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
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 email@example.com. Thank you!
“A huge part of succeeding is simply showing up and taking small, specific baby steps to work towards your goal. If they’re even just a tiny bit outside your comfort zone, you’ll be growing.”
Today’s #LawyerOfLinkedIn is trainee solicitor turned entrepreneur Jaysen Sutton. Having previously worked in the world of commercial law, Jaysen decided to change career paths shortly into his Training Contract and start his own business – The Corporate Law Academy (TCLA). Having previously spoken on Jaysen’s ‘Trainee Talk’ podcast a month prior, I decided to reverse roles and ask Jaysen about his initial motivations to become a lawyer, why he instead founded his business, as well as his thoughts on the current application process for Training Contracts and the future of the profession generally.
Why did you initially want to be a lawyer?
JS: “I really like the law as a subject. When I was younger, I used to think of the law as a rigid set of rules, which tells you what you can and cannot do. I found it interesting to learn how it’s actually instead pretty fluid, always open to argument and opinion.
I didn’t want to become a commercial lawyer until a lot later. I actually used to find finance and business very intimidating. It was only when I threw myself into the subject and tried to understand the commercial world from the ground-up that I realised how interesting it is. It’s a bit like a jigsaw – on its own, the different financial terms can seem quite confusing and isolated, but when things click, I find it really satisfying. You really learn how interconnected everything is.
The ‘sensible’ advice would have been to stay in law, at least until I’d finished my training contract. However, I left life as a commercial lawyer very early. I really liked the firm I was at and the work I was doing, but I didn’t think practice itself suited me. I woke up one day and realised that really bothered me. It arguably would have made sense to ‘wait it out’ and I’m sure I would have been fine, but I eventually made the decision to leave.”
How did leaving your Training Contract lead to you founding your own business, TCLA?
“When I left, I knew I wanted to start a business. I had tried a couple of times before and I found working on something I had made myself really satisfying. The conventional wisdom for starting a business is to simply ‘make something people want’. With that in mind, I realised the best way for me to do that was to make something I would have wanted when trying to secure a training contract.”
Moving from the conventional rigidity of a typical office job to the world of entrepreneurship is a brave step to take. However, its becoming increasingly common within the legal sector. With the allowance of Alternative Service Providers (ASPs), the ongoing development of legal technology and the flexibility that collaborative cloud working allows, innovative new approaches to working within the legal industry are being created every day.
“I wish I could say I had more of a concrete outline of what I was going to do, but honestly, I didn’t. I had spent so many years preparing to work at a law firm and now I was quite lost. Being a law student and then a trainee solicitor was my identity. Now that I had left, I didn’t really know who I was or what I was doing. I only knew that I was going to put everything into The Corporate Law Academy (‘TCLA’) to make it work. I worked crazy hours when I started, mostly because I was compensating for a lot of the guilt I had for leaving my law firm.
Now I would say I wasn’t working completely blind. I personally felt there were gaps in the application journey I had undertaken. Dealing with rejection after rejection is such a blow to your self-confidence, and I felt the journey didn’t have to be so competitive. The TCLA forums were made to be a place where aspiring lawyers could support one another through such struggles.
I also felt there was a big gap between leaving university and your first day at a law firm. I realised we could help teach aspiring lawyers to better understand the financial markets, commercial news and how law firms work as a business, and I could do this online to build this at scale and reach far more people. “
Speaking of that ‘gap’ between university studies and a TC, what surprised you the most about the interview and application process?
“It was learning that performing at an interview is a skill.
In my first series of interviews, I wasn’t very good and I’d always think I could never be as good as other people. Over time, I started to become more confident in selling my ‘story’, responding to challenging interview questions and defending my point of view.
I realised that while some candidates may come across as more polished, they’d just had the opportunity to practice more, whether that’s through mock interviews, debate clubs or being surrounded by people who regularly discuss world events.
This was a big surprise because, until then, I had thought I was always going to be bad at interviews. The big lesson was that the skills and minimal confidence I had weren’t fixed, that I could get better over time.”
The importance of these skills can easily go overlooked when it comes to preparing your applications. Legal ‘letter-of-the-law’ knowledge is of course important, but transferable and ‘soft’ skills can be just as essential in a client-facing, team-based role.
The challenge of having a broadened skillset is already persistent for many aspiring solicitors. But what is the biggest difficulty that their employers – law firms themselves – will face in the future?
“First, let me qualify this by saying I’m speaking as someone on the outside looking in. But I’d say talent. I wrote a post recently on the disruption of the partnership model, the gist of it being that, for a variety of reasons, the incentive to work your way up to become one of a small number of equity partners to reach the top doesn’t have the same grab it used to.
Our generation of lawyers are going to be far more willing to jump between firms. The challenge is that law firms need to work out how to attract and retain lawyers, and that’s beyond salary and remuneration. Even though many London-based firms are engaged in a wage war at the moment, I think it’s unsustainable and ultimately doesn’t fix the problem.
Once law firms accept that, junior lawyers are going to be different. I do think initiatives like flexible working will make a big difference. If you build the right systems and manage it properly, lawyers could be far more productive (and saner!) working one or two days a week remotely.
