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Commercial Awareness

Commercial awareness is a major buzz-phrase in the application world. You must exhibit it in order to attain a training contract at a commercial firm. But is this examined effectively in interviews? And do prospective trainees fully understand its meaning?

Commercial awareness is often taken on face value by applicants. This means that many assume that reading a newspaper and being able to follow a story will be good enough. Sometimes they’re right; there are some firms that ask either: “Please tell us about a commercial issue that caught your eye recently and explain its significance” or, more fiendishly, “Please tell us your thoughts on X commercial issue”.

In my opinion, the second of these is less fair, because it presumes that you have an interest in that particular issue. I was once asked about the Irish bailout. I was able to give a complete overview, but because my interest had been in other areas, I was unable to provide the in-depth answer that other candidates were obviously able to give. Consequently, I received the feedback that my answer did not go far enough.

Even if you do get a direct question about a specific commercial issue, it’s the second half of the question, i.e. explaining its significance, which is truly a measure of your commercial awareness. Your discussion of the issue’s significance is where the firm assesses your understanding that the world does not operate in a series of parallel bubbles, but more like the circles in a Venn diagram, where the worlds of law, commerce and politics all overlap. This is particularly important if there isn’t a “commercial news story” question at all, as there often isn’t.

A recent poster on a message board spoke of their feedback after an interview, which contained a commerciality question, but no topical news story question. They said: “The firm told me that my current commercial awareness was just okay, some parts were good, but I didn’t go into enough detail on some things. We didn’t really talk much about current news or anything though…maybe I should have randomly brought up some topics?”

I know someone else who had an interview at this same firm. They’d also read the commercial and financial press extensively, but they knew that the idea was not to “randomly bring up topics” but to use the current issues to justify answers in other areas. It’s very difficult to just randomly bring up a topic of current news in an interview, a conversation in which you as the interviewee do not set the agenda. After all, you can’t pipe up with: “So what do you think of BP’s deal with Reliance in India?”

What you can do, though, is use current issues to furnish your answers. For instance, when answering a question about why you want to work for an international firm, you can refer to recent issues that are affecting the jurisdictions that the firm currently works in. Alternatively, you can even demonstrate an awareness of where the markets may move over the next few years by referring to topical issues and trends.

In my opinion, this is the real way to show what is commonly known as ‘commercial awareness’. The information itself isn’t an indication of your commercial nous. Instead, the way to demonstrate your commercial awareness is by understanding the way that information applies to the world of commercial law, or the way commercial law applies to that particular news item.

It’s also important to remember that commercial awareness isn’t only to be found in theFinancial Times. I once asked a solicitor for a definition of commercial awareness. I was expecting something quite self-evident about being aware of the world around you and making sure that you understood how businesses operate, but he replied that commerciality to him was about getting your client from A to B with minimum fuss.

Sometimes that wasn’t in the way that the client first envisaged, but his role as a solicitor wasn’t supposed to be that of a regulator or applications officer, it was as facilitator. He mentioned that some lawyers he deals with just sit in meetings and say “we can’t do that” and end the sentence there, whereas others would say “well, we might not be able to do that, but we can get the same result by doing this instead.”

Commercial awareness is, therefore, about more than just knowing what was on the front page of the newspaper today. It’s about understanding businesses and knowing the right kind of things to consider if someone approaches you for advice on a business opportunity. Whatever branch of commercial law you end up in, as a commercial solicitor, your life is based on advising these kinds of clients.

You have to be able to show that you understand the client’s issues and concerns. That’s why part of being a good commercial lawyer is about knowing the industries in which your clients operate like the back of your hand. Clients will come to you because of your expertise and knowledge of their industry and your ability to enable them to reach a successful conclusion to their problem.

It appears therefore that the phrase ‘commercial awareness’ may be a misnomer in certain circumstances. Of course, you do need to keep up-to-date with the news. My own personal feedback is an illustration of why you need to know about world commerce issues, if only to convey your enthusiasm for commercial matters to your interviewers. However, being a commercially aware lawyer runs so much deeper than being able to churn out mere information; it’s about thinking like a businessman and a lawyer at the same time.  

When it comes to interview, you need to think about what is best for a business in a strategic sense. As someone once said to me, “Being the best technical lawyer does not always equate to being the best practical lawyer.” Recognising that law does not operate in a bubble is, in my opinion, the first and most important step towards developing your commercial awareness.

Written by Ashley Connick

Ashley is studying the GDL at the College of Law, Bloomsbury. He writes an excellent blog, which can be found here.