An advantage with Vantage: connecting with leading legal firms

“Everything you want in life is a relationship away.”

 Idowu Koyenikan.

Everyone knows that applying for first year opportunities, vacation schemes or training contracts can be a competitive process. As a result, taking opportunities to speak to and connect with the firms you’re interested in or applying to is of paramount importance. Typically, this has involved visiting law fairs, conferences or other networking events.

A new approach to connect with firms allows you to network from your bedroom! Vantage, a free online platform launched last year, has been designed to help you do exactly that.  This post details what it is and how you can get started.


How it works

As detailed on their website:

“Vantage matches candidates to fantastic opportunities at law firms in a much smarter way than ever before. Using contextual recruitment, Vantage showcases people from every demographic, searches for top performers from every institution and puts your grades into context.”

By completing an online profile, which takes less than 10 minutes to complete, firms can search for you based on a number of factors including your subject of study, year of graduation or area of interest. This means that, when a firm contacts you through Vantage, you know that they are genuinely interested in engaging with you specifically. This is hugely different to other options such as law fairs, that can often lack that ‘personal’ element.

Pedestrians, Rush Hour, Blurred, Urban, Walking, Motion

Who you connect with

Vantage boasts an impressive cohort of recruiters. You’re able to connect with an impressive array of leading firms, including:

  • Ashurst
  • Baker McKenzie
  • Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
  • Clifford Chance
  • Clyde & Co, Dechert
  • Eversheds Sutherland
  • Herbert Smith Freehills
  • Hogan Lovells
  • Linklaters
  • Macfarlanes
  • Pinsent Masons
  • Slaughter and May
  • Travers Smith
  • Weil
  • …and more!
London, St Paul'S, Great Britain, Night, Bridge, City

So if you want to hear about vacation schemes, training contracts, insight days, work experience and much more, check out Vantage at the link below. You can also follow Vantage on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at the handle @vantage_app to keep up to date with news from Vantage and the firms they partner with. 

Many thanks to Vantage for collaborating with me and sponsoring the production of this post.

My Guide to Commercial Awareness

Thank you for visiting my blog and for your interest in downloading my new e-book to understanding, developing and utilising your commercial awareness. You can download a PDF of it, for free, at the link below:



I wrote this book to try and distill everything I knew about commercial awareness, that I had learnt both in my studies and going through the Training Contract application process for legal jobs. I’ve done my best to keep the advice given as broadly useful as possible so that anyone, from any industry, can take some actionable steps to try and improve this vital skill.

In the book, I cover:

  • What commercial awareness actually is
  • How to best develop it as a skillset
  • How to utilise it in interviews, or in your day-to-day practice

Enjoy!


If you liked, or didn’t like, the book and would like to give feedback, please do not hesitate to contact me on LinkedIn. I would be extremely thankful for any recommendations or endorsements you may want to give on my profile with regards to my understanding of commercial awareness as a skill, or if you found my mentoring helpful. If you’d like to leave feedback via email and would be happy for me to potentially post/quote an anonymised version in future, you can do so at harryclarklaw@gmail.com. Thank you!


Social Media Handles:

LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/harryclarklaw/
Twitter – https://twitter.com/HarryClarkLaw
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/harry.clark.law/


My ‘Trainee Talk’ with The Corporate Law Academy

“Everybody and their mother has a book and a podcast these days.”

Loren Weisman.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with Jaysen Sutton, founder of The Corporate Law Academy, in his ‘Trainee Talk’ podcast series.


TCLA aims to assist aspiring commercial solicitors in their journey towards a Training Contract, providing a number of guides, resources and mentoring contacts. The online learning platform is full of really useful information that is invaluable to helping you through the application process for commercial firms – from online applications right through to assessment centres and interviews. TCLA also runs a number of networking conferences and events, designed to help you learn more about what a trainee’s responsibilities are, learn more about a certain sector of commercial law, or to simply develop your professional network.

Their podcast series, ‘Trainee Talk’, interviews current and future trainee solicitors at various law firms on a broad variety of topics. During my podcast episode, entitled “Leveraging your Unique Selling Points”, I spoke about:

  • My journey into the world of Law and securing a Training Contract
  • The development of this blog and my plans for it in the future
  • Mental health and wellbeing within the legal sector
  • The benefits of meditation and mindfulness – especially for Law students
  • My advice regarding networking, drafting an application and interviewing

…and much more! You can find links to the podcast episode and TCLA below.


Commercial Awareness – what is it, exactly?

“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”

– Albert Einstein.

