Sarah, a bright law graduate, lands a training contract at her dream job at a top commercial law firm. Despite her academic excellence, she quickly finds herself struggling to keep up with the demands of her role. Her colleagues speak a language filled with terms like “market trends,” “financial statements,” and “economic impact,” leaving her feeling lost and unprepared. Within months, Sarah realizes that her education has left her with a critical gap – commercial awareness.

At least Sarah got the job. In today’s graduate legal recruitment, commercially unaware applicants are having a difficult time securing employment. A recent study by Siobhan McConnell of Northumbria University highlights a pervasive issue in legal education: law schools are failing to adequately teach commercial awareness, a crucial competency for today’s legal professionals. This gap leaves many graduates underprepared for the realities of the job market.

Defining Commercial Awareness

To understand why commercial awareness is critical, we must first define it. At its core, it is a multifaceted skill that involves understanding the business environments in which clients operate, including market trends, financial acumen, and the broader economic, social, and political factors that affect businesses. It encompasses a broad spectrum of competencies, from grasping financial statements to understanding the impact of global events on local markets. This complexity often leads to varied interpretations among students, educators, and employers, complicating efforts to effectively integrate it into law school curricula.

However, defining commercial awareness is only the beginning. The real challenge lies in how this concept is taught – or often, not taught – in law schools.

Law Schools and Commercial Awareness

Law schools play a crucial role in shaping the commercial awareness of future lawyers like Sarah, but McConnell’s recent research suggests they often fall short. Taught modules and co-curricular activities do contribute, yet the integration and explicit guidance on commercial awareness are underwhelming.

While some modules successfully incorporate real-world business contexts, many remain theoretical and are widely disconnected from practical application. For instance, business law courses that include case studies tend to be more effective. However, the majority of courses fail to directly link commercial concepts to legal practice. This is the reality for undergraduate law degrees and post-graduate studies like LPC and SQE preparation courses.

The curriculum design itself creates some challenges. Many law programs are densely packed with mandatory subjects, leaving little room for courses focused on commercial skills. This oversight underscores a broader issue: the traditional law curriculum is often slow to adapt to the evolving demands of the legal profession. Law schools need to reassess their approach to prepare students better. They should integrate commercial awareness more explicitly into the curriculum and ensure that theoretical knowledge is consistently linked with practical business skills.

Filling the Gap

Yet, there are promising avenues for improvement. McConnell’s paper emphasizes that Clinical Legal Education (CLE) offers a promising avenue for bridging the gap between academic theory and practical legal skills, particularly in enhancing commercial awareness. CLE refers to a hands-on, practical approach to legal education where law students work on real cases under the supervision of experienced practitioners.

According to the research, students frequently report that while CLE provides valuable hands-on experience, it often lacks a structured focus on commercial aspects. Supervisors note that clinical programs are designed to focus on developing general legal skills rather than specific commercial competencies. This misalignment means that despite the potential of CLE, students may still find themselves unprepared for the commercial demands of the legal profession.

CLE is not new in education, and some law schools have been implementing Problem-Based Learning (PBL) for over a decade. It is a broader educational method used to develop general problem-solving skills. Scott Slorach, a Director of Learning & Teaching at York Law School, explained how PBL contributes to developing students’ commercial awareness, even at the undergraduate level:

PBL at York requires students to analyse real-world legal problems. In this context, commercial awareness is viewed as having insight into the financial and practical interests and objectives of both business and individual clients. Two aspects of PBL help develop this commercial awareness: before considering legal issues, students analyse the interests and objectives of all relevant parties based on the facts provided; and having researched the legal issues, student evaluate and advise on their impact on those parties’ interests and objectives.

From research and practice, we know that CLE and PBL can deliver practical education on developing commercial awareness if applied correctly. By explicitly incorporating commercial awareness into the curriculum and ensuring that practical experiences are directly linked to business concepts, law schools can better prepare their graduates for the realities of the modern job market and legal practice.

Although law schools can change and adapt to the industry’s new requirements, there is a second obvious actor in this educational scenario: students.

The Power of Choice

One aspect of developing commercial awareness we must not forget is that students have the power of choice. Sarah could have chosen a university and modules within her law degree that align with her career aspirations and develop commercial awareness. This power of choice allows future lawyers to tailor their education to meet the demands of the legal market. Let’s take York Law School as an example, Slorach highlights the variety of modules available to students, directly emphasising commercial awareness.

We have a number of transactional modules where students advise business clients on business matters as: start-up; equity and debt funding; commercial transactions; intellectual property; franchising; new product development; and financial difficulties.” he explains. “Students use practitioner know-how and precedents, and develop understanding as to how contracts not only record obligations but are used by lawyers to manage risk for clients. We run an international business negotiation module where York student teams negotiate with US law students, and another, where law and computer science students develop an app to promote access to justice, applying business concepts such as design thinking.”

