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A law student's guide to building commercial awareness

Business panic

Just over two months ago, fresh from my first visit to London, I set my mind to applying for a clerkship at Linklaters. I guess when they said magic circle what they meant was that it would take a stroke of magic for me to get in. I was rejected in record time - three business days (I'll wear that as a badge of honour, thank you very much) - and I knew exactly why.

Every single piece of propaganda I'd seen and piece advice I'd received was to do with having real commercial awareness. In my head, the commercially aware are people who understand what a negative gear is (negative geared, gearing?) and how interest rates work, maybe even what they are. I'm not one of these people. So when the question came along - Please write about a current issue or news article that has interested you, and how you feel that subject would affect Linklaters - I resorted to Google. I wrote 200 words on Brexit (back when it was a punchline) based on an article I read in the Guardian and three business days later, that was that.

Full disclosure, if you hadn't already guessed, the second discipline in my double degree is Media and Communications. Majoring in Public Relations (which doesn't help).

But as I got deeper into the clerkship milieu and learnt about the programs that I hope to actually have a shot at, commercial awareness kept popping up. So I buckled down and got down to business (get it?).

Here's X easy ways to build your commercial awareness.

1. Fork out for the AFR

Donald Duck reading a newspaper

Source: Giphy

You've probably heard this tip before. It's the one that law firm partners will shout at you at every clerkship seminar and cocktail evening you go to. Chances are that you get as far as the homepage and one article about nothing in particular, you hit the paywall and you're done. Kick that habit. Subscriptions start at $25 a month. Subscriptions start at $25 a month. The basic subscription gives you access to 30 articles a month so on this subscription you can read an article a day for a whole month (with one cheat day). Maybe that doesn't sound like enough, but it is. Think about it - if all you have to do is read one article a day, aren't you going to be more likely to read it?

Maybe you're still not sold. $25 is more than double the cost of your Netflix subscription and you use that all day, every day. Can't you just use free news sites? You could, but the AFR has a more technical commercial focus in every single piece published, rather than just those in the business section of the SMH. So to make your $25 worth it, I suggest you keep a journal. Not so much 'Dear Diary, I didn't understand anything this article said about bank bill swap rates...' but more of a summary of the article you read that day and definitions of any terms you don't understand (bank bill swap rates' was one of those terms for me, obviously).

Not only will you be forced to process the information but you can refer back to previous articles when a question like the one in the Linklaters application comes up. It might be dated, but you can take the opportunity to follow up on the story and see how it's developed. I've also found that big name law firm partners are often sought out to comment on these stories and it could be useful for you to note down, for example, what so-and-so big shot from KWM said about banking reform down the road when you're trying to learn more about KWM.

This isn't to say you should forget about the free news sites. I often check in with the Sydney Morning Herald and Guardian as well as Lawyers' Weekly to get a more well-rounded perspective on big issues.

2. Read a book (for once)

I know, I know, you've got enough reading to do. But when you're only plan for your day off or weekend is lying in bed binging on whatever new release Netflix has put out (probably Orange Is the New Black, please no spoilers I haven't watched it yet), you've probably got time to close your laptop and read a book. Netflix can wait. Pick up one of the following instead.

The Future of The Professions book cover

'This book predicts the decline of today's professions and describes the people and systems that will replace them. In an Internet society, according to Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, we will neither need nor want doctors, teachers, accountants, architects, the clergy, consultants, lawyers, and many others, to work as they did in the 20th century.'

You might remember the name 'Susskind'. That's probably because he wrote the doomsday tome 'The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the nature of legal services', a controversial book in it's day. It's a name that most of your interviewers will be familiar with. This new book, co-written by Susskind's economist son, gives the wider perspective on the changing nature of professions.

Debt book cover

'For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era, Graeber argues, that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors.'

Given that much of the work that big commercial firms do is essentially to do with debt, this is an interesting read. It might not give you a detailed look into the workings of Commbank (that's what the AFR subscription is for) but it provides an engaging insight into how debt actually works. You might be surprised at how helpful this will be.

Other People's Money

'We all depend on the finance sector. We need it to store our money, manage our payments, finance housing stock, restore infrastructure, fund retirement and support new business. But these roles comprise only a tiny sliver of the sector's activity: the vast majority of lending is within the finance sector. So what is it all for? What is the purpose of this activity? And why is it so profitable?'

So this one might be for the more advanced among you, or maybe leave it 'til you've had a chance to develop your knowledge a little. In this book, John Kay takes a cynical look at how the financial sector, its growth and its concerning circularity. You don't have to agree with him, but it's worth a read.

3. Find a buddy

Donkey from Shrek

Source: Giphy

I hope you've got at least one friend. Not only for the purpose of raising your commercial awareness, of course, just generally. If you don't, probably a good time to get one. Finding a friend that's similarly commercially challenged can be just as useful as having one that's a certified expert. Take some time in your standard coffee date or study session to talk over the stories you've been reading about and what your thoughts are on them. Maybe even try to explain them to someone. This will help you remember the story but also the concepts in it. If you're friend is a beginner then they'll benefit from this explanation as well. Conversely, if they're an expert, they'll be able to spot any mistakes in your understanding of the story or a concept.

Also, if you have a friend that's also given in and forked out for an AFR subscription, consider sharing a Premium Digital subscription. It's only going to cost you $4 more each and you can both access an unlimited number of articles.

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