“Everything you want in life is a relationship away.”
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.
Who you connect with
Vantage boasts an impressive cohort of recruiters. You’re able to connect with an impressive array of leading firms, including:
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner
Clyde & Co, Dechert
Herbert Smith Freehills
Slaughter and May
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.
“An expert is someone who knows a lot about the past.”
Trying to work out what you are ultimately going to do with your law degree is an exciting, open world of many possibilities. Should you decide to pursue a career in the legal profession, it’s quite likely you’ll end up specialising in one area of law. It’s something that most legal professionals eventually do – and for good reason! This article breaks down some of the reasons lawyers decide to specialise in the profession.
There’s always demand for specialist lawyers
Legal problems are often complex and no two are the same. It’s no surprise, therefore, that clients are always looking for an expert in the law relating to their problem – right down to the niche, minute details. There will always be someone, for example, trying to locate a ‘truck accident lawyer in Tampa‘, or a ‘copyright lawyer in Hong Kong’ for their case. Providing you specialise in an area of law niche enough to draw attention from clients, yet broad enough for them to be a large enough number of them, you’ll almost certainly have clients needing help with their specific problem. As such, there’s not too much to worry about when it comes to ensuring there’s enough clients out there to work with.
You’ll get (really) good at what you do
It’s no surprise that the more you know about a specific area of the law, the more effective you will be in advising clients. When you specialise, being able to understand, analyse (and hopefully win) your cases will become easier. Being able to identify common patterns and crossovers between past cases and your current ones are hallmark skills of an experienced, specialised lawyer. Ultimately, the more cases you win, the greater the demand will be for your services. This helps your raise your own profile and reputation within the industry, potentially meaning you can hold yourself out to a higher standard and as such charge a higher rate.
The chance to do work that interests you
Specialising enables you to always be working on things that interest you. Specialising helps give yourself more of a say over the tasks you’re doing, so that you’re ultimately doing more of what you enjoy and less of what you don’t. You’ll have more control over what topics of law you really enjoy, versus those you don’t. Simple!
You can make more of a difference
When you specialise, you get the opportunity to dig deeper into a subject, more so than a general solicitor would who is only glossing over it. Once you become knowledgeable enough in a subject of law, it is likely you will start to notice things that others have missed more frequently and much sooner. You will find new ways to win cases for your clients, or at least to help get the outcome they want. Eventually, you’ll have the opportunity for other legal professionals to follow your example, or to mentor others. You might even contribute to society more generally. For example, if you specialise in helping people appeal against benefit rejections, your cases are testament to the fact that the system is not working. The notion that big legislative changes only happen in the realms of human or civil rights law aren’t true – there’s opportunities to enact real change in almost any area of law!
It builds your reputation
It is seriously difficult to stand out from the crowd when you generalise. The work that you do is much less likely to be noticed by others for its (lack of) niche element. When you specialise, the opposite happens. It is far easier for people to understand what you have to offer and how you personally provide that value with your expertise. For some lawyers, it can be the make-or-break of their personal brand.
Specialising is great for networking
This follows on from the previous point. When others in the legal industry have an issue that relates to your specialist area, there is a good chance they will turn to you for guidance. This is a fantastic way to build your network – something that can only help your career.
The chance to speak publicly on the subject
Finally, building on from the networking point – if you want to fast track your career, making yourself available to speak at events is a great way to do it. When you do this, your profile will raise significantly and people will (hopefully!) learn from what you have to say.
If you’re still not sure what specialisation is all about, you can check out this article for some further reading.
Historical notions about what careers are have shifted greatly in our modern world. Many people are turning away from their current careers and seeking new careers in the legal world. Retraining as a lawyer, passing the bar or getting qualified and then setting up your own legal firm is an increasingly viable option for many. But why are so many people turning to the legal sector? Read on to find out why so many people are pursuing a career in law.
The ability to make a difference
From helping a victim of a crime get the justice they deserve, to helping a family win a legal case after a mishandled birth – more information on birth injuries, including infant seizures, can be found here – lawyers get the opportunity to help people in some of their darkest and most desperate moments. They have the potential to make a real difference to people’s lives and facilitate their needs in times of help. The role of a lawyer, although stressful and demanding, can be also be incredibly rewarding.
