Commercial awareness

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Commercial awareness is regularly referred to as a necessary skill for a career in the legal profession yet, at the same time, those aspiring to become lawyers are often uncertain about exactly what it is. The key is to develop commerciality and be able to demonstrate it rather than worrying about the definition.

What is commercial awareness?

There is no single definition of commercial awareness. It encompasses understanding different businesses and the wider context in which they operate – who are the customers, competitors and suppliers of the business and what opportunities and challenges does it face in the marketplace in which it operates?  You should also understand what commercial law firms do and how they interact with other city players.

Why is it important?

By developing commercial awareness you can tailor advice and solutions to your client’s business and predict the long term impact of any action taken. As a solicitor it is important to be familiar with your client’s business’ aims in order to provide advice that is both beneficial and cost effective. To achieve this it is also necessary to understand the market your client operates in.

How to show/develop commercial awareness

This is by no means an exhaustive list of how to develop and demonstrate commercial awareness, but it will hopefully provide you with a few ideas to get you started:

  • Keep up to date with the news and think about the wider context when reading articles, for example: the opportunities and risks to the parties involved; whether it broke new ground; the long and short term implications; and what the role of the solicitor was.
  • Develop an understanding of different types of businesses. This is not as difficult as it sounds. Part time jobs, albeit often not in a legal discipline, can provide an understanding of how that business operates. It’s even as simple as taking an interest in, and asking questions about, the businesses or sectors that your friends and family work in.
  • Get a head start whilst studying at undergraduate level. As a trainee it is necessary to make the transition from learning and understanding the law to offering solutions and practical advice. It is not often that clients take an interest in cases and statute. Whilst studying, you might see things in the news to which you can apply the legal principles studied during your degree.

Remember… commercial awareness is a skill that you build up over time and even as a trainee and qualified solicitor you will need to continue to develop it.

This post was edited by Fiona Grocock. For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.

How to impress at a law fair

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Whilst it might be tempting to go around every law fair in the country collecting giveaways and brochures, that on its own won’t help you on your way to securing a training contract. However, a good impression at a law fair, combined with a strong application, might. Here are some tips for making the most out of attending a law fair.

Make a good first impression 

Law fairs give firms their first glimpse of who you are, so try to look professional. Think about what you are going to wear; first impressions count. You don’t need to rush out and buy an expensive suit, but do try to dress appropriately.

Do your research 

The best way to impress at a law fair is to prepare in advance. Law fairs are your chance to meet the people who currently work at the firm, so think about who is going to be there before you arrive and plan accordingly. Most universities publish an exhibitor list prior to the big event; take advantage of this and plan which firms you want to talk to. This will avoid time wasting and help you come across as more focused and organised.

Usually law firms bring a mixture of trainees and HR representatives. Before the event, it is important to consider what you want to learn about each firm. Are you going to find out what day to day life is like from a current trainee? Do you have questions about their training contract? Do you want to learn more about the application process? Another good tip is to mix in facts about the firm with your questions to demonstrate your knowledge of that particular firm.

Ask the right questions

Try and ask intelligent, well thought out, questions. Avoid guessing. If you don’t know much about a particular firm  be honest and try to learn what you can about them. Questions about planned growth in terms of office location or areas of work are a good start.

Avoid making embarrassing mistakes: a friend of mine once asked a full service commercial firm how they felt about legal aid cuts affecting their criminal work. As you can imagine, the question wasn’t particularly well received, and could have been avoided by following my previous tip, research!

Market yourself 

Try to be friendly, keen and informed. See the law fair as the first step in the application process. A good performance at a law fair may mean the firm remembers you when the time comes to make an application. Also, be genuine. Ultimately, if you are not being yourself when talking to a firm they then probably aren’t the right fit for you.

My trainee journey started when I met trainees and HR representatives at a law fair in Manchester a few years ago. The relaxed, friendly conversation I had with the trainees at the event made a strong enough impression to lead me to apply to Gateley.

This post was edited by Lauren Newbury. For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.

A taxing time?

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Trainee life in the tax department 

They say that tax doesn’t have to be taxing. Clearly whoever coined this phrase has never been involved with navigating the murky waters of tax legislation.

Tax is the third seat of my training contract and was my first choice for where I would move after corporate. I was very proactive in relation to my seat choice, as I knew that Tax hadn’t had a trainee in a few years. If there is a specific area of law that you’re keen to experience, I would definitely advise that you speak to members of that team, your mentor and HR, as I did, to make people aware of your interest. At Gateley personal career development is taken very seriously and accommodating seat choices affect this policy. I even expressed an interest in tax on my training contract application, so it’s never too early to mention it.

