June 22, 2023
All applicants to training contracts and vacation schemes will face an interview at some stage of the process. Demonstrating your commercial awareness in these settings is crucial.

Interviews: The Big Picture

Starting by zooming out a little, your interviews as a whole will be crucial in determining whether you are accepted or rejected for a training contract or vacation scheme. This is often the last stage of the application process (after an application form, perhaps a CV and cover letter, plus some kind of admissions test such as a Watson Glaser or SJT – some practise tests of these are available here). This is further split by some firms into two stages – (1) a recorded video interview and (2) a live interview with a real representative of the firm (perhaps a partner or counsel) as part of an ‘assessment centre’ which can be held online or in person. 

Regardless, the interview stage is hugely important. You need to demonstrate a variety of things here (many of which you already came across in the application form), including:

  • What led to your interest in becoming a solicitor (a personal and interesting answer)
  • What interests you in the firm (specific, tangible examples)
  • What experiences and skills you have that suit the firm (specific, tangible examples)

In an interview setting, you now have the extra bonus (or challenge, depending on your viewpoint) of being able to highlight how personable you are – which is not possible on paper alone. Demonstrating that you are a likeable individual with a genuine personality achieves two things – (1) it tells your interviewers that you would be a good person to integrate within the firm’s culture and (2) it implies a certain level of communication and interpersonal skills which are crucial to dealing with (and maintaining relationships with) clients.

There is another point which is likely to surface at some point in your interviews, however, and one which is often overlooked too – commercial awareness. 

What is Commercial Awareness?

Commercial awareness is a difficult term to pinpoint exactly, but is generally used to refer to an awareness of (1) how the world of business works and (2) significant recent developments in that world. 

The first point requires candidates to develop a basic understanding of big finance. What is inflation? What are interest rates? What does a private equity firm do? How do businesses raise capital?

You will rarely be asked questions as direct as these in an interview, however. Instead, you will be expected to raise some of these concepts yourself during your answers to interview questions. In terms of developing this knowledge, Investopedia is a great place to start for specific terms, as is Christopher Stoakes’ readily available (and eternally popular) ‘All You Need To Know About The City’. It is also worth noting that business does not exist in a vacuum, and so developing a basic knowledge of areas which heavily impact businesses on a regular basis (namely politics) is also important. 

The second point simply requires you to keep up to date with the news. The Financial Times and The Economist are the two most recommended picks in this area, though both require paid subscriptions (your educational institution may hold a subscription on your behalf – be sure to check). Other sites such as The Guardian are also helpful for a more accessible read.

When you come across interesting pieces, look for any terms within the text which you don’t understand yet and find their meanings on sites like Investopedia. Next, note down key takeaway from these pieces and (crucially) how they might impact a law firm or their clients.

How Does Commercial Awareness Fit Into Interviews?

Many law firm ‘assessment centres (a series of interviews back-to-back within the space of a few hours) will be consist of some interviews based on broader questions around yourself and the firm, and other interviews based purely on trying to test your commercial awareness. Magic Circle law firm Allen & Overy, for example, are known to split their assessment centres into one business case study interview and one more personal interview (why you, why A&O, etc.).

It is obvious that you will need to demonstrate commercial awareness in the purely business-orientated case-study type of interview. However, it will often also be relevant to draw upon commercial awareness in the more general aspects of an interview, too. 

You need to understand why commercial awareness is such an important part of the application process for law firms – they are, at the end of the day, businesses themselves, and are dealing with a huge range of complex businesses on a daily basis. Advising these clients requires at least a basic understanding of how they operate.

Furthermore, a relatively recent trend in the legal sector has seen law firms being expected to act as business consultants in some respects – advising not only on the law, but also on what makes the most commercial sense for a client. All of these points are amplified even more the higher up the scale of firm size you go, peaking with the elite US and Magic Circle firms.

As a result, it is imperative that you prepare for the types of questions that may surface.