Lawyers are traditionally some of the best paid professionals. Your earning potential will be ultimately defined by your years of service, specialist knowledge within a particular legal sector, as well as your location. For example, many city based lawyers can be paid more than those living elsewhere.
Those who enjoy challenging their minds on a daily basis simply thrive in a legal position. Lawyers have to use their intellect and logic in order to work on each individual case. They have the ability to work on a broad variety of issues, such as helping create business mergers, developing strategies for court and using critical thinking to ensure they get the best results for their clients every time.
Thanks to TV and film, the role of a lawyer these days is often seen as one that is full of glamor and prestige. The Hollywood stereotypes of fast cars, slick suits, clever arguments and confidence in the courtroom evokes a sense of charm and almost celebrity-like influence. Whilst some of those stereotypes are certainly played up for television, very real contributions – whether you work for a legal firm, or set up your own – like assisting friends, neighbours and local businesses becoming a pillar of the local community are rarely provided by other professions.
You’re always learning new skills
The legal world is fast paced and always changing. As a result, most lawyers need to be on top of their knowledge in their specific area. Not only that, but you’re always working on your communication skills, as well as your ability to analyse and think logically. All these transferable skills can be applied to other life situations too!
Many thanks to my sponsors for helping to collaborate on the writing of this article.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”
The legal profession is undergoing a revolutionary change right before our very eyes. The once conservative and traditional industry is being forced to rethink everything from qualification routes to fee earner structures, as a the ongoing march of digitalisation and automation continues. Clients can now be instantly contacted anywhere in the world through a smartphone. Lawyers are expected to keep up with global developments and anticipate how it will impact their clientele. Cloud-based collaborative working has promised greater flexibility and collaborative opportunities. Even entirely new roles, such as Legal Tech Managers and in-house freelance paralegals, are being created as a result of such changes.
Amongst these changes are a new appreciation for the broadening skillset that lawyers now require. Clients have always expected their lawyers to have excellent negotiation, advocacy and interviewing skills, but it has not always been clear where this development should take place in the legal education ‘timeline’ of an aspiring legal professional. The recent Bellwether Report echoed the importance of such skills, with 9 out of 10 solicitors agreeing they are of increasing importance if lawyers are to be successful. In his article for Forbes, Mark Cohen surmises perfectly that “[legal] practice is once again becoming the province of those lawyers best equipped to engage in it.”
Despite the above demands, legal education has remained somewhat resistant to change. The overwhelming majority of UK universities teach law via the historical lecture-focused approach to learning, with mooting and practical skills-based opportunities often only offered via optional societies and student-run events. Essential legal and personal skills, like negotiating, interviewing and researching, can therefore easily fail to receive the equal treatment they deserve alongside knowing what the letter of the law is. Interpersonal and group skills are more likely to be underdeveloped in a solely independent, private study style. One university, however, is aiming to change just that.
The University of York’s unique problem-based learning (‘PBL’) approach to teaching law is designed to teach students through life-like simulations of the legal problems that lawyers are tasked with solving. It aims to create a holistic approach to legal education, wherein future lawyers both know the law and have experience in how they can use it to solve client needs. In their own words:
“This is a modern, dynamic learning method that ensures you experience and understand law in its social and theoretical contexts, and helps to develop the skills and techniques you will need to work as a professional.”
York Law School Website.
So how does it work? I spoke with Dr Laurence Etherington, Admissions Tutor at York Law School (and ex-lecturer of mine) about PBL learning and how it translates to the world of law.
So, what exactly is PBL?
PBL established itself in the world of medicine before it made its way to legal education. Its structure is something like this, all guided with an academic mentor and complimentary lectures/reading throughout:
You and your group (Student Law Firm) will be presented with a legal problem, often in the form of a client’s email or similar
As a group, utilise a legal, solution-based approach to analyse the problem and identify its key parties, interests and facts
Brainstorm the legal questions that need answering, as well as any broader ‘normative’ academic concepts
In private or group study, research the answers to your self-generated ‘Learning Outcomes’
Present your feedback and complete your solution to the problem, before beginning the cycle again by picking up a new problem
I personally found that the result of this process means you not only finish the process fully satisfied with your legal knowledge, but can now apply it to future situations through the (often memorable) ‘non-legal’ details of the scenario you’ve just tackled. You generate vital legal research skills, an ability to work with others and fantastic opportunities to develop your interpersonal and legal skills along the way. For those of you more visually inclined, you can check out the Law School’s own explanatory videos below – with a familiar face featuring too…
How does this PBL process then help develop a student’s knowledge beyond simply ‘knowing what the law is’?
