In my first post I discussed what commercial awareness is and expressed the opinion that, whilst reading the Financial Times has its place, understanding what makes a business tick is the most important thing for training contract applicants.
Current Affairs Knowledge As A Minimum
I feel very strongly that being commercially aware can’t be achieved just from reading newspapers, but it is a good starting point to understanding the wider picture.
You will also need to keep up to date with what’s going on in the legal world by reading the legal press, such as The Lawyer and Legal Week, and the law pages of the Times and the Guardian.
Understanding The World of Business
Apart from that, what will really help you to understand the business world better? Here are five tips:
1. First Hand Legal Work Experience
Get onto a law firm vacation placement or go to a law firm presentation or an open day.
The best organised ones will offer presentations on various topics which will be useful in understanding the wider picture. Less organised ones will throw you in at the deep end and may in actual fact offer more useful and commercial experience, because you get to do real work.
Working in a law firm will also help to demonstrate your career motivation and that you are serious about wanting to become a solicitor.
2. First Hand Business Work Experience
The ideal solution here is to try to get a job in a commercial organisation during the summer vacation.
Gaining experience in, for example, the accounts or marketing departments of a large plc or indeed a small local company will really help. Ideally these opportunities will be paid, but there are always unpaid internships if you are financially able to take them.
To give an example, imagine the business sends out letters to customers with legal disclaimers on them. You need to change those legal disclaimers but the IT systems won’t allow that to happen quickly because the parts of the letters with the disclaimers on are hard coded and can’t just be edited.
What do you do? Being able to solve problems like that is a large part of being commercially aware.
However, don’t despair if you can’t get this kind of role – it is difficult in the current economic climate and not everyone can finance an unpaid internship.
3. Other Work Experience
As a student or graduate it should be relatively straight forward to pick up work in a bar, a shop, a factory, or somewhere similar.
You can pick up a lot of business knowledge just working in a cafe, for example. Think about a beach café and how the weather affects custom and how your management of the stock may be impacted.
Ultimately most jobs will help – you just need to reflect and think about what you’ve learnt and how you can apply it in an application or interview.
4. Extra-Curricular Activities
Have you organised events or trips?
Have you sat on university society committees and talked about budgets?
Did you do Young Enterprise or similar at school?
Have you volunteered in any organisation?
Even volunteering in a non-commercial organisation may help – for example, museums have shops and sell products to visitors. What do they sell and why are those products the most popular?
5. Further Education & Self-Development
You could take an evening class or distance learning course in accounts, marketing or a similar business discipline.
Again, there may be financial or time constraints here as budgetary cuts have led to further education courses becoming more expensive, and you might need to concentrate on your studies. But you must look at your options and whether you can fit something in.
I did a French course through York University’s lifelong learning programme while doing my LPC at the College of Law there and it did not cause me undue stress or pressure. It did, however, give me a useful extra qualification and skill when I started my training contract at a Magic Circle firm.
I hope that these tips have given you food for thought and some guidance on where you can develop that mysterious “commercial awareness”.