Getting into law: from commercial awareness to becoming an O-shaped lawyer

James Kitching
James KitchingWomble Bond Dickinson

The average age for qualification as a solicitor is not 24, but 29 and a half.

Why is this important to note? Because your career in law is not over because you have not secured a training contract at the end of your second year at university, nor if you have not secured one by 24.

Getting into law is incredibly competitive and takes time, but it's attainable if it's what you really want. The key is understanding that much repeated phrase “commercial awareness” and, now, being an "O-shaped lawyer".

There are many reasons why the average age of qualification is on an upward trend – why it's 29 and a half and not younger – and much of that has to do with a competitive market which gives firms the chance to select experienced and skilled candidates.

If you want to impress your future employer, then having a legal qualification is the absolute minimum; it's everything else that rounds you out which will set you apart.

Commercial awareness is the keyword drilled into us all from day dot, but I find that its meaning is often misunderstood. Applicants to the profession often think it means reading the news, keeping an eye on the latest deals, and being able to talk profusely about the risks of Brexit to the profession. This is not what firms are looking for.

Being commercially aware means recognising that a firm is a business and identifying what you can do to help that business succeed.

What this is will change as you progress in your career. No-one is expecting you to bring in thousands in fees from a new client in your first year as a trainee, but they do expect you to be able to talk to clients in a confident manner, to think outside the box and to know when you should and shouldn’t ask for help.

Your law degree will, for the most part, not help you do this.

Having a job, joining a university society, volunteering, or just fully engaging with a hobby, will. Not because they are fillers on your CV but because they provide you with actual experience, skills and, most importantly, confidence which will help you and your employer succeed.

One of the most useful skills any new trainee can have when starting out is not being afraid to figure something out on their own because they're not afraid of getting it wrong.

Failure is part of learning, and somebody who is independent yet recognises the constant process of learning from those around them is a key asset to any business. This feeds into being an O-shaped lawyer.

The O-shaped lawyer is a recognition that it's the clients themselves that need commercial awareness from their firms the most. In the same way that junior lawyers cannot be empty in their offer of actual commercial awareness, firms too cannot be empty in offering up business-minded lawyers to the clients they work with.

As a mirror to what firms expect of their trainees, clients expect their firms to have legal knowledge as a minimum: it's everything around and outside of that that makes for exceptional service. Firms need to understand their client’s business as a business adviser, not just a legal adviser.

They need to be willing to think beyond the questions they are asked about specific work and to look at future risks and opportunities that could add value to the relationship.

As such, it's important to note that the concept of O-shaped lawyers is not something that falls on the shoulders of new entrants to the profession and junior lawyers alone.

For it to work, partners must reward and recognise the O-shaped attributes and move away from the tick-box mentality of hours recorded and billed – but I could write a whole other article on that topic alone!

Instead, to come back round to where we started, all is not lost if you are not qualified by 24. The best lawyers are those who have had varied experiences before they enter the profession, experiences that provide them with commercial awareness and attributes to become an O-shaped lawyer.

Your legal career is something that will last most of your life and if you want it to be long and successful, then don’t rush into entering it!

 

A version of this article was first published on 18 January 2021 by The Lawyer and is reproduced by kind permission.

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