You don’t have to spend a long time within the world of business before you inevitably hear the magic two-word phrase ‘commercial awareness’. It’s becoming an increasingly sought-after skill for candidates in banking, legal and other client-focused sectors. A quick search of the term online returns hundreds of articles talking about the importance of commercial awareness, but what actually is it? How do you get it? Most importantly, how do you use it? I’ve done my best to address these common questions below.


What is commercial awareness?

Depending on who you ask and where you search, commercial awareness can have several varying definitions and interpretations:

As you can see, there is no clear one definition of what commercial awareness is, but it certainly encompasses all of the elements outlined above. To help grasp it as a concept, I think it’s really useful to think of commercial awareness as being made up of two complementary components – ‘externally’-focused and ‘internally’-focused commercial awareness.


External Commercial Awareness

‘External’ commercial awareness is more traditionally understood and emphasised among aspiring solicitors – focusing on how the firm’s clients and responsible parties are going to be affected by any changes in the business world.

It’s clear that lawyers need to be able to do more than just know what the letter of the law is – they need to be able to use that knowledge effectively and apply it to a situation. A change in the economic, technological, political or geopolitical landscape can be as transformative a development for a client’s problem as a regulatory-legal one. Economic crashes, breakdowns of trade agreements and referendum results (let’s not get too into that one…) can have rippling effects on a client’s budget, willingness to take risk, access to capital and more. As their lawyer, a client is coming to you so that you can assist them in achieving their business needs – a merger, sale, franchising etc. – so it is up to you to be able to accommodate those legal needs within the shifting broader framework of the business world.


Internal Commercial Awareness

Conversely, ‘internal’ commercial awareness is primarily focused on the inner running of the firm as a business on both a short and long-term basis. It is important to realise that firms are ultimately businesses and as such will look to innovate their business practices, invest in their long-term goals and diversify themselves from their competitors. I spoke with Christopher Stoakes, an expert and leading author on commercial awareness, whilst I was at University. The key thing he stressed is that a firm is like any other business in so many ways – they need to keep an eye on their bottom line, profitability, assets and cash flow.

When it comes to the innovation of business practices, firms can aim to do so in many ways. Many are already turning to AI-based solutions for administrative tasks, with a view to incorporate them fully into their business practices as the technology develops. Some are improving their flexibility to client needs with an array of consultant lawyers at hand for when they need them. Or, perhaps, they’re opening new dedicated departments in emerging markets, such as video game, cryptocurrency, or space law.

Understanding how your role as a trainee fits within this business practice is also critically important. There are a number of dependency relationships that exist throughout a business regardless of how senior or junior your role is. Who you receive work from, who you give it to once you have added value to it and the general broader network of the business’ stakeholders are all dependent on your efficiency and effectiveness to succeed. A good way of visualising this value of your work, in order to analyse it, is to think about what would happen to the workings of the business if your role did not exist – who would address the role’s needs? Who else’s work might be affected as a result? How does it affect the commercial profitability of the business? Having an understanding of these elements can demonstrate to a firm that you know how you contribute to the commerciality of the business, as well as the potential options for career progression, mentoring and adding your own innovative ideas to the system.


What is it not?

Given the difficulties in giving it a single definition, there are a number of misconceptions as to how one should develop their commercial awareness. Below are some of those misconceptions, including those I used to believe myself!


“I need to know one article really, really well”

In the initial application stages for a Training Contract, lots of firms like to ask candidates to discuss a recent news article that they are both interested in and believe has commercial importance to the firm and its clients. These sorts of questions are giving you an opportunity to demonstrate your commercially-aware mindset and understand the implications of a storyline. It can be tempting to meticulously study one article and memorise an in-depth answer in order to answer the application question, or discuss it should it be brought up at a later interview stage. Whilst this may seem effective in the short-term, it will only get you so far – firms will look to asses a candidate’s all-round commercial awareness capabilities continuously at the later stages of an application, often looking for it within case-study, group-based and written assessments.


“Browsing headlines tells me everything I need to know”

Most headlines nowadays will often include the most eye-catching part of a story to try and grab your attention, but there is a lot of useful information that goes amiss contained throughout the article too. Quotes from important individuals, or editorial speculations as to how the story may develop in future, are two examples of important information that go beyond the surface-level statement of a headline. You need to understand the deeper implications of the change taking place – which specific clients or industries will it affect? Will this change still be in place 10 years from now? How does it affect the firm? Is it linked with any other recent news events? Exploring these types of questions will give you a more cohesive understanding of business developments beyond what most people will know about them.


