Legal CVs:legal CV structure | legal work experience | non-legal work experience | the STAR approach | target your applications | the interests section | make your law CV stand out | get the tone right | focus on the positives | demonstrate attention to detail
Law CV tip 1: choose CV headings carefully – and be consistent with formatting
Separating your experience into different categories – such as legal, commercial and voluntary – makes your CV easier to read. The head of graduate recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, warns against describing any work experience as ‘relevant work experience’ – that suggests to the reader that you think the rest of your experience is irrelevant.
‘A CV should entice the recruiter to want to know more about the applicant,’ advises Anup Vithlani, graduate recruiter at Trowers & Hamlins. ‘Avoid a prose-heavy structure in order to make your CV more pleasing on the eye – and be consistent with grammar and punctuation.’ A graduate recruiter at Linklaters encourages you to ‘use sub-heads and bullet points – anything that makes the CV format easier for the reader.’ Although you should aim to keep your CV to two sides of A4, the head of graduate recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer encourages you to put your own stamp on it: ‘There’s no one right way of doing a CV,’ she says. ‘You’re the best judge of how to structure it.’
Law CV tip 2: use your legal work experience to show motivation for a career in law…
Recruiters want to see bags of motivation for career in law. Taking part in vac schemes, open days and insight days at law firms, attending open court sessions at your local county court and taking part in mini-pupillages at barristers’ chambers are all great opportunities to work out if a legal career is right for you – and which branch of the profession or type of organisation would suit you best. One recruiter from our TARGETjobs Law editorial board recommends that you: ‘Demonstrate that you’ve done your research and know what makes a career at that law firm right for you. Describe what you’ve done in the past and pull out how it’s shaped you now.’
…and (law CV tip 3) use your part-time job to demonstrate your skills for law
Some applicants are tempted to use the legal work experience section on their CV to demonstrate transferable skills. ‘My advice is to avoid statements such as “I developed my teamworking skills by going to a networking drinks”,’ says the head of graduate recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. ‘I encourage candidates to talk about the skills they developed in, say, their regular part-time job rather than on a two-week vacation placement or open day – where, realistically, you have less time or opportunity to develop your soft skills.’
All successful lawyers need a good dose of common sense – clients will want to receive advice that works in practice, not just on an academic level. When have you had to apply common sense during your part-time job? Or used good interpersonal skills to diffuse a tricky customer complaint in your retail job? Anup is keen to see students with ‘strong commercial experience that can transfer to a legal setting: students who can demonstrate exposure to clients and an appreciation of working in a high-pressure environment. ‘Applicants don’t necessarily have to secure a vacation scheme place to stand out,’ Anup says.
Law CV tip 4: write about the impact you made
‘Active involvement in voluntary work, pro bono or part time work can also demonstrate your ability to handle substantial responsibility alongside your studies, in addition to helping you to develop important teamwork and leadership skills,’ advises the graduate recruitment and development manager at Baker McKenzie. The graduate recruiters I spoke to for this article suggested illustrating each experience with two or three bullet points and be clear about the personal impact you’ve had on each situation. Use strong, active verbs to briefly describe any improvements you’ve made to, say, the filling system at a law advice centre or the rankings of the university sports team you captain. Many careers advisers recommend using the STAR approach, encouraging you to describe the Situation, the Task, the Action you took and the Result that followed.
Law CV tip 5: treat each training contract or vacation scheme application as if it is the only one you are doing
Applications are time consuming. The HR manager (graduate recruitment) at Mayer Brown International, says ‘there’s no need to apply to 40 firms; make 4 or 5 targeted applications instead. Invest a significant amount of time on each application and consider it another module of your university degree. Don’t submit applications at 3.00 am or on Christmas Day – it doesn’t create a good impression.’ One of the trainee solicitors in the TARGETjobs Law Graduate Survey had this piece of good advice: ‘Research firms thoroughly. Treat each application as if it is the only one you are doing.’
Law CV tip 6: don’t undersell yourself in the ‘interests’ section of your CV
When we asked the graduate recruiter at Baker McKenzie about her top tip for filling out the ‘interests’ information in an application form or CV, she explained that candidates often undersell themselves in this section. ‘Writing about your involvement in Duke of Edinburgh or Young Enterprise at school is all very well, but many recruiters are looking for more recent evidence of balancing university commitments with extra-curricular activities: being elected onto a society's committee for instance, or captaining a sports team.’
Think about the competencies law firms look for: if the rest of your CV is lacking evidence of teamworking, for instance, make sure you demonstrate your involvement with any teams or committees in this section. If genuine mitigating circumstances, such as a serious illness, have reduced your free time to get involved in extra-curricular activities, make sure you declare your extenuating circumstances in your covering letter or application form.
Law CV tip 7: let your CV stand out for the right reasons
One trainee solicitor in the TARGETjobs Law Graduate Survey gave this advice: ‘Most student lawyers have a very similar background. Try to get some alternative experiences that make you stand out from the crowd on your CV.’ A graduate recruiter at the TARGETjobs Law Recruiters' Forum this year was impressed by a candidate who was the treasurer of her university belly dancing society; another recruiter I spoke to used the example of an applicant whose experience as a landscape gardener (which sometimes involved ‘12 hours digging in the rain’) showed he had the stamina to work long days at a commercial law firm if needed.
