The Student Column: 10 top tips on how to develop your commercial awareness

Sparsh Garg studied Law at University College London. He completed three mini-pupillages, as well as three vacation schemes with Sidley Austin, Jones Day and Travers Smith. He started his training contract with Travers Smith in September 2017. Many thanks to Sparsh for sharing his advice on developing commercial awareness.

1) Read the news

The news provides context to the legal advice a solicitor may have to provide to a client. As a result, read the business section of a quality newspaper on a daily basis in order to ensure that you know the latest deals and disputes occurring across the world, as well as the latest government policies being implemented. To further boost your understanding, read the newspaper editorials so that you can formulate an opinion on the latest commercial affairs taking place.

2) Undertake non-legal work

You can develop your commercial awareness by undertaking a job outside of term time. This leads to direct contact with customers and management. Consequently, you may be able to better understand a client’s needs and expectations, as well as the important decisions management have to take in order to meet them.

3) Attend Firm Open Days

A Firm Open Day can often be the best way to find out what particular deals a firm is working on. At such events lawyers are often willing to discuss the work they have recently done, as well as the challenges they faced. This affords you an insight into the commercial world from a personal perspective. Moreover, such sessions are often themed around a particular topic or sector. At events such as these you can often gain more insight than would be obtained simply from reading the newspapers.

4) Research the firm you are applying to

Research the structure of a firm. Undertaking such research enables you to learn more about the practices of a firm. Remember that law firms are businesses, too. Therefore, their working methods are likely to be, in principle, replicated by companies working in other sectors. If you do find differences in working practices between companies then you will be in a better position to explain how a firm should operate and distinguish itself from its competitors, impressing interviewers.

5) Find aspects of the business world that interest you

Follow a market or sector that interests you by reading specialist and professional publications. Most firms specialise, or have an especially strong reputation, in a particular sector or area of law. Therefore, conduct a thorough analysis of that sector, the major companies in the market and how they differentiate between themselves as well as the challenges they may face in the future. Make sure to undertake such research over a sustained period of time. Interviewers can easily identify those candidates who may have swotted up on a particular topic just the night before.

6) Brush up on basic numeracy skills

Good numeracy skills are often underestimated by potential applicants. Most assessment centres and interviews will involve at least one question requiring some numerical calculation. Remember the deals which firms work on involve big numbers, so failing to solve a simple maths problem can put off interviewers.

7) Join a business society

Joining a business- or enterprise-based student society is an easy way to gain access to firm presentations and company workshops. Moreover, such societies often organise entrepreneurial activities, whether that be through a ‘negotiations competition’ or a Dragon’s Den style project pitch. Such activities are important to develop the commercial mindset necessary to match client expectations. Furthermore, such activities often make up an important part of a vacation scheme. No doubt prior experience can only help.

8) Gain a position of responsibility

Take on a position of responsibility either as a committee member of a student society or as a volunteer. Such societies are often run like small companies, requiring internal management, providing services for members and liaising with external organisations in order to negotiate for venues or sponsorship deals. Working within such a society can help to develop the communication and analytical skills necessary to work in a commercially-orientated organisation.

9) Undertake sector-related work experience

Before applying to a firm it is necessary to develop commercial awareness of the particular sector or area of law the firm specialises in. For instance, if you wish to apply to a firm specialising in financial services, it is important to have in-depth knowledge of the financial sector. Consequently, working in a high street retail bank over your holidays may be useful.

10) Do not overthink it

It is important that you do not undertake all these activities as a simple tick-box exercise. If faced with time pressures, it would be better if you focused on completing some of these activities to a high standard so that you are in a strong position to explain them at your interview.