Commercial awareness is essential to your legal career. Far from being just a stepping stone to a training contract or vacation scheme, it’s something you’ll use daily from the first day of your training contract right up until you make partner.
Many aspiring lawyers misunderstand commercial awareness: they approach it as they would prepare for an exam, memorising facts and figures from articles and assuming they’ll suddenly be “granted” the status of a commercially aware candidate.
In fact, commercial awareness comes about much more gradually and continuously: you work at it every day, all your life, and the phrases and concepts you pick up make you a better reader, writer, analyst and communicator.
Being commercially aware is also quite paradoxical: you need to understand broad concepts, but talk about them specifically and make clear references to a variety of topics. If you were talking about Brexit, for example, you’d need to demonstrate that you’ve been tracking the issue for a while using a variety of news media and you understand the repercussions. But you also might need to talk, very specifically, how it might affect the business of a client in a certain industry.
This may seem like an impossible task, but the types of firm that interest you - as well as the areas of law - are likely to shape and hone your commercial awareness.
The first step is to figure out what makes a firm unique. “We’re a national UK law firm, so we don’t have offices overseas, and we’re not very London-centric,” explains Alison Gilson, a partner at Shoosmiths. “We have a London office, but we’re much more regional. All of our offices have a similar kind of worth and weighting within the business.”
With this in mind, it would be beneficial to focus your commercial awareness on the regional cities in which Shoosmiths has a strong presence. Clients in cities across the UK are likely to be subject to their own concerns, based on the economic fluctuations of their specific cities. It’s crucial to understand these economic fluctuations and identify how Shoosmiths fits in as a provider of legal services.
Before you start reading the relevant articles and signing up for news updates, it’s a good idea to plan your focus areas. Identify the city in which the office you’re applying to sits, and do a bit of research. What are the key economic drivers in that region? Manchester, for example, has one of the largest economies in England, and a large proportion of its urban economy comes from financial and business services. It’s also a significant distribution hub for a lot of global companies, due to its central position in the UK, and the area in general has been subject to a lot of construction and urban development. All of these are important factors to consider when applying for law opportunities within the region: they’re likely to affect the clients you’re hoping to work for.
For comparison, Leeds - another city in which Shoosmiths has an office - has large sub-sectors including engineering, printing and publishing, chemicals and modern technology, in addition to being a finance and legal hub. The city also has a large manufacturing base. An analytical, discerning candidate will have a strong understanding of the different economic drivers and be able to give examples that take into account the region’s characteristics.
Of course, Shoosmiths has a presence in 13 locations across the UK, meaning that commercial developments on a national level will be important to consider when researching the firm and preparing for an application or assessment centre. It’s a key principle of commercial awareness to analyse regional developments, but also to consider how they fit into the bigger picture.
If you find that the national press can be a bit London-centric, a good way to keep on top of region-specific commercial updates is to check out the regional news. Most papers will have dedicated business or finance sections, so you can keep an eye on what makes the city tick financially. Shoosmiths also publishes press releases on its website - reading about the work being done by the firm across the country is a great way to understand the areas of practice that it tends to work in, as well as the legal work that’s characteristic of certain regions.
Becky Kells is the editor at AllAboutLaw, writing and commissioning advice articles to keep aspiring lawyers informed about the route they need to take. She regularly interviews trainees, partners and law graduate recruiters, as well as researching and writing articles for AllAboutLaw’s commercial awareness newspaper, The Principle.
If you have any further questions about the application process, you can email us at [email protected] or have a look at some frequently asked questions here.