LE: “PBL involves a lot of research, still with support but less direction than more traditional approaches. So a key skill is the student learning how to research effectively and how to identify what they need to learn. There can sometimes be a misconception that PBL results in a focus solely on practical issues. There is no reason why this should be the case as the aim is to understand Problems, not (simply) solve, or provide answers to, these. In fact, the collaborative approach to learning should provide a great foundation for more critical perspectives, with a variety of views in the regular debates and discussions. The depth of analysis of problem scenarios also provides a deep understanding of the context within which the legal questions arise – why they matter, as well as how they come about.
Regular, intense, small group sessions mean that students should be able to develop their team-working, and related, skills. Really importantly, effective collaboration should become second-nature with the roles and responsibilities required for approaching Problems being identified and allocated to group members. Students also have the opportunity to learn more about themselves, what they like doing and what they are good at (which are usually the same things). I think that there is also less opportunity to shy away from things and so students can be stretched out of their comfort zone (hopefully in a supportive environment).”
Why should a law student consider PBL over more traditional teaching methods?
“That’s an interesting one because I wouldn’t say that all students should choose PBL. It’s really a matter of thinking about whether this style of learning is right for them (and it won’t be for everyone). I would also say that, although there are certain features which I think are very different and which may provide some advantages, that isn’t saying that PBL is automatically ‘better’ than other styles of learning for all students. However, with those caveats, I think that these are three of some of those potentially advantageous differences.
The social nature of PBL study means that students might find that they are more involved in the subject and their studies. That can be in a general sense of individually and collectively having to take more responsibility for their own learning and development, but also in quite specific ways, such as having to share research and debate complex issues. Explaining is a great way of developing deeper understanding, of course. Debate and discussion is obviously a part of most (possibly all) Law programmes. But I think that PBL demands more regular and deeper engagement with this aspect of study, making it a particularly rich experience.
On the ‘responsibility’ point, the degree to which PBL involves guidance can vary significantly but this is more limited than most other approaches. As well as encouraging more independent research, requiring students to identify their own question puts them in charge of the exploration – with flexibility around the specific issues and areas that are covered. This also helps students to develop ‘legal awareness’ in the sense of being able to see the world through the ‘lawyer’s lens’ – being able to identify where and how the legal issues arise for themselves.
Again, this can vary according to the format used, but with law it is natural to approach PBL through a less rigid frame than might be the case elsewhere. Problem scenarios raise ‘messy’ sets of issues and these are not always limited to single-subject areas. That approach should help students understand that traditional subject areas overlap in many ways – with property law being an important aspect of some theft cases, and tort and criminal liability arising out of the same acts, for example.
Finally, I also think that PBL is really engaging – students are generally very enthusiastic about their learning. It is usually a lot of fun, despite being very serious, which is fantastic for students and staff.”
How can PBL experiences help applicants stand out in application processes, for both law and non-law careers?
“I guess that this flows from the features that have already been mentioned. Independence and willingness to take responsibility are obviously really important for employers. Less obviously, that can also include understanding when guidance is needed – being self-aware enough to know the limits of your current knowledge and skills.
Problem-solving is often mentioned by employers as a key skill. PBL can help with recognising the different perspectives and approaches that might be taken, so that a variety of options might be developed and evaluated. The ability to deconstruct problems, breaking them down into manageable and meaningful components within complex scenarios, and to then develop a strategy for addressing the issues raised by these, is tremendously helpful.
Most obviously, the team-working skills and (very importantly) extensive experience of working in different groups, should be invaluable. Of course, there is a question of how much PBL actually develops students in this way, rather than attracting students who are already well-equipped and interested in PBL’s style. I’m not sure how much that is the case, but a PBL student should be more likely to have these abilities and they will also have had extensive opportunities to further develop them.”
