Ten ways to get your legal CV noticed by top law recruiters
Legal CVs: legal CV structure | legal work experience | non-legal work experience | the STAR approach | target your applications | the interests section | make your CV stand out | get the tone right | focus on the positives | demonstrate attention to detail
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 it 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.’
- Which headings could you use? See our annotated legal CV template
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 the firm right for you. Describe what you’ve done in the past and pull out how it’s shaped you now.’
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.
‘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.
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 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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.