Law CV tip 8: strike the professional tone expected of lawyers
Remember your reader: professionalism is essential to the legal sector and you can show just how clearly you understand this through your language and your approach to applications. Some recruitment sectors value creativity as part of their application process and may reward candidates who send CVs printed on a wine bottle, but such an approach will not impress legal recruiters. Aim for a professional tone and avoid using humour in your CV.
Law CV tip 9: concentrate on what you have to offer a law firm
The one piece of advice that kept coming up at the TARGETjobs Law Recruiters’ Forum in April was this: concentrate on what you have to offer, not on what your CV/background/education lacks. It often comes down to confidence. ‘Don't be put off if the most polished, well connected or intelligent student on your university course has failed to get a vacation scheme or training contract place,’' reassures a Freshfields recruiter. ‘He or she may have been rejected for a whole host of reasons. Concentrate on what you have to offer.’
‘There's an assumption that candidates need to be captain of the university netball team or have a first class degree to get a training contract with a magic circle firm, but I see plenty of people with a good 2.1 and bags of motivation for a career in law get offers from us. Motivation is key,’ points out the head of graduate recruitment at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. ‘My advice to anyone with plenty of motivation, a solid range of skills and experience is to go for it: you're in with a reasonable chance.’
Law CV tip 10: convince graduate recruiters of your attention to detail
Once you’ve put your CV and covering letter together, don’t be tempted to rush it off. Around 80% of candidates don’t get past the paper application stage so you need to make sure you don’t fall at the first hurdle unnecessarily due to grammatical or spelling errors – remember that solicitors need excellent written communication skills and attention to detail. Ask either a friend, family member or university careers adviser to check over your CV and covering letter before sending it off – an extra pair of eyes is invaluable.
Massive changes to the way solicitors qualify are on the horizon. Do you know how they will affect you? Find out here.
A critical aspect of creating an effective CV is writing a personal statement, sometimes called a profile or career summary, that enables the recruiter to quickly identify the strategic value you can add to their organisation. Your CV should be a self-marketing document aimed at persuading the recruiter to interview you – and your personal statement is a critical part of making this happen.
Many candidates struggle with writing the statement but it doesn't have to be a difficult as you may think. A well written statement can be between 50 and 200 words, although it is important not to ramble. Remember you always have your cover letter for interesting and engaging information.
It's important to read the job specification carefully and ensure not only that your skills and experience match but you reflect this in your statement. I am often asked whether a statement should be written in the first or third person and, while there are no definitive rules about this, my preference is always to write in the first person because the CV is all about you and your skillset. This doesn't mean that you have to add "I" at the beginning of each sentence, however. The reader knows it's about you so avoid this type of repetition and keep them engaged in your value and transferable skills.
For example an opening statement without the opening "I" could read:
As a highly-motivated and results orientated manager within the luxury hotel sector, I have a proven track record of providing exemplary levels of service to a broad range of guests, including VIPs and high-profile individuals.
This example reads naturally and flows for the reader, whereas if an "I" was inserted at the start, while not hugely different, it would read more like a list. As you move forward with additional information it then becomes difficult to break out of the format you have started.
As a general rule, it's best to break the statement into three sections:
Who you are
As recent graduate from Durham University, with a 2:1 honours degree in media communications, I have undertaken several internships within leading organisations such as Bertelsmann and Times Warner. These placements have enabled me to develop not only specific media industry experience, but also a valuable and transferable skill set in this fast-paced sector.
The above opening allowes the recruiter to quickly identify where you are coming from, that you have had industry experience (something that may be in the selection criteria) and core transferable skills. This in itself could be enough for your opening statement, but it can be expanded upon by adding some additional information.
What you can bring to the table
During placement with Bertelsmann, I worked in the media division contributing to projects – such as the award-winning China Max Documentary – and managed my own research, liaised with various divisions, formulated media reports and participated in group project meetings. Utilising excellent communication skills, I developed and maintained successful working relationships with both internal and external staff.
Your career aim
Looking to secure a position in a media organisation, where I can bring immediate and strategic value and develop current skillset further.
An example of a poorly written personal statement
Tim is a recent graduate from Durham University with a 2:1 honours degree in media communications. I have undertaken several internships within leading organisations. Tim is now looking to secure a position in a media organisation where I can develop my current skill set.
The mismatch of first and third person is not only confusing to the reader, but it almost sounds like a profile about different people. It also lacks specific detail and proof of what value the candidate could bring to the company.
Key points on writing a dynamic and interesting personal statement:
- • Get straight to the point: avoid lengthy descriptions and make your testimonies punchy and informative.
- • Keep it between 50 to 200 words maximum.
- • If you have enough space, use 1.5 line spacing to make you statement easier to read.
- • Match person and job specifications with well written copy.
- • Read your profile out loud to ensure it reads naturally.
- • Don't mix first and third person sentences.
Other essential resources
•Three excellent cover letter examples
•CV templates: graduates, career changers and ladder climbers
•What questions to ask at the end of your interview
•How to write a CV when you lack direct work experience
Elizabeth Bacchus is a consultant and founder of The Successful CV Company.
This content is brought to you by Guardian Professional. To get more content and advice like this direct to your inbox, sign up for our weekly update and careers ebook.