How I Built My Commercial Awareness

When I first began my commercial awareness journey, I didn’t know where to start. I was constantly referred to the same old sources of commercial news: The Financial Times and The Economist. After all, old is gold.

Whilst I am comfortable with using these sources now, they weren’t very useful when I first started learning about the commercial world. The language was daunting, cryptic, and at times, completely and utterly indecipherable.

Before I start, I’d like to say one thing. Everyone learns differently. What worked for me may not work for you, but this is how I got to where I am. Some people feel comfortable reading The Financial Times straight away, I didn’t. In fact, I made it my end goal (as you will see in my timeline).

So, how did I develop my commercial awareness?

Here is my commercial awareness timeline:

All image rights belong to According To A Law Student.

Watching Videos and Utilising Social Media:

When I first started my commercial awareness journey, I turned to what I knew best. Social media. Despite not always being one of the most ‘credible’ source of knowledge, it is by far the fastest way to gain and spread information. A quick tweet could go viral within minutes (look at Trump’s Twitter account if you don’t believe me).

Twitter: BBC News could spend an hour writing an article about a current headline, but could post a tweet about it within seconds. Furthermore, most law firms have their own Twitter accounts so it is a great way of keeping up with them without having to spend hours researching their work.

LinkedIn: this is probably the most ‘credible’ form of social media. Similarly to Twitter, LinkedIn is another outlet which is used to spread news. Here, I suggest that you not only follow the firms that you are interested, but also their competitors. Commercial awareness is not just being able to know a few fun facts about your favourite firm and the work they do. This is just scratching the surface; you need a much broader and deeper understanding. For example, let’s say that you are really interested in Firm X. They’re Tier 1 in venture capital and they’re pretty much the crème de la crème. That’s great, but why is Firm X Tier 1? What are the latest deals that their venture capital team has advised on? What deals have their fellow Tier 1 competitors advised on? See what I mean?

Other than following law firms on LinkedIn, you should also follow these pages:

  • BBC News: BBC News often posts videos on their LinkedIn about current headlines. These are much easier to understand than the written articles but are still as informative and useful.
  • World Economic Forum: Similarly to BBC News, the World Economic Forum page tends to post videos rather than articles. I guarantee you that if you are applying to commercial firms for a vac scheme or training contract, you will be asked at least once what the biggest commercial challenges are to the firm. From climate change to AI, the World Economic Forum has all the answers for you. More importantly, their stories often highlight what other people/companies have started to do about these issues, giving you a much larger scope and understanding of the problem than you may initially have had.
  • Visual Capitalist: this account is a dream come true for visual learners like myself. The title says it all really. Visual Capitalist takes an infographic approach to learning, and should be a go-to source if you want to learn more about economics. While the articles often cover more than just commercial developments (ie; ranking the most miserable countries in the world!), they are always entertaining and provide a fun way to boost your knowledge. For example, take a look at this.
  • LittleLaw: for those of you that have coursework deadlines, outside commitments or simply just do not have the time to spend hours scrolling through the news, LittleLaw is perfect for you. They post multiple articles a week about the latest commercial news. The best part is that it only takes around 2 minutes to read each article (here is an example)! They are also going to be launching a podcast series soon which I am sure will be as useful and interactive as their articles.

Instagram: I’d be careful with this source, but there are still some useful accounts that are worth a follow.

  • The Corporate Law Academy (TCLA): TCLA is better suited for those looking for advice on training applications etc. However, the TCLA their Instagram account also posts regular updates on commercial awareness and it really is worth a follow. TCLA also have an amazing website where they have incredibly useful guides on complex commercial awareness topics such as tech regulation and neobanks. Their Instagram handle is @thecorporatelawacademy.
  • The Business Update: this account posts daily morning briefings on current headlines. It’s great for those that only want to read a sentence or two to briefly keep updated on current news. Their Instagram handle is @thebusinessupdate.

Blogs: Although I follow quite a few legal blogs on WordPress, there is one that has really stood out to me. Life of a London Law Student. I have been following Lorraine’s blog for quite a while now. She has recently begun posting weekly commercial awareness round-ups which lists a bunch of useful links to articles about current headlines. The blog also has an Instagram page (@londonlawstudent).

Netflix: all my visual learners should watch a Netflix series called ‘Explained‘. The docuseries delves into a wide variety of topics such as political correctness and the gender pay gap – you’d be surprised by how much the episodes cover in only 15-20 minutes! I strongly suggest that you watch the following episodes:

  • The Stock Market (Season One)
  • Cryptocurrency (Season One)
  • Billionaires (Season Two)
  • Coding (Season Two)

Know the City – Christopher Stoakes:

This, my friends, is the commercial awareness bible.

I only found out about this book recently, but the reason why I put it so early on my timeline is because I wish that I found out about it sooner.

Much of the commercial world revolves around businesses and money. Therefore, you need to understand both. Here is a screenshot of today’s front-page of the FT.

Image courtesy of The Financial Times.

Inside the blue boxes you will find terminology that nearly all commercial lawyers work with on an everyday basis. You will not be able to escape the term ‘IPO’ in your commercial career, believe me, I’ve tried.