I expected tax to be challenging but it has surpassed even my expectations. The law is complex, constantly changing, covers every topic you could possibly conceive and is split across a variety of legislation and case law. It most certainly is not for the faint-hearted.

I have spent time working on everything from VAT and SDLT to tax on interest and stamp duty, working with corporate, real estate and construction. In my experience, this is the seat where the action is, where I have worked with the most other departments and where the diversity of work means I am constantly challenged.

I’ve also had a wide variety of tasks. Admittedly, with so much to learn there has been a lot of research (and I mean a LOT) but I’ve also attended a conference with counsel, drafted letters and tax indemnities in agreements, helped generate material for pitches to prospective clients and created presentations for internal training.

The only downside to there being so much to learn is that it can feel overwhelming at times and as if you’re back at university doing lots of revision. The team are incredibly supportive and happy to talk through their approach to an issue. Although it may seem like there’s a huge amount that I don’t yet know this is only to be expected in a subject that touches on every aspect of daily life. One of the most important things to learn in a tax seat is that it is more useful to be able to find solutions to tasks and have a thorough and methodical approach than it is to instinctively know the answers. After all, the answer you already know may have changed in the time since you were last asked the same question. And with tax changing all the time, this is also a seat where you can become the most knowledgeable person in the team on a topic. For example, the new theatre tax relief applies from 1 September 2014 and having researched this I know more about it than some more senior members of the team and have even written an update for our media clients. In tax there is a real opportunity to take responsibility and add value to a team, above the level that may be expected elsewhere.

Whether or not I qualify into tax, I have gained invaluable skills that I will take with me into my next seat and beyond, along with an appreciation of when there may be a tax issue that requires specialist knowledge. So although tax is taxing it’s also very interesting and rewarding.

This post was edited by Jo Symes. For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.

It’s Halloween! The scariest moments of our training contracts so far…

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Everyone has heard of the gruesome tales, more commonly referred to as ‘trainee mishaps’, that invariably follow every intake. In honour of Halloween, we asked some of our first and second year trainees to tell us about the scariest moments of their training contracts so far!

As a trainee, some of the new tasks you are faced with on a weekly basis are rather daunting. Supervisors have high standards and often the tasks set won’t necessarily relate to anything you will have covered on the Legal Practice Course. It is therefore vital as a trainee that you can listen, adapt and keep a cool head in the workplace.

That said, everyone feels the pressure at some point and here are some of our trainees’ more challenging moments so far:

  • blocking a partner’s credit card by typing in the details wrong
  • accidentally chasing payment of a bill that hadn’t been sent out
  • taking a client to get something signed in front of a notary, but going to the wrong office and consequently having to jog together across the centre of Birmingham
  • leading an internal training session by video conference to the national team
  • holding up the completion of a matter until every page was checked in front of the parties
  • managing the expectations of multiple fee earners and prioritising tasks when everything is important
  • running two residential property purchases that needed to complete the day before Christmas
  • flying to Dubai to undertake a Corporate seat secondment
  • organising the Christmas party!

Inevitably, the trainees’ scariest moments involved some practical realities, legal necessities and the odd mistake, but it is also important to remember that starting a new job, in an unfamiliar environment, brings about many challenges.

Everyone knows that trainees aren’t perfect, and no one expects them to be, but so long as they ask questions, have a go and let their supervisors know if they do make a mistake, training contracts provide trainees with the experience they need to go out and forge a successful career post qualification.

For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.

The big transformation: Law Society Admissions Ceremony

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After a long period of studying at university and law school, followed by an intense two year training contract, it’s time to transform, like Pinocchio, into a real boy (or girl). And by that, I mean a solicitor. An important step in this transformation is attending the Admissions Ceremony at the Law Society in London. It’s not a necessary step for qualification but it is such good fun that it would be a shame to miss it.

Much like your university graduation, this is a fancy occasion. You will step through the gates of the Law Society, a building that has been at the centre of the legal world since 1832, and get ready to walk across the stage to collect your practicing certificate. Not only that, but you’ll get to listen to an inspiring talk by the President of the Law Society about the promises of your future career.

Your family and friends can attend too, so tell them to bring their cameras, because there are a great number of places to get your photo taken.  You can pose on ornate staircases, in front of stained-glass windows, on balconies, in the library and many other remarkable settings that will make an impressive dent in the family albums. So make sure you show your good side and smile!

I loved my Admissions Ceremony. The highlight for me was getting to nose around the Law Society library, which was amazing (I freely admit to being a geek!). After the ceremony, the new solicitors and their guests are also invited to a snazzy drinks reception, including free fizz and some rather tasty mini pastries and cakes, which allowed us to toast the occasion in style.

If you are contemplating whether or not to attend your Admissions Ceremony then I hope this has convinced you to go. It’s an important occasion to mark and you should be very proud of your achievement.

