Before coming to the Bar I was a volunteer manager, then a sports administrator before becoming a personal trainer and spending ten years building a franchising company for personal trainers. While not a traditional legal pathway, it taught me how to run a business and gave me a different perspective on relating to commercial clients. Here are some of the lessons I have learnt.

Our training focuses on law and legal argument. This is of little concern to many clients. Most will take our legal competence as a given, especially commercial clients who regularly use consultants.

Instead, successful companies focus on the bottom line. Profits are built on good reputations, efficient use of resources and strong relationships with clients. A barrister who demonstrates appreciation of these commercial priorities will quickly build rapport with clients.

Showing you understand your client starts simply, with universal skills. Listen carefully. Answer directly. Know your case. These are familiar to us all. Finesse comes in their application, especially with commercial clients.

Your client is likely to be an expert in their field. It is unlikely that you are. So don’t be afraid to ask technical questions to build the knowledge you need for a case. It is not a sign of weakness.

Make efforts to have a general appreciation of the business world. Most barristers don’t have the experience of running or managing a company, so here are a few quick ways to grow your commercial perspective.

Firstly, the business section of a weekend newspaper is a great place to start. These pages will summarise the latest government business policy, major developments for significant companies and the state of the markets. It will exercise your business mind and is useful knowledge to drop into conversation, as appropriate.

Secondly, read Freakonomics by Dubner and Levitt. It is a light-hearted but thought-provoking introduction to behavioural economics. It revolutionised the way I think about incentives, unintended consequences and interactions across all sectors of society. It even helped me get pupillage as ‘a book I had recently read’. This is a gateway to the many books and podcasts on all aspects of micro and macroeconomics.

Thirdly, review your own practice as the small business that it is. It could be of personal benefit as well as developing a more commercial way of thinking. For example:

  • Perform a cost-benefit analysis for each of the tasks you do. Which work is most profitable? Which is ‘not worth the candle’ considering fees, stress or time-expenditure?
  • Consider which tasks you could outsource, such as VAT returns or marketing.
  • Perform a risk analysis. Where is the greatest unmitigated risk to your practice? Is it lax regulatory compliance or poor data protection? Is it illness?
  • Even better, do a full SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. This might point your practice in new or unforeseen directions.

In exhibiting your commercial awareness, don’t avoid giving a clear and frank legal analysis. This will build confidence that you are the legal expert your client is paying for. But then move beyond this to explore the overall impact on the business with your client:

  • What reputational damage might public litigation cause?
  • Would not bringing or defending a claim appear weak to suppliers or competitors?
  • How much staff time will be lost preparing a case?
  • Will important commercial relationships be jeopardised?
  • Is the client falling prey to the ‘sunk costs fallacy’?
  • What is the cost-benefit analysis, considering all of the above?

Habitually adopting a ‘client’s eye’ approach lets you provide robust legal advice combined with commercial pragmatism. It builds better relationships so that your client and you can decide the best way forward.