Let’s take a look at the blue box in the top left corner. Stocks are easy to define, but difficult to understand. Luckily, Know the City has a whole chapter that explains what stocks are and how the stock market works. Although this is just one example, Know the City covers all the terms in the blue boxes and more! What makes this book stand out from its competitors is how it is written. Know the City uses simple day-to-day language to explain some rather complex matters.

This book is definitely worth a read if you are serious about developing your commercial awareness.

Chambers Student Guide:

Ok, so by now you should have a general idea of what is going on in the world in the business world. Now it’s time to delve deeper into the legal side of commercial awareness.

Most lawyers have a specialism. In a couple years you will probably have one too. But, how are you meant to know which areas of law you are interested in, let alone which to specialise in?

Easy.

  1. Grab yourself a copy of the Chambers Student Guide. You should be able to find a copy in your law school. Alternatively, you could go to their website.
  2. Find the section named ‘Solicitors’ Practice Areas’. If you are doing this through the website, follow this link.
  3. Read through all of the practice areas…even the ones that may not necessarily interest you. Why? Two reasons. Firstly, commercial firms often deal with clients who have a matter that will span multiple legal areas. Secondly, this is a great way to improve your commercial awareness. Let’s say that Mark is at a training contract interview for a large commercial firm. They are a heavyweight in the banking sector as that is where 90% of their work is generated from. Mark is really interested in IP, and he knows that the firm has a very small team practicing this area of law. The firm has recently completed the biggest banking deal in history, and it is all over the news. However, Mark never bothered reading the articles because banking ‘wasn’t his thing’. The interview is going well until Mark is asked about his opinion on the recent deal. Mark’s knowledge deficit in banking law rears its ugly head. He is speechless. Do you think Mark got the training contract? Probably not. The moral of the story is this: having a passion for a particular legal sector is great! However, you should always have at least a general understanding in other sectors and recent news as this will make you a more well-rounded candidate.
  4. Once you have read through all practice areas, make notes of which areas interest you the most.

The best thing about the Chambers Student Guide Practice Area pages is that not only do they explain what a particular area of law is, but also the latest news and deals in that sector. Therefore, you can keep up to date on the most recent issues and take your research from there! You will usually find the ‘current issues’ section at the bottom of the page – it is well worth a read!

Reach out to Professionals:

Ever heard of the phrase ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know‘?

Whilst tsarist nepotism doesn’t really have a place in the 21st century’s legal sphere, knowing the right person here and there may help you in a few subtle ways.

Here is a piece of advice: try to have at least one contact at every firm that you are seriously interested in.

We all know that commercial firms are incredibly difficult to get your foot in the door in – if it was a walk in the park then I wouldn’t be writing this article!

Each recruitment cycle, you can pretty much guarantee that the top firms will be feasting on a full course 3 Michelin star meal of the finest legal talent. (We all know that one student with the 1st class degree, Magic Circle work experience and definite future as a solicitor advocate in the Supreme Court…they are the Wagyu fillet of the legal world).

So, we’ve established that commercial firms are notoriously difficult to get your foot in the door in. Therefore, the people that make up the firm are a pretty good indicator of what the firm is like. They are there for a reason.

However, networking is not as easy as it sounds – it is best to start as early as possible.

Humble beginnings…

I first learnt how to network during Sixth Form when I was writing my Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). My project title was ‘Women as law makers: Historically, how have women reformed UK law and how is it relevant to today?‘.

Naive, 16-year-old me had a lot of questions to ask about the law. In fact, naive, 16-year-old me emailed over 150 individuals asking them to answer some questions for my project research.

Around 90% of them didn’t reply at all…

About 10 or so emailed me back saying they were too busy…

A handful actually answered my questions…

Only two still keep in touch with me now.

Whilst the plethora of rejections didn’t exactly massage my ego, it did teach me an important lesson: networking is not a competition to see how many people you know. Networking is about building relationships.

The two people that I continue to keep in touch with are absolutely phenomenal women. They have given me opportunities that I could not have dreamt about in a hundred years. They are mentors, role models…and most importantly, incredible legal professionals. (Sascha and Coral, if you’re reading this, you’re great!)

The moral of the story is this: find professionals with common interests to you. Whether you are intested in a particular area of law or a legal society, there will always be someone who is interested in the same things as you. Use it to your advantage. Reach out to people that are already well-established in practice areas that you want to go into.

I understand that it may be daunting to reach out to strangers who (most definitely) have more on their shoulders than you do, but as my mentor once said to me, ‘if you don’t buy a lottery ticket then you’ll never win the lottery’. Just go for it. What’s the worst that could happen? You don’t get a reply. It’s not the end of the world!

Just get yourself out there!

