A buzzword often seen when it comes to training contract, apprenticeship and paralegal applications and assessments is ‘commercial awareness’. Commercial awareness in the legal sector is the ability to be able to apply knowledge of current affairs to your clients, their business needs and also the way in which a law firm/organisation operates.

Clients are increasingly looking for their lawyers to be able to provide a “value added” service, on top of the legal advice they are providing. This is often where understanding a client’s business, their needs and how the legal advice provided will affect them comes in to play.

Broadly speaking, external factors that can affect a law firm and/or its clients can be broken down into the following three areas:

  • Political;
  • Social; and
  • Economic.

One of the most important things to remember with commercial awareness is that it is a concept that requires flexibility. The world around us changes on a daily basis so you need to stay up to date on these changes to be on top of your game.

Press, podcasts and social media

One of the simplest ways to improve commercial awareness is by doing your research.

Try to get into a routine of reading the papers, listening to podcasts and reviewing social media at least once a week, if not more frequently than this. This will help you to keep up to date with current affairs.

Social media can be an interesting way to develop your understanding of commercial awareness. Set up a specific account that you can use to follow and engage with other people from the legal and business sectors. By engaging with others and having meaningful discussions, you will be able to see how current issues affect the market. Consider what your opinion is on the matters that you read about and read opinions that differ from yours also to ensure you formulate a well-rounded view.

When it comes to focusing on a few areas of interest, try look for publications, materials and social media accounts that reflect those areas of interest. These do not need to be legal publications; publications in business will also be helpful. Looking at the business side will help you to grasp an understanding of the issues potential clients are facing.

Focus on what interests you

Rather than trying to learn facts about everything that is going on in the world at present, focus on areas of personal interest to you. Not only will this help you to really get to grips with a topic, it will also mean that when you are discussing it at an interview or in an application, you will be able to convey your passion and interest.

Tailoring your learning to your passion and interests can also help you to stand out from the crowd. One of the most common examples recently is “Brexit” and how this will affect the legal sector. Give your answer a different edge by saying how it may impact a specific sector or area.

Learn about the firm

Try to get an understanding of how the firm you are applying to is structured. If you are applying to an Alternative Business Structure it will be different from a partnership or in-house legal team. Understanding why the firm operates as it does will help you to understand the way in which they work for their clients – remember, the organisation is a business and will also be affected by external factors.

Each firm has a vision so look at this on the firm’s website and try to understand what it is that the firm is hoping to achieve. If a firm mentions it is looking to increase its profitability, then consider ways that it might be able to achieve this.

Apply your own experiences 

You may be worried when it comes to applications and interviews that you do not have enough legal experience, but that does not matter. Law firms and graduate recruitment teams are looking to hire well-rounded individuals that can use their own work experience in different business areas to demonstrate commercial awareness.

Part-time jobs, work experience and internships can all help to develop your understanding of how a business operates – you may have even had the chance to be involved in decisions that affect the business and its profitability.

If you are still at university and have limited work experience then draw upon your time at university. Being part of a society or helping to run a sports team can all help to develop skills that you can use in your future career. Try to think about times you were involved in key decisions or led a team and the impact these had for yourself and the wider team/society.

Use your own experiences to your advantage and make sure you draw on key skills you have developed that you believe you can use in your role as a trainee!

Remember that commercial awareness cannot just be developed overnight and requires continual learning to be able to understand the trends in the marketplace that affect law firms, their clients and how we might advise our clients as a result of these events.

Sinead McGrath is a Law Society Council member, representing trainee solicitors and LPC students and a paralegal at Eversheds Sutherland