Commercial Awareness a.k.a. How to show firms that you have business sense

You know how when a song gets played over and over again it really puts you off that song and you start to hate it?  I think the term ‘commercial awareness’ is like that song.  The phrase has been used for so long and so often that for many students, it has become really off-putting and intimidating.  We need a new name for it.  But we also need to demystify it from time to time.

What is it?

Commercial awareness basically means ‘business sense’. 

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!)

What does this actually mean?

To break this down further, most business clients want to do things the “right” way (from a legal stand point) but in the most economical way.  They want to save on time and cost.  Therefore a good commercial lawyer will get to know their client’s business well so that they can advise on the best way of doing something within the law, in the fastest time using the fewest resources.

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-focussed 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 waiter 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.

I have recently also been reminded of the SWOT analysis which can be a useful way to break down the tools for commerciality: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and 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 firms’ position, who its competitors are, what challenges it faces, and so on.

Most students I come into contact with feel that if they haven’t worked in a commercial role or for a large organisation then they cannot show evidence of having business sense.  This is not true.  Use what you have.  For me, it’s how an applicant writes or talks about their business sense that’s more important than what they have actually done from an experience point of view.  If you’re not sure, use the many online resources out there to find out more.  Or use the Careers Team within the Student Opportunity Department to help you to think about your own experiences from a commercial perspective. 

Just try not to hate that song.  Maybe just listen to a different version….

Rachel Vacalopoulos

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