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Law Interview Question Examples

Example: Can you tell us about a recent news story that might impact the legal industry?

This is the broadest type of question available, and so allows you free reign over where you take it. If you followed the advice above on making notes of interesting articles and how they relate to law firms and their clients, you should have a range to choose from. A strong answer will identify a specific news piece and make an explicit link to your interviewing firm by drawing upon knowledge of their operations.

For example, you could reference a recent Economist piece on the growth of wind farms before linking this to a recent wind farm deal the firm completed for a major client (which you have taken the time to read about), and then discuss the potential for growth in that area in terms of client work. For bonus points, you might even want to introduce yourself into the mix – your experience as a committee member of the sustainability society at university, for example, is worth expanding upon at this point.

Example: What challenges are facing the legal industry today?

For this question, you really need to view the law firm as a business in its own right. What obstacles (in the form of recent trends) is it currently facing? Introducing a news article is again a solid way to start answering the question. A few examples (which will certainly have news articles published on) could include:

  • The aftermath of COVID (markets slowed – less work for law firms to pick up)
  • Brexit (increasingly complex regulatory landscape and a possible appeal of mainland Europe for clients, which would be an issue for a UK-focused or even just UK-headquartered firm) 
  • The growth of AI (can be a huge advantage if integrated successfully, for example with A&O’s Harvey chatbot, but can also make some clients feel they can find legal answers without paid help)
  • Employee burnout (law firms are nothing without their staff, and lawyers in particular are suffering with work-life balance – firms need to find a balance for both ethical and commercial reasons)
  • Cybercrime (law firms themselves are being increasingly targeted, and store huge quantities of client data which they are legally responsible for protecting)

However, it is also useful to think of some of your own examples – the more unique and interesting, the more likely your interviewers will be impressed and remember your conversation.

Example: Discuss a recent deal that interested you.

This question gives you the perfect opportunity to demonstrate your commercial awareness and helps to show the firm the kinds of issues that interest you. Focus on how your chosen case relates to the firm’s key legal practice areas and the sectors you expressed interest in during your application. It is important not to just describe the transaction but also to explain what is unique about the deal – does it have long term impacts, is it a landmark case, what does it mean for the sector/industry/firm?

Also, try and pick a transaction that the firm you are applying to worked on as this shows that you are specifically interested in them (rather than their competitors!).

Example: Which company do you think has a strong business plan?

This is a slightly less common question, though will come up in some interviews. It is designed to test your big-picture ability to understand how businesses work.

What is meant by a ‘strong business plan’? This could be taken solely as profitability, but other factors (such as environmental or community impact) could also be brought into the conversation for an interesting angle on things.

Ideally, you will have thought of a few examples in advance. Think back to recent news stories. Apple’s attempts to break into banking (in partnership with Goldman) is a recent example of a savvy business development – a recent TLP article outlines some of the key takeaways of this expansion.

Example: What new law would you introduce and why?

This is a tricky question as you would need to demonstrate a strong legal understanding. As with all questions, try to keep a business focus when answering this and discuss a law that would be of particular use to your firm. Suggesting a law related to human rights when the firm specialises in real estate law, for example, would not be relevant and might demonstrate a lack of awareness for the firm and its work. Perhaps looking at the firm’s recent transactions and devise a law that could support its case.

It is also worth noting that many firms request that you read a case study as part of an assessment centre, which then forms the basis of their questions. They might ask you to talk them through a transaction, for example, and what advice you would give to a client. For these, it is important to not only think legally but also commercially – consider the impacts on the business itself and its various stakeholders. Make sure your answers are very specific to the particular client and their company.

Key Takeaways

Commercial awareness should be considered one of the most important skills to demonstrate in a law firm interview. You need to know both how to prepare (understanding general concepts and following the news) and how to demonstrate this knowledge and skill when faced with an interview question. By showcasing your commercial awareness, you take a large step closer to success in your applications.


By Declan Peters


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