“I need to be able to predict the future of what happens next”

Whilst solicitors are expected to be able to combine their experience and the current commercial climate to try and prepare for their clients’ needs, you are not a fortune-teller. It is a very high-level skill to be able to make arguments, based on evidence, as to how a specific theoretical scenario might develop. It is outright supernatural ability (and foolishness given the liability it raises) to unequivocally guarantee an outcome for a client just because something similar happened before.


“I need to be a specialist who knows every industry term and detail”

Specialist knowledge can certainly be useful if you’re applying for a specialist role/firm, or if you’re enthusing about a certain seat you want to get more experience in during your Training Contract. Generally, however, it is much more preferable in an interview situation to be able to be well-rounded and a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to your commercial knowledge. You have no control about how a firm will look to test your commerciality, so being flexible with what you know and how you can apply it is by far your best approach. Use your specialist knowledge to demonstrate your enthusiasm for a certain sector and its clients, but be equally ready to be able to explain another sector with enough detail to satisfy what a recruiter is looking for. Balance your approach to your preparation, so that you can discuss your passions and interest in detail, whilst still being able to formulate a reasonable and compact answer on another topic should you need to. Keep your commerciality broad and focused on the key elements outside of your specialist areas, rather than learning every quasi-business headline from the last 7 days – you simply won’t have the time!


“I did some reading a few weeks ago, so I’ll be fine”

Commercial awareness is not a one and done skill like riding a bike which will stay with you for a long time. Instead, it is much more accurate to think of commercial awareness as a positive habit you want to enforce, like going to the gym or getting enough sleep. What you might have learned in two weeks of intensive reading and study a few months ago might already be heavily outdated. Absorb information so that you can have it at your disposal, whilst also continuing to frequently update it with any changes that happen.


How can I develop commercial awareness?

To develop your commercial awareness, it is useful to have a think about how you generally learn about the latest news updates and then adapt it to have a commercial element. I personally started off by subscribing to topic-based notification alerts on my phone as well as the LinkedIn Daily Rundown, which both integrated really well with how I was fed information on a day-to-day basis. For instance, you could:

  • Follow news sites, with alerts on a Business, Finance, Legal or Economic category.
  • Use social media effectively, perhaps with an alternate account on more informal sites such as Facebook, or getting engaged with a professionally-oriented platform e.g. LinkedIn daily rundown.
  • Subscription to magazines/newspapers – delivered straight to your door, or phone, so you don’t have to hassle! You can also subscribe to their mailing lists which is generally a cheaper and quicker alternative.
  • Watching/listening to the news – even 15 minutes a day can be incredibly informative whilst you eat your breakfast, so long as you commit to paying attention and learning from it.
  • Podcast learning – platforms like Spotify and Apple Music now offer an incredible range of podcasts, episodic releases and interviews that are really informative. 

If you’re looking for more specific examples and recommendations of the best commercial awareness sources, you can check out my resource list at https://hclark.law.blog/2019/08/28/commercial-awareness-resource-list/.


How do I demonstrate my ability to use commercial awareness to employers?

Taking everything above into account, you will be expected to demonstrate your commercial awareness to your employers – both in the application process and continually throughout your career to demonstrate your willingness to learn and enthusiasm. From an assessment perspective, role-play or interviews will often ask open leading questions that can prompt an opportunity for you to demonstrate your commercial awareness. Similarly, if a mock scenario given to you reminds you of a similar event that happened recently, talk about it to the depth most applicable to the situation. This happened to me in my Baker McKenzie interview, where I was able to compare the share pricing issue at hand with the economic and legal reaction to Tesla’s Elon Musk share price ‘fiasco’ last year (see here https://tinyurl.com/elon18). 

Do your best to keep your response logical and structured so that your potential employer can see your thought process clearly. Be ready for counter-questions regardless of however clearly you explain something, as you need to be able to evidence your ability to think on your feet. Summarise what you know in your own words rather than repeating everything verbatim and speak with confidence as best you can!


My Top 10 TC Tips

“…I refuse to tolerate lists. They’re lazy. And listy.” 

― Greg Gutfeld.

The competition for Training Contracts (TCs) has always been fiercely intense. Thousands of applicants apply every year for only a limited number of places. It’s important to make sure that your applications demonstrate your strengths and interests as clearly as possible to any recruiter in order to stand out from the crowd. With that in mind, here are my in-depth, top 10 tips to help you try and secure a coveted Training Contract.