Legal News Subscriptions:

Here, I will be discussing two types of subscriptions:

  • Firm-specific subscriptions
  • Legal Newsletters

Most commercial firms have a news/blog section on their website. These articles are written by members of all levels of the firm. Some firms post simple news ’round-ups’, whereas others have separate blogs dedicated to specific areas of law. Here are a few examples:

  • Linklaters have a few different types of newsletters. First of all, you can sign up to their publications. If you would like to catch-up on news that are more specific to a certain issue or area of law, you can take a look at their articles which are organised via different departments and practice areas.
  • RPC’s ‘perspectives‘ page is another useful tool if you wish to find out more about the recent headlines in the firm’s practice areas. Here you can also filter through different areas of law.
  • Kingsley Napley have an ‘insights‘ page where you will find everything ranging from blogposts to upcoming events – all in one place! The firm also has a separate blog for each area of law. Here are a few:
  • CMS’s ‘Law-Now’ article section is another useful resource as their articles cover a wide area of law. You can also subscribe to get daily email updates.
  • As you may already know, Irwin Mitchell is essentially split into two: Personal Legal Services (PLS) and Business Legal Services (BLS). The firm’s legal updates are conveniently split into PLS news and BLS news!

If you are interested in finding out more about firm-led blogs then take a look at my ‘useful links‘ page!

Now, let’s talk a bit about legal newsletters.

Legal newsletters are usually written by journalists or practicing lawyers. They are a great source of information if you are still not ready to read broadsheet papers.

Lexology: I cannot recommend this site enough!!! Any serious commercial law candidate should be subscribed to Lexology. Period.

Lexology is a legal news website where the articles are written by firms. You can get a free email subscription where you will be regularly sent a round-up of the latest legal news. You can choose to receive articles from specific areas of law and jurisdictions which is incredibly helpful if you are trying to brush up on your knowledge of a particular legal area. Unlike many legal newsletters, the articles are not restricted by a paywall so you have no excuse not to be subscribed! The email update looks a bit like this:

Under each heading you can see which firm has written the article. If you go directly to the article, you will also be able to find out who wrote it. This is incredibly useful when networking. Let’s say that you student A is really interested in capital markets. Student A reads an article on Lexology about capital markets and finds it really interesting. Student A finds out that it was written by X who happens to be working at Student A’s dream firm. He decides to reach out to X. Which email do you think that X is most likely to reply to? The boring email from student B asking general questions about the law or the email from Student A who had read X’s article and wanted to find out more about it?

Lexology also hosts webinars with a wide range of well-known firms.

The site also has a ‘learn‘ page where you can learn about niche areas of law in short bitesize videos. Just like the articles, you can find out who the speakers are and what firms they are at.

Image courtesy of Lexology.

Legal Cheek: as a brand ambassador for Legal Cheek, I couldn’t help it but to give them a shoutout ;).

In all seriousness, Legal Cheek is another incredibly useful site for developing you commercial awareness. If you take a look at Legal Cheek’s Journal page, you will find articles written on a wide range of legal topics. More importantly, the articles are written using basic, day-to-day language which is great for those who are not yet ready to tackle the denser language found in the Financial Times. Legal Cheek often collaborates on articles with law firms and academics, and it is definitely worth having a look at.

The Corporate Law Academy Newsletter: I know that I have already recommended TCLA’s learning guides in this article, but their commercial awareness newsletters are absolutely stellar! The newsletter tackles and breaks down difficult topics in the legal world that would otherwise require hours of research to understand (GDPR, I am looking at you). I’d also suggest that you take a look at their ‘commercial awareness forum‘ where you will find much more information about commercial awareness.

Global Legal Chronicle (GLC): last but not least, GLC is another useful tool in developing commercial awareness. I wouldn’t recommend this resource to commercial awareness newbies as the language can be quite dense at times, but it is a golden resource for those who are researching firms in preparation for vacation scheme/training contract applications.

One of the most common questions that you will be asked in a VS/TC interview is, ‘Why our firm?’. You can’t avoid it. Although there are many techniques that you can use to answer such a broad and open-ended question, one has always worked out well for me: talking about the firm’s recent work and why it interests you. In addition, you will get an edge over your competitors if you know what kind of work the firm is currently doing. For example, everyone knows that Linklaters advised on the Lehman Brothers case. But does everyone know that the firm is currently advising a majority €2.3 billion takeover of the German energy company Uniper by their Finnish rival, Fortum Oyj? Probably not.

One problem. How are you meant to know what work the firm is currently doing? This is where GLC will give you a helping hand. Let’s take a look at a recent article:

When reading an article, what will be your starting point? The first paragraph, right? That is your jackpot.

This is a consistency amongst all GLC articles (so are the pictures, unfortunately). The first paragraph will always tell you which firms were involved in the deal. Another unique characteristic of the GLC is that they will also tell you which members of each firm are currently involved in the transaction. They are literally spoon-feeding you all the information that you need. Take advantage of it.

Remember what I said about Lexology articles being a great way to network with legal professionals? So are GLC articles. All you have to do is reach out to X, say something along the lines of that you read an article about a project that they are currently working on and would like to find out more about what it is like to work on a deal of this nature. It shows X that you have a genuine interest in their firm and the work they do. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Happily Ever After…

You have now reached the end of my commercial awareness timeline.

Throughout my journey, I used a plethora of resources that are all unique in their own way. Hopefully, these resources will equip you with the knowledge and skills that you need to tackle the big beast…The FT.

Best of luck!

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