I’d like to thank Dr Etherington for his comments on PBL in law, as well as the University of York for allowing me to use their photos. If you’d like to learn more about PBL, feel free to get in touch with me or the Law School at the links below.
“Everything is created twice – first in the mind and then in reality.”
It’s no secret that the legal profession is a mentally taxing one. A 2016 study of solicitors found that “28%, 19%, and 23% were experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, respectively”. Late night working hours and high-pressure scenarios – particularly within transactional, London-based firms, where hours can be at their most intensive – can be a frequent reality for many lawyers with time-pressured tasks to meet their clients’ needs.
Meditation is increasingly being viewed as an answer. This week, I spoke with meditation consultant and Commercial Partner, Hannah Beko, and Dentons’ newly appointed Europe Chief Mindfulness Officer, Karina Furga-Dąbrowska, on how the use of meditation can help tackle mental health issues within the legal sector.
Mental Health in the Legal Industry
As touched on above, law can be an extremely stressful profession. Whether you’re a first year law student, or seasoned Equity Partner with decades of experience, you will have or have had your fair share of stress-inducing moments. Keeping up with regulatory changes, continuously trying to meet clients’ needs and managing your physical or digital workload of forms, paper and documents are all contributory to stress. That’s not even accounting for the non-work-related pressures that life brings – it can too often feel like we’re juggling too many facets of life at once. This has sadly resulted in worrying levels of mental health issues within the industry, substance abuse and burnout – particularly in comparison to other professional roles.
So how can law firms, or rather the entire legal sector as a whole, combat this? Hannah and Karina give their thoughts below:
HB:“Really – a whole culture change! But that might be a bit radical for now. We’re starting to see firms including yoga at lunchtime and introducing the odd meditation lesson, or maybe offering massages at desks. The ideas there are good, but I think there needs to be an adoption of a more of a joined-up approach, focusing on a better understanding of happiness and wellbeing is important. Being able to switch off outside work is also really important. The fact that having autonomy, responsibility and flexibility improves performance and job satisfaction should be considered more often. It’s not about time spent at the desk, it’s about being productive during the working day. Employees also need to take some responsibility themselves as well and not just rely on their firms. Of course, bringing in a wellbeing coach to run workshops is something they can do right away – I happen to know a good one…”
KFD:“Some firms are already introducing wellness programs that help people to become healthier, happier and more engaged, through mindfulness and yoga classes, or subsidies toward gym memberships. I believe the next, more sophisticated step is the implementation of employee assistance programs to give people access to confidential professional counselling. More and more firms are also beginning to offer flexible working arrangements, such as flexible or part time hours, or occasional home office work, to help people better balance their work and personal responsibilities.”
The point of flexibility has come increasingly to the forefront of firms looking to alter their traditional business models and approaches to productivity. The billable hour, a volume-based productivity metric, has been historically and traditionally been relied upon by firms as a staple for measuring the effectiveness and output of its employees. But are the mental consequences and emerging alternatives now starting to challenge that view?
KFD:“There is discussion that in fact a more fundamental change is needed. I recently read an interesting blog post from a Dentons Partner in the US, who shared an argument that law firms’ use of billable hours as the basis for compensation is creating a culture of burnout. In her opinion, our profession needs a new approach to compensation.”
As the above points demonstrate, any approach to mental health issues in the legal sector will inevitably require a multi-faceted review, raising questions about a firm’s approach to everything from economic performance indicators through to paternity policy. Karina’s recent appointment as Europe’s Chief Mindfulness Officer might be indicative of this ‘whole culture change’ slowly taking hold within the industry. It’s one of the first senior roles of its kind dedicated to a specific approach to addressing mental health concerns by a firm.
KFD: “My main responsibility as Europe Chief Mindfulness Officer will be to ensure mindfulness is an integral part of Dentons’ culture, thus supporting our vision to be the law firm of the future. I will contribute to our global NextTalent program by using mindfulness to develop the essential skills of the lawyer of the future – emotional intelligence, increasing resilience etc. – and to help our people thrive, both personally and professionally. We aim to position Dentons at the leading edge of this emerging field. Our mindfulness initiatives will help to nurture a culture in which high performance is founded on compassionate leadership, authenticity, honesty, respect and teamwork in order to drive productivity and innovation. It’s important to remember this is still an emerging field. For Dentons, it is a matter of open-minded leadership and innovative organisational culture. Mindfulness cannot be just a ‘nice addition’. It has to be truly embodied in the culture. It is not just simply creating a role for the sake of it – moreover its about reorganising a workplace. I don’t think all firms are ready for it right now.”
