Competition for legal jobs is intense so your CV and cover letter should make you stand out for the right reasons. Follow these tips to make the best impression…

Writing a strong cover letter is essential for any law career, as it helps to persuade the employer that you'd be a fantastic recruit. It should be one page long, and:

  • demonstrate your knowledge of the law firm and wider legal sector
  • elaborate on your key skills, experiences and characteristics, without simply repeating your CV
  • explain why you aspire to work for the organisation.

'Your legal cover letter needs to be interesting to read as employers will look at it as an indication of your written communication,' explains Helena Stylianou, careers manager at The University of Law (Bristol).

'Include why you're interested in the firm. For example, if you're applying to a niche sports law firm have you had work experience with a sports company? If you're applying to an international firm is it because you have language skills or have you had experience of working abroad?'

To achieve these objectives, your legal cover letter should follow this general structure:

  • Opening paragraph - Briefly mention the position you're applying for and how you found out about it.
  • Second paragraph - Tell the recruiter who you are and the stage of career you're at. Explain how your key qualities can benefit the firm with practical evidence from your work experience, academic history or extra-curricular activities. Use powerful and positive language throughout without resorting to hyperbole.
  • Third paragraph - Tell the organisation why you’re specifically attracted to them and their work citing, if possible, any current or recent cases of interest.
  • Closing paragraph - Mention that you've enclosed your CV and look forward to hearing from the firm. Explain when you'd be available for interview and cover any practical issues you've been asked to address, such as salary expectations.

'Keep cover letters punchy, accurate and try to highlight something to make you stand out,' advises Deborah McCormack, head of recruitment and graduate development, Pinsent Masons LLP.

Your legal CV should be around two or three pages in length, and follow this general structure:

  • Personal details - At the top of the page, include important details such as your name, address, email and telephone number.
  • Education and qualifications - Detail any professional memberships (e.g. the Law Society) or qualifications you possess, such as the Legal Practice Course (LPC). List your degree, A-levels and GCSEs; when discussing the former of these, mention the areas of law that you studied while at university and state your dissertation title.
  • Work experience - Chronologically profile your work history, including the organisation you worked for and its location, plus your job title and, if applicable, your practice areas. Describe your key tasks and responsibilities, paying close attention to the significant results of your actions. You could separate your work experience into different categories, such as legal, commercial and voluntary. Use your law work experience to demonstrate your passion for a career in the field, and your part-time work to exhibit your transferable skills such as commercial awareness.
  • IT and language skills - Outline your level of proficiency with relevant software packages such as Microsoft Word and Excel, and mention any additional languages that you speak.
  • Activities and interests - Avoid listing irrelevant hobbies such as reading or listening to music. Instead, discuss your involvement in sporting teams and other organisations, highlighting any positions of responsibility you've held or awards you've gained. Quirky experiences - such as starting a new club or society at university - can help you stand out.
  • Referees - You don’t necessarily need to give references at this stage. Stating 'references available on request' will usually suffice.

'In general the CV should contain facts, while the cover letter is the narrative around the facts,' adds Anne Petrie, careers manager at The University of Law (Guildford).

For more advice on what abilities recruiters in the legal sector are looking for, see 7 skills for a successful law career.

As well as following the above advice, you should also ensure that your CV is:

  • clear, concise and easy to read
  • presented using sub-headings (bold) and bullet points
  • printed on good-quality paper
  • read by a friend, family member or careers adviser before submission
  • submitted well before the deadline
  • typed in size-11 Arial, or a similarly clear and professional-looking font.

Deborah says that is doesn't matter if you’re completing a bespoke application form or drafting your own legal CV, the basics stay the same. You need to:

  • Pay attention to detail - 'Make sure you ask someone else to check your work to pick up on any spelling or grammatical errors. Spelling a firm's name incorrectly doesn't give the best first impression.'
  • Remember that relevant work experience doesn’t always have to be legal - 'Other types of work and volunteering experience can demonstrate that you are customer-focused, well organised, a good team player and a successful problem solver.'

How to target your application to a law firm

It's much wiser to submit between five and ten highly targeted applications than dozens of generic, copy-and-paste ones. Every application should be treated as an individual project.

'Think about why you are applying to a particular firm, because it's highly likely that you will be asked this question at assessment stage,' says Deborah. 'If you think that you would like to qualify into a corporate and commercial firm, what attracts you to that area? Are your values aligned to those of the firm you are applying to? Do you have a feel for the types of clients you would be acting for at a particular firm?'

Thoroughly research the prospective organisation - the more you know about the firm, the more tailored your application will be. Regularly checking the news sections of firms' websites will allow you to reference current cases and projects in your application and understand which skills would come in useful. What's more, possessing such knowledge will allow you to address your application to the most relevant individual. 'There is no excuse for not doing this homework if you are genuinely interested in working for a particular firm,' adds Deborah.

All of this also helps you to determine whether your skills and career preferences would be suited to the specialist work that the firm undertakes and vice versa.

This is as invaluable when choosing a law firm as it is when attending law fairs, open days and vacation schemes.

What to leave out of your CV

When writing your CV, you shouldn't:

  • leave any unexplained gaps in your career history
  • add in too much detail
  • include personal details such as your age, gender, marital status etc. as these are irrelevant details and legal recruiters don't like to see them included
  • use overly outlandish formatting
  • use pictures or tables
  • write bland profile or objective sections
  • write 'CV' or 'curriculum vitae' at the top.

It should go without saying, but also avoid lying on Your CV. 'Be authentic,' says Deborah. 'Don't include anything that isn't true. Integrity in law is everything.'

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