Is Commerciality Rocket Science?!

Let’s set the scene:

  • You’re about to go into a commercial law firm for an interview for either a training contract or a vacation scheme;
  • You know or you’ve been told that you will need to display a sense of ‘commerciality’ when discussing your future career with those who might be able to give you a contract or a place on the aforementioned scheme;
  • You are worried – after all, what the hell is commerciality?
  • You have been frantically reading the Financial Times in the hope that this might ease your nerves.
  • You sweat a little at the thought of the inevitable question, ‘what do you think commerciality is?’…

First step on the ladder to commercial success: Stop worrying.

Second step on the ladder to commercial success: Stop reading the FT out of guilt/worry.

Third step on the ladder to commercial success: take some time to think about what it is you are about to do.

‘Think about what?!’, you might ask, ‘I need to get busy preparing, not thinking about preparing!’. Wrong. Sure, preparation is vital in almost every facet of professional life – and commerciality is no exception – but prepare in the wrong way or fail to prepare before commencing your preparation, and you are preparing to fail. Simple.

What should you be thinking about as a student or career changer applying for a legal job or a position in a commercial law firm to show your commerciality? You should be thinking about answer the questions:

1. Why do you want to work in business?

2. What is it exactly that commercial lawyers do that suits your interests and abilities?

3. What have you done in the past and what do you intend to do in the future that shows a real interest in business (not just law)?

Let’s answer these questions in turn:

Question (1): A career in business?

Commerciality at your level is simply about showing hunger and drive for the career you are choosing. You have chosen a career in business. Not in the media, the arts or in medicine. In business – pure and simple. You might be practising as a solicitor, but you are helping others to do business. In fact, as a junior commercial lawyer, your commercial goals are relatively simple:

For external clients (i.e. the people that pay the fees): remove and/or provide solutions for any legal obstacles that might prevent your clients from doing business. To do this, you need to make it your business to understand their business and the environment that moulds their business. As a junior lawyer, your exposure to external clients might be limited until you’ve proven yourself internally so it is important to focus on a commercial approach when providing a service…

…for internal clients (i.e. the people you work with and need to impress every day in your firm): make it your business to understand how every piece of work you undertake and every interaction you have impacts on the bigger picture (the deal, the matter or the transaction…) to provide a service of excellence to everyone you work with.

Everything you do as a lawyer in a commercial law firm is done for business reasons. You’re not in law school any more. Telling someone about a Supreme Court case decision is interesting but irrelevant unless it has a tangible effect on the work you and your colleagues might do. Think of yourself as a car. Your engine is the law, it powers everything you do. Your steering wheel is business, it guides everything you do. Your chassis is your brand as you work, it leaves everyone with an impression of you (slick or ugly) and ensures or undermines your success. If you have a clever idea, think of the business ramifications before you open your mouth and talk about it.

Question (2): How are you suited to commercial law?

Does money (not earning but working with it) excite you? If you are not passionate about how money affects society at large, commercial law isn’t for you. Especially if you haven’t considered the sacrifices you’ll have to make for success in the profession. Commercial clients, especially large companies, expect advice whenever they want it. This means your senior colleagues will expect your help whenever they want it too. This means you probably won’t be leaving at 6pm much. You won’t be watching the One Show (maybe that’s a blessing). And the successful junior commercial lawyer shows enthusiasm for every aspect of the job, even the duff bits late at night that make you question your own metaphysical existence. Being a commercial lawyer can, if you give it your all, be a highly rewarding and intellectually satisfying job. Resent the demands placed upon you and you’ll be miserable. It’s a lifestyle choice. But it is a choice.

Question (3): What are you doing to show you are ‘commercial’?

Some might tell you that commerciality or commercial awareness is something you acquire after practising or being in business for a significant period of time. Others (likely to be more uptight as human beings) will tell you that commerciality is about having a specific knowledge set – being-up-to-date with the markets and having an almost intimate understanding of the economic variables that affect the way lawyers and businesspeople act and work. At your stage, both these assertions are incorrect. You’re intending to be a lawyer and not an economist. As such, it’s opinions on bigger or macro issues that affect business that will impress. To form opinions, try doing the following:

  • Read a broadsheet newspaper every day – cover to cover. Being commercial doesn’t just mean talking about business and/or commerce. You’ll need to show an interest in events that shape the world as well (from the latest Cabinet re-shuffle to Iranian foreign policy) so you’re not a one-dimensional dullard. By the way, the Daily Mail doesn’t count…
  • Read The Lawyer, rollonfriday and Legal Week online every week – watch out for your chosen firm or preferred firms!
  • Chat to friends once a month who work in other industries (that might impact on the work you could do in your firm) to understand subtle trends challenges – very impressive to raise these in an interview or on a scheme!
  • Read Private Eye twice a month for a more acerbic look at business and current affairs
  • Read The Week if you have been out of the country for some time – a great way to catch up if you’ve missed a lot without trawling through back-copies of the newspaper.

And finally…

Excel – train yourself up to be an excel guru and volunteer your expertise when you get to your firm. Your senior colleagues won’t have a clue how to use it. Big brownie points available if you can use complex formulae.

PowerPoint – do the same – volunteer to take control of slide presentations.

Look – be as formally dressed and turned out as possible to look commercial. Don’t make any statements with clothes (short skirts, socks, ties, cufflinks etc…). Be recognized for your brain and not your look. Be ready to be taken to a meeting at a moment’s notice.

What about the Financial Times? The Financial Times (FT) has two main purposes:

a)       A useful but pretentious way to show off your financial ‘sophistication’ to others on public transport (if you complete the FT crossword in front of others, extra kudos points are available).

b)       A rather long-winded and unnecessarily turgidly-written briefing tool for those who work in business who need to find out how money moulds their landscape daily.

The FT is quite boring (it’s even pink to try to make it look a little bit more ‘interesting’). Given that you need to acquire only a macro- and not a microeconomic knowledge as a lawyer, there are only a few bits and bobs in the FT that are of any use to you as a legal practitioner (bits you can probably find in your daily broadsheet, albeit written with slightly more polemic).

You should aim to ‘read’ the FT three times per week, and whilst we recommend that you keep a copy on your desk every now and then to show willing, here is our very short, pragmatic guide to ‘skim-reading’ the FT:

1.       Read the companies and markets section – read this first (and possibly last if you are pushed for time).

2.       Read the Lex column – It is on the back page of the main section, it’s written by the FT’s bright young things, it is read by chief executives, bankers and lawyers and it’s a great way of detecting the trading patterns of companies

And stop…

Written by our Guest Writer, Steve Weiner, author of “21st Century Solicitor: How to Make a Real Impact as a Junior Commercial Lawyer”. For more details about this book click here: 21st Century Solicitor

(Copyright – Steve Weiner)

Steve Weiner

Steve Weiner originally qualified as a solicitor in the City of London before practising as a commercial litigator. Since leaving private practice, Steve has worked as a Learning and Development professional, a skills trainer and a business coach in a number of leading City of London law firms. Steve is also an award-winning stand-up comic, has performed in comedy clubs all around the UK and is a TV actor, radio presenter and an accomplished comedy writer.

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