So, what exactly is meditation?
I have been meditating in my personal life for over just over a year now. As I’ve gotten more accustomed, comfortable and experienced with it, I’ve felt it to be a great way to tackle the stress, anxiety, tiredness and distractions we all face on a day-to-day basis. Hannah explains the science behind these transformative effects below:
HB:“When we get stressed, the brain produces cortisol – a stress hormone. Cortisol causes the fear and anxiety centre of the brain to increase in size, whilst decreasing the size and function of the part of the brain that deals with memory, learning, stress control and rational thought. As a result, we feel more anxious, damage our memory, ability to focus, concentrate and make good decisions. Meditation reverses these effects of cortisol – decreasing the fear/anxiety centre, improving memory and concentration – whilst helping you manage your everyday activities, sleep and even work!”
One of the main reasons I was personally so apprehensive about trying meditation was due to the fact I didn’t really know much about the process outlined above. To me, meditation used to be an inherently ‘spiritual’ or religious act, often conjuring novel images in my head of an old-age monk with decades of experience humming on a mountainside. In reality, however, meditation is a straightforward everyday tool for anyone to use at anytime. Such misconceptions are one of the biggest barriers to seeing the greater incorporation of meditation in our day-to-day lives. Karina and Hannah explain:
KFD:“There are many misconceptions about meditation, especially among some lawyers. The first one that comes to mind is that meditation is about ‘getting rid of thoughts’ or emptying your mind completely. There are also some others, such as meditation being ‘lazy’ instead of working toward billing hours, it being irrational, changing your religious beliefs or being selfish. For some lawyers, meditation seems antithetical to the professional culture that traditionally places great value on logic and reason. Furthermore, giving yourself permission to have downtime and unplug can feel scary and challenging in the legal world where time literally means money. I can also see a problematic approach to the idea of ‘compassion’ in the legal world – some lawyers seem concerned that this practice will make them go ‘soft’ or lose their edge. Whilst in reality, one can be stern or assertive whilst still being compassionate.”
HB: “People assume it isn’t for them, or try it once and believe that they “can’t do it” or they aren’t doing it right. It’s a muscle that needs exercising.”
So how do I meditate?
Taking that first step into the world of meditation as an absolute beginner can be a confusing, difficult or short-lived one without proper guidance or help. Karina and Hannah share their tips for beginners wanting to encompass meditation into their daily routine below:
KFD:“Nowadays, there are a lot of very good books and apps addressing the topic of mindfulness in the workplace. There is also a lot of advice freely available on the internet. Following posts from http://www.mindful.org or some other similar websites may be a good starting point.”
HB: “Try closing your eyes and taking three deep breaths. Focus on how you want to feel that day – happy, calm, or perhaps successful. Repeat to yourself “I am ….” and the way you want to feel. Keep repeating that thought in your head for 10 minutes. Your mind will wander off, but when you realise it, simply acknowledge it and come back to your thought of “I am…”. As you practice, eventually you’ll find that you’ll wander off less frequently and come back to your focused thought more quickly.”
For those of you looking wanting to give meditation a go, you can receive 2 weeks free of Premium access to my favourite meditation app, Simple Habit, with my promotional code below. It’s completely free and you only need your email address to get started – no credit card or confusing subscription cancellation required. There’s a huge variety of topics available, you can download meditations to take with you on the move and its a really beginner-friendly way to get started. I’ve tried many meditation apps, such as Headspace and Calm, but this has been my firm favourite by far.
I’d like to extend a big thank you to both Hannah and Karina for agreeing to contribute to this article. I hope you’ve found their levels of insight into the world of meditation and how it applies to the legal sector both educational and useful. If you’d like to learn more about Hannah or Karina, or hear more about my own experiences of meditation, check out the links below.
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!