That leads me to mental health. Work phones, incessant emails and long hours cause serious anxiety. This can’t be fixed directly with a quick-fix, because the type of clients we’re talking about will want their lawyers to be accessible. That’s why I think it’s about investing in stress-management tools. I don’t mean one-off meditation classes, but I do mean real investment in an open, supportive culture – where mental health problems are treated as important as physical health. While many senior lawyers are incredible, there are also others who aren’t great on this. This needs to be fixed, no matter how reputable a partner is.”
Jaysen echoes the sentiments of many other legal professionals in the industry. The practice of law is mentally taxing for a multitude of reasons and the dangers of a lack of mental health support are severe to say the least. If you’d like to read more about mental health within the legal sector, you check out my article on it here.
So, to finish, what is your number one piece of advice for aspiring lawyers?
“Be consistent. A huge part of succeeding is simply showing up and taking small, specific baby steps to work towards your goal. If they’re even just a tiny bit outside your comfort zone, you’ll be growing.
Want to better understand law firms? Go to open days and firm events.
Want to develop your commercial awareness? Read a few business stories every day.
Want to develop your interview technique? Practice answering challenging questions aloud or with a friend.
Put your time in, day in and day out, and you’ll be amazed at the difference it makes.”
I’d like to extend a big thank-you to Jaysen for contributing to my #LawyersOfLinkedIn series, as well as allowing me to speak on his podcast a month ago. If you’d like to get in touch with Jaysen, learn more about TCLA, or check out the ‘Trainee Talk’ podcast, you can do so below.
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
– Dr Seuss.
When wanting to get started on developing your commercial awareness, it can be a little tricky figuring out which sources to turn to first. In this (non-exhaustive!) list, I’ve outlined some of my own personal favourite sources that I feel helped me build my commercial awareness habits. Enjoy!
LinkedIn Daily Rundown
This was my initial go-to source for keeping up with business developments. LinkedIn curate and publish a quick daily 5 minute breakdown of some of the most impactful happenings over the last day or so across a variety of topics. Whilst the industries and topics chosen can at times be extraneous to the world of commercial law, major news stories are nearly always covered and summarised in just a few sentences, with links to further reading and analysis.
Finimize drops a daily newsletter into your inbox which explains and summarises what’s happening in the world of finance and politics. It’s very handy for getting links to analysis on the latest news stories, with only 30 seconds of brief reading required by you once the email arrives. Plus, it’s completely free!
Lexology provides a number of resources, including a blog, conferences and events that are all geared towards keeping you updated in the legal world. Their website contains an immense number of articles (850k+), so you’re nearly always bound to find commentary on the topic you’re searching for.
All search engines share a number of common pitfalls that sites like Wikipedia have always faced, such as confirmation bias due to your search terms or not knowing where the information you find has been sourced from. Used effectively, however, search engines are an extremely powerful tool for subscribing to the latest developments in the commercial world, whilst being able to filter and add greater specificity to your search results. It can prove extremely useful when attempting to find out more about firms’ recent deals, as there will often be multiple news sources citing the relevant information. Browse wisely!
Whilst its language and format can be quite technical at times (pardon the pun), the FT provides unparalleled high-quality articles with some fantastic editorial insight.
A personal favourite of mine, The Economist covers a broad range of topics, articles and sectors in an enjoyable reading format.
Both the digital and print copies of Forbes cover a huge variety of topics, with all of the latest news updates and editorial commentaries you could want.
Law Firm Reports/Releases
Quite a lot of firms will often release annual, quarterly or monthly reports detailing their business performance over the last period. These often contain really useful statistics, such as their growth rates or trainee retention rates, whilst often featuring more in-depth articles on their notable deals and achievements. A great way to learn more about a specific firm.
Throughout my ‘Law in the Business Environment’ module at University, I was taught how firms operate as businesses and companies. Everything from profits through to leverage and business models to SWOT analysis can be learnt through the medium of textbooks and academic commentary. I’d personally recommend Christopher Stoakes and Stephen Mayson, who are both considered to be experts when it comes to the workings of firms. I’d recommend the following reading list of their books:
C. Stoakes, Commercial Awareness (2015/16)
C. Stoakes, All You Need to Know About Commercial Awareness (Longtail 2011/12)
S. Mayson, Making Sense of Law Firms: Strategy, Structure & Ownership (Blackstone Press 1997)
S. Mayson, Law Firm Strategy: Competitive Advantage and Valuation (OUP 2007)
The audiovisual format is increasing in popularity for educational content. Podcasts, documentaries, YouTube videos and live events are all an excellent medium for learning, either at home or even while on the move. I’ve curated some of my personal favourites of these audiovisual resources into a list below:
Spotify Podcasts (or Apple)
I love using Spotify or Apple podcasts, as they’re portable and can cover a broad variety of topics, length and styles. My personal favourites include:
Even 15 minutes of watching the news in the morning with breakfast can be a great habit to build for your commercial awareness. You’re able to see any breaking developments as they happen and each story can be quickly covered and summarised (often live from the event’s location) in a matter of minutes.
I hope the above helps – feel free to get in touch if you have any other recommendations to add to the list!
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:
“Knowledge of how businesses make money, what customers want, and what problems there are in particular areas of business” – Cambridge Dictionary, at https://tinyurl.com/ced-ca-def
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.
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!