This article demystifies “commercial awareness” for prospective trainees – and explains how it can help them get the traineeship they want

When we meet with HR people and learning and development folk at organisations that hire trainee solicitors, we often hear that one of the attributes they look for when they’re hiring is “commercial awareness”. And a study of 19 global firms by King’s College London last year saw “commercial awareness” listed as one of the top three attributes they looked for in future lawyers.

But on the other side, we’re often asked by students, ‘’What is commercial awareness? And how do I prove I’ve got it?” They worry that because they haven’t run a business or launched a start-up that they’re somehow doomed to fail.

Some law students will have done those things – either in previous careers or because they have an entrepreneurial spirit – but the overwhelming majority of law students, and overwhelming majority of successful trainee applicants, don’t have overt “commercial awareness”.

In response to the need for “commercial awareness”, everyone applying for a traineeship claims to have this elusive attribute. It has joined the ranks of CV fodder that everyone simply must have (have you ever seen a CV where the applicant doesn’t have “excellent communication skills”?).

This is a problem, because firms really do want commercial awareness, and claiming that you have it with little evidence is not a good approach. They want it because clients want their advisers to be commercially aware.

Is anyone aware of what it means?

But here’s the rub. There isn’t a formal or accepted definition of commercial awareness.

Some recruiters define it as an awareness of, and interest in, the commercial world (including the legal marketplace). Others say it’s an understanding of how world events may impact their firm and their clients (“Can you explain to us how Brexit would affect our clients and the sectors we work in?”). Others still view it almost as business development – can the candidate see ways for the firm to grow?

Many will think it is a bit of all three of those things. As there is no widespread acceptance of what commercial awareness is, that naturally leads to disagreements about how it can be achieved or evidenced.

Some partners at law firms think it can be learned and honed during a traineeship. Others think it’s innate. And that’s before we get on to the age-old debate about who is responsible for what. Is it the universities? Is it the firms? Or (whisper it quietly) is it the applicant?

So with all that in mind, what should candidates do?

There are some easy things.

First off, read a quality newspaper every day, listen to the Today programme a few times a week, watch Channel 4 News and/or Newsnight, and borrow The Economist from the university library.

You should also pay attention to the legal press – the Journal, Scottish Legal News, Legal Futures, Legal Cheek, The Firm Magazine, The Lawyer, Roll on Friday etc – so that you understand what is happening in the legal world and the legal market.

If there are particular sectors you would like to work in, it might be worth seeking out news outlets from those sectors. When applying to a firm, read their website, find out who their main clients and competitors are, the sorts of deals they’re involved in and the sectors they work in.

When proving that you researched and understand the firm, it isn’t enough to reel off deals they’ve been involved in. It might be better to find out what role the firm played in the deal and why it was significant. Did it involve a major client? Did it break new ground?

For most people commercial awareness is more than that knowledge. The next step is to show that you have the practical ability to operate in a commercial environment.

It’s important to note that any experience you’ve had of commercial life is good experience.

Working in a call centre or a department store to fund your way through university may well impress a recruiter more than an overseas trip or – even – an internship at a law firm.

Many recruiters are dismayed that candidates focus so relentlessly on their legal experience when often the best examples come from other areas of their lives. It’s useful to highlight situations where you had to push yourself, or achievements that you’re proud of and are unique to you.

Think about the big picture

Candidates who are commercially aware should be able to see the big picture and are appreciative of the short, medium and long-term implications of a proposal. They can also think strategically about an organisation's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

Should the law firm open a new office in Aberdeen? Should the law firm consider a merger with a global firm? Should the firm specialise in certain sectors or continue to be full-service? How can it prepare for an economic downturn? What are the challenges facing the criminal defence sector at the moment?

More advanced again is merging those two strands together. Can you combine your understanding of the world, markets, and current affairs with your ability to work in a commercial environment? Can you do things in a way that takes into account the commercial picture and the needs of a client?

Students can, with a bit of gumption, acquire the first two. It shouldn’t be too difficult to keep up to date with world affairs and how the legal market is evolving. It shouldn’t be too hard to be able to explain why your work experiences show that you can operate in a commercial environment (and even if it is hard, this is something that a student can work on).

Putting the two together may be a step too far for many candidates. In reality, the ability to demonstrate this can only truly come after lots of real-life, live legal experience (and not, really, after a couple of weeks of internship). But recruiters should know that. It’s okay if you’re not the finished article.

But an understanding of the sort of things “commercial awareness” might mean should stand applicants in a far better stead.

The Author
Rob Marrs is senior policy and development manager at the Law Society of Scotland For more information about applying for a traineeship, email
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