How not to panic about demonstrating commercial awareness

How not to panic about demonstrating commercial awareness

Calculator and money: commercial awarenessSo you’ve got the university place to do law and you’re thinking about applications to in-house legal departments.  Everything you read about applications says that you need to display commercial awareness and this is even more important if you are looking to train in-house.  So what is commercial awareness and how do you show that you’ve “got” it?  There are different ideas about what commercial awareness is, and it’s not just about reading the Financial Times or Economist, although doing so is not a bad idea.

Think about what you have done in weekend or holiday jobs, or volunteer work, or just everyday life.

Let’s take an example of everyday life – self-service tills in shops.  Are you a fan?  I’m not keen – personally I think if I am serving myself I should get a discount on my shopping. After all, the retailer is saving on having to employ a member of staff to operate the till.  But think about how using self-service tills might have an impact on the retailer’s bottom line.  I’ve already alluded to possible savings in employment costs.  But do shoppers like them?  Will they avoid them?  Will they try to shop elsewhere where they know that a human will serve them?  Or will they purposely seek out retailers with self-service machines as they think they can be served more quickly?  So does having self-service tills have an impact on profit margins?  There are many other similar examples that you could consider – take for example the impact of the weather on an outdoor swimming pool’s custom.

Another example might be to consider the impact of new legislation on organisations.  Businesses do not like new laws unless they lessen the red tape.  The current government has undertaken a so-called Red Tape challenge to consider where laws and regulations could be removed without having a disproportionate effect on protecting consumers etc.  So as a lawyer, your job is to ensure that your employer can achieve the results they want within the framework of the law.  If you simply say “no you can’t do that because the law says you can’t” you won’t make many friends.  It’s much better to consider how you can change your advice to tell your colleagues what they CAN do.  So it might be a good idea to take a look at the Red Tape Challenge website and have a think about the laws that you think might create problems for businesses.  Equally, you could consider how you would advise them to comply with the laws while still making money.

You can use volunteer and extra-curricular activities and Saturday or vacation jobs to your advantage.  You do not need to have done legal work experience to show commercial awareness, although legal employers will want to see an interest in the law.  But if you work in a shop, you will have dealt with customers and had to have honed your customer service skills and learnt to be diplomatic.  Working in a hospital on a voluntary basis gives you an understanding of how a large organisation works and how to deal with “office” politics.  Helping to organise a university ball may give you experience of financial matters such as planning a budget and making sure you charge a high enough ticket price to cover it.

This is just a few ideas but will hopefully demonstrate that there is more that you can do than just reading the FT, and that there is also no need to panic if you cannot secure a vacation placement at a law firm.  There are many ways to demonstrate commercial awareness.

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About the author:
Helen Hart studied in Cardiff and Germany and qualified as a solicitor in 1998 after a training contract at Allen & Overy in London and Frankfurt. She spent over six years working in-house at Centrica plc and Palm Europe Limited focusing mainly on consumer, advertising and data protection law before returning to private practice at Stevens & Bolton where she was an associate in the corporate and commercial team. She worked for a legal publisher between 2008 and 2012 and has also worked in local government library services. Her main areas of expertise are general commercial law, advertising law and consumer law.