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April 13 2022

How to be commercial as a lawyer

Legal Career Tips

James Bosson

James Bosson

A commercially minded lawyer demonstrates her commercial awareness, as she uses a pen to write on Flex Legal's branding

As a legal professional, you’ll hear a lot of theories about the best practical ways to be commercial. “Being commercial” is an often-cited professional trope in the legal world, with no uniform, pragmatic agreement on the best way to demonstrate commerciality within an organisation.

We felt it was high time to address this, and we were delighted to recently have our own Sophie Gould host a virtual Junior Lawyer Lunch with our friends at LexisNexis, all about how to be commercial as a lawyer. We invited Chloe Mason-Williams, Head of Legal for Thermal and Commercial at EDF, and Tarun Tawakley, Partner at Lewis Silkin, to share their sage advice on how to best be commercial as a lawyer. What follows in this article is what we learnt from their insightful talk.

1) Be a business partner by understanding the business

Any good demonstration of commercial awareness begins by forming a clear mental idea of what your organisation’s overall objectives are. This contextual baseline will directly inform the wider context in which your work takes place, and can help guide your decision making. Take a minute to ask yourself – what are your current organisation’s immediate aims? What are their ambitions, and what are potential roadblocks to these? What do external stakeholders want? If you can’t answer these questions, it’s well worth taking the time to investigate.

However, your immediate organisational objectives aren’t the only context to consider. You aren’t giving legal advice in a vacuum, and can definitely go a step further by understanding the wider industry in which the business operates. Who are your organisation’s direct competitors, and how do they compare in size to yours? Given this, what is your organisation’s tolerance to risk? By understanding your specific organisation and its place in the market, you can better tailor your advice to them on the likelihood of risks and the potential consequences of those risks.

Crystallizing your understanding of your organisation’s place in the market will help you be a more effective business partner, and should shape the way you offer your advice. By better aligning your day-to-day work with the overall goals of the business, you can take your commercial insights to the next level.

2) Be a risk advisor and a mitigation finder

Just as your organisation operates within a wider industry, your legal team operates within a wider organisation. It’s an unfortunate truth that legal departments can often be seen as party-pooping business barriers, who hold things up needlessly. Of course, this couldn’t be further from the truth – but it should shape the way in which you offer advice.

Your job, ultimately, isn’t just to offer black-letter advice on the law. One huge thing we aren’t taught whilst studying law is the enormous importance of empathy and social listening. For example, let’s say your sales team bring you a deal that they’re really excited about, and want your sign off before they go ahead with the deal. You look it over and immediately notice some potential areas of risk. What are they going to hear when you advise them? If they aren’t legally-savvy, then there’s a strong chance they will interpret your advice as a terse warning that they can’t go ahead with the deal, and that you are the party-pooping business barrier they have nightmares about.

Instead, frame your advice with regards to what your hypothetical sales team are trying to achieve, and offer mitigations to the risks you’ve spotted. At the end of the day, you both want the organisation to succeed – but approach that task from very different mindsets. By helping to mitigate risks, you can merge those mindsets and collaborate on better outcomes. In time, you might even turn the perception of your legal department into that of a party-starting business blockbuster.

3) Help your organisation make more money

Simply put, helping an organisation make more money is the ultimate objective of commercial awareness. Your work, alongside the work of your non-legal colleagues, all serves a common goal. You all want the organisation to succeed, and that means helping it to be financially successful.

In in-house roles, it’s not uncommon for legal teams to have to be the commercial voice in the room. Each different department will approach problems in their own ways, and it’s your job to ultimately make sure that deals stand up “end-to-end” commercially. Engineers will approach challenges differently to researchers, who will approach things differently to administrators, or customer service, or human resources. When all of these voices are competing in a room, approaching a new deal from their own unique angles, it’s your job to consider how these will manifest contractually. Imagine that each part of the contract has a value attached to it, and help the different teams weigh this up in their discussions.

Legal departments have an important role to play in facilitating commercial discussions with the rest of the business. With the right awareness of your organisation, its market, the relevant legal issues, and potential outcomes of a new deal, you can offer a commercial oversight that makes the entire company more successful. That, at the end of the day, is the crux of commercial awareness.

4) Frame your advice in the right context

There’s a practicality to working in law that you never get taught about. As a lawyer, you won’t really ever be brought legal problems to solve. You are given business problems that your colleagues need legal assistance with. Navigating these situations successfully requires keen “soft” skills.

The style of advice you need to give won’t be the same for everyone, so you’ll have to quickly glean what is being asked of you, the immediate context it’s being asked in, and respond accordingly. Are your colleagues just bouncing an idea off you, or do they want comprehensive advice? Do they want you to give things a quick once over, or completely take a task off their plate? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer here, and you’ll have to demonstrate situational judgement and figure out what matters to that specific colleague/client.

With this in mind, it’s important to give people the information they need as cleanly as possible. A good way to think about it is to “start at the end”, then explain your reasoning. Other areas of your organisation might get frustrated if the information they need is tucked away on page 6 of a document you’ve sent to them. Start with a “yes”, “no”, or “we might be able to, so long as…”. Take your complex (and impressive) legal knowledge on each matter, and distil it down into immediately accessible information that your colleague/client can understand right away. This, more than anything else covered here, will make you an asset to your organisation.

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