The C-word, what is it and why is everyone so afraid of it?
Commercial awareness can be simply defined as staying up-to-date on daily happenings and developments in the business and commercial world – All aboutlaw.
However, on a recent insight day at Reed Smith Ltd, a partner there told me whilst staying up to date on daily happenings is all good and well, how these happenings affected their firm and their competitors was what commercial awareness meant to them. A FTSE 100 trader will tell you that commercial awareness is the ability to use information to depict trends within the market and make money. What I’m trying to tell you, is that no one shoe fits all, and there is no one true definition, at least that’s my opinion. You may feel, having no definition makes it more difficult a concept, however, surely having no one single fixed definition leaves it open to interpretation?
If you are reading this and are a law student, I would say the ability to use information to appreciate and recognise how a firm may be affected is on the right path to being commercially aware. Whether this is new legislation entering the statute books, such as the Withdrawal Agreement Act recently given Royal Assent, or the introduction of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into the legal sector.
Having established what commercial awareness is, you may ask yourself what is the importance of commercial awareness? I mean, surely the long and arduous hours of staying in the library and revising are good enough? In fact, quite the contrary. We live in a time where cars drive themselves, Alexa turns off the lights, Tinder finds your next date and if that isn’t good enough you can, apparently, get rich from buying and selling stocks and shares on your phone. If you haven’t already got it, the expectations of clients are ever-growing, exponentially. Lewis Brett, tech consultant and Chief Strategy Office of SYKE, a legal engineering company, demonstrated the uses of tech within the legal sector, the effects of which dramatically increased the free time of professionals.
The cloud, something I’m sure we are all aware of, helps allow lawyers to work in any location at any time, thus removing the need to work from the office. More advances in AI software such as SpeechWrite360 (Siri, but much better) listens to your voice and over time adapts to it, meaning it will type, print and email your work. Even more advanced than this is Lex Machina, a company that in layman terms, inputs masses of data into software to predict the outcome of cases and best strategies. Returning to the question of the importance of commercial awareness, I hope now you can see that clients want someone who can advise on a wide range of issues but also have some business acumen to achieve and understand their aims, help support their clients and positively contribute towards the success of the firm. Further to this, law firms now have huge choice when it comes to legal services, with just shy of 150,000 practising solicitors in England and Wales, there is definitely no shortage of options.
Now that you know what commercial awareness is, and its importance, let’s look at how you can be more commercially aware. Reading this article is a good start, however, as I stated above there is no one correct way to be more aware. Whilst occasional reading is better than none at all, it is still an ineffective way to develop your commercial awareness. Current affairs tend to move at a rapid pace and if you don’t keep it up, within a few days you may find that you’ll be lumbered with pages of reading.
I’d personally say try to stick to what you’re interested in, and whilst commercial awareness involves having a ‘rounded’ knowledge if you have no prior experience you may feel overwhelmed at first. Second, always remember that whatever platform you enjoy using, whether that be TV, podcasts, social media or hard copy, there will always be a source to suit your particular preferences. Many people these days don’t like reading something that isn’t available on your phone. If this is you, LinkedIn is a great way to connect with other professionals and follow current commercial affairs. Podcasts such as ‘The Commercial Awareness Podcast’ and ‘Law Pod’, give short concise updates on current and commercial affairs and interesting legal issues. The Financial Times, The Times, Telegraph and Guardian are good reputable papers that provide vast global analysis (I wouldn’t recommend tabloid newspapers such as The Sun to develop your commercial awareness).
Now you know what commercial awareness is, the next questions are, why is it important to us as professionals and how do we develop it? Finally, this section will help you understand where you can apply this newfound knowledge. If you are hoping to gain a vacation scheme or placement, training contract or job that involves an element of face to face client interaction then the application of commercial awareness will be vital in applications, assessments and interviews. In a recent application to Addleshaw Goddard, I was asked to discuss a recent piece of news that I found interesting and how it would affect the firm; I discussed the potential withdrawal of funding for HS2 and the effect this would have on the Northern Powerhouse. Some organisations might not mention the C-word at all, but still indirectly have an expectation that you demonstrate it. There will be a subtle theme of commercial awareness through most application procedures, becoming heightened as you approach the interviews. Please do not, under any circumstance, just reiterate what you have read this morning, but instead critically analyse how this will impact legal services and more importantly the firm.
I hope this short blog has been helpful in your quest to develop your levels of commercial awareness.