Commercial awareness is one of the buzz terms that is always thrown out there as an attribute potential trainees need to demonstrate. The problem is that whilst in the thick of the training contract application process and exam pressure, it can be difficult to pin point exactly what this means and how you can possibly achieve it on top of everything else!
It really is valuable though, both in the application process and when you actually arrive in a firm, so it is worth finding some head space and time in your busy schedule to tackle this. The reason it is important is that it gives insight to the challenges of your clients and also the firm you work in is a business itself. Commercial awareness can be simply defined as staying up-to-date with daily happenings and developments in the business and commercial world. Of course this is vast, and you could work full time on this objective alone, so as a busy law student you should try to break it down into manageable tasks.
- Watch the news, or listen to it, daily (if you can), and try to pick up key commercial points.
- Find a sector that excites you. If you are developing awareness in a context that interests you, not only will it feel less like a burden but it will also make sense faster. So perhaps focus your 'awareness' on an area in which you hope to work, where a family member works, or an area where you have had a part-time job. Far from narrowing your understanding, many commercial principles can be applied universally, and so your new found understanding will translate into other commercial sectors.
- Now start to read. You are probably thinking that you have had enough of reading, but this doesn't have to mean thick, heavy books - and remember, at this stage you have already identified something that you are interested in! I would recommend swapping 10 minute social media browses for a news app. Save articles that grab your interest and start reading them over a coffee or whilst on a train. I subscribed to the FT whilst doing the LPC - this might not float everyone's boat, but there are plenty of free business news options to choose from.
- If it's possible, get a job. Even if it is only for a few hours a week, not only will you develop important workplace skills but, if you go with an enquiring mind, you will also gain an understanding of how a business works. It doesn't matter what the business is, it is about gaining an understanding of the relationships between a business and its consumers, the relationship between costs and income, and how internal and external factors might affect these.
News stories may take on another dimension once you start to think in this context; for example, you may find yourself starting to consider the impact of a change in exchange rate on any business which imports or exports, etc. This year Brexit will be a hot topic, but many general or vague comments will have been heard countless times before, so if you can link into personal interests or experiences in the workplace it will give it life and context and help you to stand out by demonstrating that you really know what you are talking about and can apply it.
- Get onto LinkedIn. Whilst you might think you are not yet ready to network, it is never too early to start, with the benefit that once you have identified a sector that interests you, you can search for people to follow, and interesting articles affecting that industry will be shared.
- Talk to people outside of your peer group. Experiment with using your new found knowledge to contribute to conversations. If this feels unnatural, start with people you are already comfortable with, such as your parents. It is important not to develop your awareness in a vacuum, and it is possible their perspective will offer another dimension, as their experience and view point are likely to be different. This will give added depth to your topics, and will help you to practice demonstrating your skills.
- Use Companies House - it is a fantastic resource for growing your understanding of the financial workings of businesses. Look at the accounts of companies you read about or use. This will help to contextualise the scale of their operation and compare them to others. In isolation it may not take on much meaning but when you hear or read about a more general news story, think about the impact that could have on one aspect of their finances.
Lastly, try not to think of developing commercial awareness as a tick-box exercise or a chore, especially as it isn't something that will finish at the end of the LPC, or on the award of a training contract. It is more of a permanent approach.