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Blog 14 | What does ‘being commercial’ mean for a lawyer?

This is a question that haunts commercial lawyers in private practice and in-house - as there is more and more pressure on us in this ever-changing legal industry to be ‘more than just lawyers’ - ie to be ‘commercial’ for our clients. But what does that actually mean?

We recently asked this question to some of our learned friends on LInkedIn. While there are common themes among the responses, the broad range of thoughts and ideas just goes to show how being commercial as a lawyer can mean different things to different people. One thing is for certain though - being commercial is a non-negotiable for a lawyer in this day and age!

Clearly just telling people to “be commercial” doesn't help. Luke Hawthorne, Senior Associate at King & Wood Mallesons says “it is very unhelpful to tell a graduate to just be "more commercial". Understanding your client deeply, and how their business or project in question operates, is required here. For in-house lawyers it is a little easier as you generally know the company you work for inherently, but for private practice lawyers it can be difficult to know your many clients inside and out. Client secondments do help of course, and asking the right questions of your client will help you really understand their business. Think about it from the client perspective - they don’t want to know how clever you are at law, they just want you to solve their problems! Knowing your client is therefore essential to being commercial, and being able to advise the client in a way that is useful for them.

Speaking of clients, non-lawyers had their say on this too! Trent Butler, Senior Manager at Axiom Forensics, says that “Being commercial means taking into appropriate consideration all know implications (business, personal, financial, etc.) when choosing the best solution to a particular problem… Whilst I’m not a lawyer, I suppose for lawyers it means properly educating clients of the implications of each course of possible action so said client can make a commercial decision where appropriate.” Nicka Pitoi, Legal Counsel of Coca-Cola Amatil (PNG) Ltd agrees that it is the balance of all of these appropriate considerations - that is, not only looking at an issue from the legal angle but also “from financial, business strategy and reputational perspectives of the business; balancing risks vs opportunities, and guiding decisions towards outcomes that advance the goals and objectives of the business whilst at the same time limiting its exposure to financial, legal and reputational harm.”

Commercial legal advice, according to Karina Veling, Lawyer at The Star, must be provided “in a way that promotes and bolsters a company’s goals, objectives and strategic approach. It’s about bridging that gap between the law and business. This is much easier said than done, and not really a skill you can read about, but rather learn in practice.”

For Lana Waltman, Associate at Slater & Gordon, having the required legal skill set and knowledge is a given, but more is needed. "On top of this, lawyers need to have a business mindset, leadership skills, be able to network, engage in business development and promote their personal brand and firm to attract clients and referrals, be a good sales person, write articles, speak publicly, be able to manage and motivate a team, and be a part of creating a positive environment and culture on a day to day basis amongst other things.” How interesting that all of these additional skills have nothing to do with law!

Chris Hargreaves, Owner of TipsForLawyers.com puts this in a different way: “It means putting reality and humans above the law.  Sure, mostly it comes up in relation to money, but I'd say that "commerciality" is just a dollars based approach to "humanity".   That is: understand what really matters to somebody you're acting for, and focus on that more so than the strict legal application.... assuming you can do so ethically.”

All of these opinions and definitions show how complex this topic is, but also how necessary it is that we as lawyers strive to be commercial, for our clients. As Ms Veling put it, “being commercial” will continue to rise on the list of essential skills for lawyers, especially those working in-house” .

So what does ‘being commercial’ mean to you?