Finally, some top tips for the day:

  1. some of your family or guests may shed a tear or two of pride, so take tissues;
  2. make sure you are having a good hair day as there are lots of photo opportunities;
  3. take your time when going across the stage, savour the moment, and remember to stop at the end of the stage long enough for your family to get some pictures (I was told off for rushing off the stage!); and
  4. you have worked incredibly hard for this, so relax and enjoy!

This post was edited by Gail Whyte. For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.

Which route is best?

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The Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and approaching law from a non- law discipline

Q: Does it matter whether I studied law at university or not?

A: No.

There is no defined route into law. Whether you study law at university or subsequently at law school you will develop key skills that you will require during your training contact.

Coming from a non-law background has its advantages and disadvantages. You may have a broader range of knowledge, but this is not necessarily legal knowledge. Equally, you may have studied the key areas of law more recently than a law graduate. In either case, you are not going to have complete legal knowledge by the time you start your training contract and it is very likely that certain areas of law will have already changed from when you studied them!

Although legal knowledge is important, it is also important that you possess other attributes such as common sense, commercial awareness and work ethic. A sense of humour also helps along the way! You can develop these skills whether you have studied a law degree or not and you should try to apply them once you put your legal knowledge into practice.

There are a wide range of degrees, law schools and universities amongst the current trainees. Each of these routes is just as viable as the next.

My experience

I studied History at university and then went on to study the GDL and Legal Practice Course with absolutely no prior legal knowledge. The GDL is an intense course but covers the seven key areas of law in one year: contract, public and administrative law, tort, criminal, equity and trusts, land and EU.

I always anticipated that I would want to convert to law at some stage, but I opted to pursue this after university. I do not feel like I have had an easier or more difficult trainee experience as a result.

My training contract has been a learning curve from both a legal and a non-legal perspective. Each department has its own separate training programme which is designed to help trainees settle into the team. There will always be areas of law that you have not experienced before, mainly because law is non-exhaustive and ever changing!

I have found that it is easier to view your academic study and training contract as continuous personal and practice development. This will begin to provide you with increased understanding and experience that you can take with you to qualification and beyond.

Your choice will ultimately depend on personal preference and circumstance – it’s getting there in the end that counts!

This post was edited by Harriet Eales. For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.

Ready to start the LPC?

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After finishing university, and possibly the GDL, the LPC may be your last hurdle before entering the world of work. With a wealth of academic experience behind you, many will approach the LPC in a tried and tested way. However, the following are a few top tips aimed to ease your progress through the LPC and help you get the most from the course.

Work! (unsurprisingly)

This first tip shouldn’t be particularly ground breaking, but it is crucial nonetheless. The LPC involves a lot of work, much of which will be new, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. The remedy to this is time management.

Some may advocate studying from 9am to 5pm, treating it like a working day. Others may suggest spreading the work out over a longer period with frequent breaks. The key point, however, is that the nature of the LPC will require you to work continuously. The sheer volume of content you will cover means that cramming is impossible; it is a marathon, not a sprint (to borrow the most clichéd analogy in the book). By working steadily throughout the year, the workload becomes comfortably manageable, and the top grades within reach.

Approach it with the right attitude

It is easy to feel impatient with the end in sight. Some of you may just want to go straight into work – but make the most of the LPC!

While not every module that you study will be in an area of law that you envision yourself practising, take what you can from it as it will be good experience for the future.

The breadth of areas covered in the LPC means you may feel the things you deal with on the course barely scratch the surface of what you will do as a trainee. However, many of the skills you will pick up are extremely transferable. Whether it’s familiarity with a particular provision in a share purchase agreement, or drafting tips for when dealing with a lease, any help will be eagerly welcomed in your life as a trainee.

Go for a distinction

It is surprising how many students will say they are working towards a merit, or simply a pass, particularly if they have either a good degree result or a training contract offer already. This is definitely the wrong approach for two very obvious reasons.

Firstly, any number of factors can affect performance on exam day, and the loss of a few marks when aiming for the 50% grade boundary can mean failing an exam. Secondly, an impressive LPC result may be the deciding factor when offering a training contract place, embodying the ‘hardworking’ and ‘high achieving’ buzzwords that fill everyone’s applications.

Socialise

Whilst it is important to work hard, and focus on your studies, you shouldn’t overlook life outside of the LPC. Aside from providing you with some respite, getting to know your fellow students better can pay dividends in the future. They may end up working on the other side of non-contentious transactions, and knowing them can help ensure a smooth working relationship.

With these tips in mind, the last thing to say is enjoy the LPC. You will definitely look back fondly at it when settling in to the beginning of your training contract!

This post was edited by Matthew Flint. For more information, email blogs@gateleyuk.com.