1) Choose your route

Firstly, it’s important to take into consideration the many ways you can secure a TC offer. The most commonly referred to ‘conventional’ route would probably look something like this:

Of course, this is a very narrow view of how TC applications function. There are, in fact, a wide variety of routes to securing a TC. A revised diagram of just some of them (not including Paralegal opportunities) might look something like this:

It’s worth taking into consideration which route is most applicable to you based on your levels of experience and education and researching the first steps to starting them.


2) Tailor your application

One of the most important things to keep in mind while drafting your TC application is to make sure you tailor your applications to the firm you’re applying to. Whilst firms can be similar, no two are the same – each have their own culture, clients, strengths and what they’re looking for from their Trainees. Your application should demonstrate specifically why you want to join that firm rather than being a generic and ambiguous copy-paste answer. Recruiters want to see clear motivations as to why their firm appeals to you, as well as how well you would fit in within that kind of firm.

Evidencing these interests can be done in a number of ways, including (but not limited to):

  • Highlighting your attendance at events such as open days, law fairs, careers dinners and conferences
  • Identifying a specific department/TC seat that you are interested in and referencing the firm’s strengths or recent deals in that area
  • Using your academic background (perhaps your module choices, dissertation, or other similar achievement) as evidence of your interest in the firm’s practice areas
  • Evidencing your skill set through your attendance at firm-sponsored workshops and courses

3) Be aware of commercial awareness

Commercial awareness is becoming an increasingly expected skill of aspiring solicitors today, alongside many other commercially-focused sectors such as finance or marketing. At its most basic level, commercial awareness is an ability to keep up with the developments of the business world. Why you should have it and how you can develop it further, however, are just as important to know.

Clients need to have faith in their solicitors that they understand the needs of their business. For example, if a client states that they wish to setup a new business in a foreign country, then you (as their solicitor) need to be at least a few steps ahead when it comes to thinking about any relevant and recent changes to the business world which might impact their decision. Has there been a change in regulation, or currency rates, or geopolitical relationships? How will these affect the decision-making of your client?

Alongside this ‘externally’-focused approach to commercial awareness, it is just as important to be ‘internally’-focused as well – i.e., what might impact the operation of the firm you are working for? How do you, as a trainee, fit in the broader picture of a law firm? What are firms doing differently now then they did, say, 20 years ago? What should they be considerate of in the future?

It’s nigh impossible to be able to have a perfect answer memorised for every variation of these questions – but the reality of commercial awareness is almost the exact opposite. It is much more useful to have a developed mindset as to how to view and approach a problem then it is to be able to regurgitate a handful of wildly impractical facts or news articles. Firms will frequently test this at the interview stage of TC applications, so don’t rely on knowing one article word-for-word to get you through – it is much better to be well-rounded across a variety of topics.

If you’re looking to learn more about commercial awareness, you can check out my posts on it here.


4) Identify your Unique Selling Points (USPs)

Whilst typically ‘USPs’ is considered a term for Economics textbooks, thinking of your application as a showcase of them can be a great way to outline what your application needs to say. USPs demonstrate to recruiters what makes you, well, you! USPs could include, but are not limited to:

  • Noteworthy academic achievements – essay prizes; final placement in graduation class; notable dissertation topic and grade etc.
  • Extra-curricular accomplishments – positions of responsibility in a University society, College or sports team; mentoring; running or coordinating an event or performance with others etc.
  • Legal experience – work experience or placements; open days; scholarships etc. 
  • Non-legal work experience – working in retail, part-time jobs, right through to years of professional experience outside of the legal sector

Your USPs should ideally aim to communicate your ability to:

  • Work well with others, in a variety of roles
  • Produce effective and consistent results relative to your role
  • Seek out challenge with a willingness to learn
  • Excellent communication skills, with an ability to adapt to the situation at hand 
  • Handle responsibility and (if applicable) an ability to delegate it to others effectively
  • Go above and beyond what is expected of you

The above are just some recommendations as to how to both identify and outline your USPs. Go back through your CV and see what unique combinations of experience, education, personality and work ethic you can evidence to your employer. Writing down what you believe your USPs to be before you begin your first draft can really help give your application direction.

If you’re wanting to learn more about this ‘USPs’ concepts, check out my podcast episode on ‘Trainee Talk’ with The Corporate Law Academy here.


