What is commercial awareness and how do I get some?

Posted by VickiTipton on 18 February 2013

Legal recruiters really want applicants to show good signs of commercial awareness. So during the recruitment process, those questions on application forms about their competitors, or a recent deal you’ve read about are all aimed to test whether you have any commercial awareness at all.

It’s probably safe to say that the expression ‘commercial awareness’ is a baffling one. So what exactly is commercial awareness? Christopher Stoakes, author of “Commercial Awareness – what it is and why you need it to become a successful professional” defines it as follows:

"At heart, commercial awareness is about being able to talk to clients, finding out what they want, why they want it, what they will do with it and what they are prepared to pay, and then delivering it in the way they want. To do that you need to understand how organisations work, the issues they face and the role of people within them."

Law firms are businesses who work with a multitude of clients (banks, global energy businesses, family businesses, charities, governments). They want you to show an understanding of their clients and the sectors they might work in. If you can start to demonstrate that you know how a business is structured, who does what, and what factors affect the successes and failures of their work, then you’re half way there.

The most common mistake students make is to assume they have zero commercial awareness. However, if you have had any work experience dealing with customers in a business of any kind, then you are likely to have seen the positive impact that understanding clients and meeting their needs can have on a business.

Tips for developing commercial awareness:

  • Set time aside to reflect on your work experience and what it has taught you about business structure, growth and objectives.
  • Take on work experience that will help you understand the commercial world, e.g. in working in a Bank, or volunteering for a charity that needs corporate fundraising.
  • Keep on top of legal news, such as progress with Alternative Business Structures (ABS), is wise. Legal Week, the Lawyer, the Guardian Law will give you up to date insights into the legal sector.
  • Start to follow business news and deals in the Economist, the Financial Times and other newspaper’s business sections.
  • If the articles in the above papers seem convoluted and difficult to follow – try reading them on the BBC Business news site first. (And if you really want a basic understanding of “business” – take a look at the GCSE Bitsize revision site for business studies on the BBC website).
  • Take part in business games like XING, or KPMG’s International case or the IBM Business challenge.
  • Attend workshops and presentations on campus about commercial awareness, and attend sessions at law firms – these will help you to understand how a business operates.

Topics: CVs and applications, assessment centres, law, work experience, Interviews

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