Life at Allens
Five skills a commercial lawyer needs
By William Stone
I am an Associate in the Commercial Disputes team in the Melbourne office at Allens. I joined as a Law Graduate in 2019, having undertaken a clerkship in 2018. I rotated in the firm's Mergers, Acquisitions and Capital Markets practice group, before rotating and specialising in the Disputes and Investigations practice group. It is hard to distil the skillset of a commercial lawyer into a top five, but here are the skills which have served me well and I think will hold you in good stead as you embark on your own legal career.
Be prepared to give your opinion or contribute to a group discussion. Before internal or external meetings – with other lawyers or the client – it's important to prepare yourself. Even if you are a clerk or junior lawyer and don't think you are going to play an active role in the meeting, read into the relevant background material. Read over the email correspondence or memoranda. Ask yourself: what is the problem we are trying to solve? You will get a lot more from a meeting when you can follow the discussion and participate, rather than turning your mind to it in the moment. Where possible, I try to put aside 15 minutes or so before a meeting, to re-familiarise myself with the relevant material and think about how I might be able to work with others to progress whatever it is we will be talking about.
Commercial awareness is a multi-faceted skill. One aspect of it is to be aware of current affairs and how the latest legal, political and social developments are impacting your clients. Practically, you can achieve this by following the news (such as by listening to podcasts, reading print news, or browsing online) and perhaps setting up news alerts for particular sectors or companies. Another aspect of commercial awareness is being attuned to your clients' needs. What are they trying to achieve, and how can we make it as easy as possible for them? Have a think about where your legal advice fits into their broader commercial imperatives. For me, this means providing clear, business-minded legal advice. Clients do not necessarily want to receive pages upon pages of legal jargon, when a simple, short email they can pass on to the board may suffice.
Initiative is a sought-after commodity in junior commercial lawyers. Often you will find yourself in fast-paced and rapidly evolving situations. For example, a litigator during a trial, or an M&A lawyer working to close a complex transaction. Do not be afraid to reach out to your colleagues with an idea, or take the lead with work that you know needs to be done. If you are unsure whether something needs to be progressed, the lawyers you are working with will appreciate you actively checking in with them, rather than waiting for them to prompt you.
Communication is key, both externally with clients and internally with your colleagues. Externally, you should read the expectations of the client. Clients I have worked with have appreciated being asked how they want to be kept in the loop. Do they want to be updated blow-by-blow, or are they happy to receive a brief recap once a fortnight? Internally, keep an open communication channel to the team you are working with. Let them know what you have on your plate and be honest when discussing your capacity and ability to meet deadlines. Communicate early if you think a particular timeframe is no longer realistic.
Uncompromising ethical standards
Finally, high ethical standards should guide everything you do as a lawyer. A lawyer's paramount duty is to the court and the administration of justice. This means that your role is not solely to advocate your client's interests at all costs – it is also to assist the court in achieving justice in a prompt and efficient manner. It is not in the interests of justice to encourage protracted legal proceedings that unnecessarily drain court resources and parties' time. Of course, a lawyer still owes a duty to act in the best interests of their client. However, the paramount duty to the court overrides inconsistency with any other duty.