One can see how these modules are helpful in developing commercial acumen and how commercial acumen is essential in those practice areas. Now, let’s say, instead, Sarah chose to study purely academic subjects in law school that have little to no emphasis on commercial awareness. Not because the law school is doing a poor job of incorporating it into the curriculum but perhaps because there is no need for commercial awareness in that specific course. For example, the Moral and Political Philosophy module and the Roman Law module are both offered at Oxford University. Both modules do not put any emphasis on teaching commercial awareness because it is not needed there.

Let’s say Sarah chooses to study those two subjects instead of the ones that develop their commercial acumen. She may not acquire additional commercial awareness skills and might not be able to secure employment at her dream commercial law firm due to a lack of commercial awareness. Is it really the law school’s fault, or did Sarah make a poor decision?

It is clear that students must also take initiative in their own professional development.

Self-Development is the Only Solution

The power of choice extends beyond law degrees and universities. According to McConnell’s research, in the quest to develop commercial awareness, law students often turn to self-driven learning and independent activities. This proactive approach is not just optional; it is essential in the current job market and fills the gaps left by law schools.

Participating in networking events, attending guest lectures, and engaging in employer-sponsored activities are essential for students’ self-development. These opportunities offer firsthand insights into the business world, connecting students with professionals and real-world applications of their studies. Organizations like Aspiring Solicitors play a crucial role in guiding students and providing practical experience. Students also stay updated through resources like LinkedIn, industry news, internships, and online courses.

The increasing popularity of online courses, especially those that focus on developing commercial awareness, highlights the importance of tailored educational tools in today’s market. This trend toward proactive self-development, driven by a significant knowledge gap, is exemplified by Jake Schogger, the founder of Commercial Law Academy.

It was this knowledge gap that originally led to me writing my Commercial Law Handbook 10+ years ago….over the past few years, I have taken this much further, developing 7 comprehensive [commercial awareness] courses.

Over 10,000+ aspiring lawyers have used the Commercial Law Academy.

At the end of the day, the effectiveness of these strategies depends on the student’s commitment and consistency to developing commercial awareness. A long-term, strategic approach is essential. Regular engagement with these resources helps students develop a nuanced understanding of commercial concepts, making them more attractive to potential employers. All of this is on top of an already very busy law school education.

However, it’s important to recognize that not every legal career path requires deep commercial awareness.

Reality Check: Not Everyone Needs to Be Commercially Aware

In the busy world of law, commercial awareness is often touted as an essential skill for aspiring lawyers. Yet, the reality is more complicated. Not every legal practice area requires a deep understanding of business concepts.

Let’s consider the distinction between small and large firm practices. Attorneys at large firms may need to navigate complex financial landscapes and corporate intricacies. Conversely, those in smaller firms or specialized fields such as family law, public interest law, or criminal defence might find commercial awareness less critical. Their focus is on different skill sets, such as advocacy, negotiation, and client counselling. Think of the difference between an M&A solicitor for whom global M&A market knowledge is essential and a solo criminal solicitor for whom news of a merger between two multinational conglomerates is irrelevant when they are negotiating a plea deal for a client.

However, when asked whether all law graduates should develop commercial awareness skills, Slorach replied:

Yes. There is often a narrow view of commercial awareness as understanding economics, finance and business, so that you can better advise commercial clients. A wider, and I believe better, view is that lawyers need to be able to advise all clients in the context of understanding their motivations, interests, finances, activities, challenges, restraints, etc., whether these clients are businesses or individuals. In short, commercial awareness is what is needed to advise in context, which all lawyers, whatever their practice area, should do.

But there is still a justifiable question: should law schools really emphasize commercial awareness at the potential expense of other essential legal skills? If institutions push too heavily towards teaching business concepts, are they at risk of diluting the core of legal education? After all, should law schools also delve into accounting, finance, or other non-legal disciplines to meet every possible need?

The balance is delicate. Law schools must equip students with a broad range of skills while allowing room for specialization. Emphasizing commercial awareness is important, but it shouldn’t overshadow the diverse capabilities that different areas of law demand. Preparing students for a variety of legal careers means recognizing that commercial awareness is crucial for some, but not all, legal professionals.

Let’s Wrap This Up

As Sarah’s story illustrates, the gap between legal education and professional demands is huge, leaving many graduates struggling to keep up. Law schools need to adapt by incorporating commercial awareness into their curricula and preparing students with practical skills necessary in today’s competitive job market. However, the responsibility is shared. Students must actively pursue opportunities to improve their commercial understanding through self-driven learning and strategic choices.

In the end, preparing for the future of law means recognizing the multifaceted nature of legal practice and the diverse skills required to excel. Students should embrace this holistic approach to secure their dream jobs and empower them to thrive in an ever-evolving profession.