers?
Resilience- aka – your response to failure. Ha! Clever law firms. You’re trying to get a job with them by having to talk about times you have failed at things or when things have not gone so well. They certainly don’t make it easy do they? And we know that more and more firms are now looking at this as a key criterion in their application process. But actually, this doesn’t have to be as negative as it sounds…..
Firms invest a lot of time and money in their trainees, and they want to know that you are robust enough to handle the rigours of working in the legal industry. More than that, they want to be sure that when you get things wrong (and believe me, when you are training it is a matter of when rather than if) that you don’t just crumble into a heap and give up. So they are looking for examples of when you have tried and failed at something, wanting to see you demonstrate how you took control of your fear, planned, found a new way around something, had a sense of humour about it (!), and very importantly, what you learned from it.
This post covers some of the qualities expected in future lawyers: http://legalexecutiveinstitute.com/view-from-the-uk-law-students-howell-williams/
I’m not an IT person, so for those of you not naturally IT-inclined, you have my sympathies. However, you are the so called “IT-savvy generation”. And with law, like many other sectors, becoming an increasingly digital environment, law firms need lawyers who have an ability to work with computers and online devices. Therefore the technological aptitude of law graduates is fast changing from an employer preference to a pre-requisite. How can you demonstrate this in an application form?
Clearly the manner in which you complete the form will show some degree of IT literacy. However, referring to relevant software in answers, being up to date with new technological advances and at least showing you understand the terminology will serve you well. There are a number of recent articles out there about technological advancements and the effect on the provision of legal services. You’d be doing yourself a big favour getting up to speed with this.
This isn’t an exhaustive list of course. There are all the usual suspects still needing a moment in the spotlight. Things like team-work, organisation, problem-solving, leadership skills etc. still have their part to play. But it’s useful to think about which skills and attributes are currently the most sought after, to ensure that you give yourself the best chance of success with applications you are making now.