5) Do your homework

As I previously mentioned, it’s important to tailor your applications to the firm you’re applying to through thorough research and planning. Should you be successful in moving on from the initial application stages, its likely you’ll face a combination of aptitude tests, interviews and assessment centres. Whilst firms will update the specifics of what a candidate is tested on – the questions asked in a video interview, or task given for group exercises at assessment centres, for example – you can often find articles or forums online in which previous candidates have described their experiences. These can be invaluable in calming any nerves before your assessment, or give a clue as to what to expect.


6) Network (effectively)

Events such as law fairs, legal conferences, open days and careers dinners offer an inimitable opportunity to network with recruiters and trainees face-to-face. Whilst LinkedIn is an invaluable resource for connecting with individuals, these face-to-face opportunities are much more effective. They present the perfect chance to ask firms your burning questions and get an instant, personal response. Do your best to outline which firms you want to know more about before you go, as well as a rough idea of the questions you want to ask them. 

Networking opportunities are not the one-stop shop for securing a TC – recruiters won’t be looking to hand them out on the day to the ‘best-dressed’ or ‘most-keen’ person they talk to that instead. Be presentable, of course, and try to demonstrate your enthusiasm through meaningful questions that you couldn’t obviously Google the answer to. Aim instead, however, to find out what the firm is all about, as well as what they are looking for from their applicants.

Should a recruiter, trainee or other notable contact offer to keep in touch with you following a conversation, TAKE IT! So, so many candidates fail to follow up on these opportunities out of fear of embarrassment or lack of interest. Make a note of their email address or name and send a personalised connection request via LinkedIn in the following days with reference to your conversation a few days prior. It demonstrates initiative and interest, as well as being a fantastic contact to have should you need some guidance in future.


7) Recognise TC applications are a two-way process

Speaking to the above points re: networking, it’s important to remember that you will probably (and hopefully!) end up working for your firm a long time after your TC is done. When looking into firms to apply for, it’s a good idea to have questions like these at the forefront of your research:

  • Is the firm located in where I want to work, and if applicable does it have international offices in cities I’d like to collaborate with?
  • What are the firm’s strongest departments/seats? Does it matter to me if they are not leading in the area of law I want to specialise in?
  • What is the firm’s working culture like – collaborative, ‘dog eat dog’, diverse, relaxed, or perhaps more traditional?
  • What makes me want to work at this firm over any of its competitors?
  • Does the firm provide adequate secondment opportunities for what I’m interested in, be they international or client-focused?
  • Who are the firm’s major clients?
  • Where does the firm want to be in 10 years time? How is it going to get there? What role would I play?

These are also excellent types of questions to ask at the end of any face-to-face interview, just like any internally-commercially-aware questions. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to make sure the firm sell themselves to you as you have to them, but by the same token don’t be assuming of your TC success in your tone before you’ve actually got it!


8) Be your-(authentic)-self

It is surprisingly easy to come across as ‘overly robotic professional’ throughout the application process, especially given the need to highlight your academic and professional achievements. Firms will also, however, be looking for candidates who will be a good cultural fit outside of the office walls – especially during networking events, or perhaps during lunches/social with trainees and the Graduate Recruitment team. Firms will want someone who will work hard, yes, but also be able to contribute to the social side of working life both inside and outside the office. Make sure you’re able to recognise the difference to respond accordingly between a Partner panel interview quizzing you on your legal knowledge and a casual chat with trainees about the extra-curricular activities they may have been up to whilst working there.


9) Don’t leave it to the last minute

Firms can vary massively in how they conduct their search for their future trainees. Usually, they will set a hard deadline for initial online applications to be in, with a view to then whittle down to the final candidates through a combination of tests, interviews and assessment centres. It’s important to bear in mind, however, that some firms sift through candidates on a rolling basis as opposed to waiting until after the deadline. This makes the timing of your application critical – sending it too late or near to the deadline might mean other candidates secure interviews or assessment centres before yours is even read by a recruiter. Firms also receive an overwhelming majority of their applications in the days leading up to the deadline, as many students will often work they way down a list of TC application deadlines in order of ‘urgency’ rather than ‘importance’ (i.e. not applying to their favourite firm first but rather the one whose deadline is next). Getting your application in before these increased windows of activity might increase the likelihood that the firm will have more time to thoroughly analyse your application – which sounds scary, but is actually a good thing!


10) Don’t ever, ever, ever, ever give up

Perhaps leaving the most important tip until last, but persevere. Training Contracts are coveted, therefore competitive, with thousands of applicants every year. In other words…
https://tinyurl.com/keep-going-tc


I hope the above tips help you throughout the application process. If you want to get in touch with me to ask any questions, you can do so here: https://hclark.law.blog/contact/ 


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