If you want to succeed in the competitive field of law, it helps if you get the basics right. To ensure your applications don't fail at the first hurdle learn how to craft a strong legal CV and cover letter
When it comes to selling your qualifications, skills and experience to potential employers your CV and cover letter are your shop window.
Despite many firms now using online forms for their applications, a CV and cover letter are important as they allow you to gather all your information in one place. They're also useful for speculative or ad hoc opportunities. Having a strong up-to-date CV and cover letter means you will be ready for any opportunity which might arise.
What should I include in my legal CV?
Your legal CV should be around two pages in length, and follow this general structure:
- Personal details - At the top of the page, include 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 Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE) or the Legal Practice Course (LPC). List your degree, A-levels and GCSEs; when discussing the former, mention the areas of law that you studied while at university and state your dissertation title.
- Work experience - 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. 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.
'Make sure your CV is in chronological order with your most recent work experience and education at the top of each section,' advises Katherine Sharp, early careers manager at Dentons.
As a general rule your CV should contain facts, while your cover letter provides the narrative around the facts.
For more advice on what abilities recruiters in the legal sector are looking for, see 7 skills for a successful law career.
How do I fine tune my law CV?
'Law firms receive thousands of applications. The best advice is to make it easy for the person reviewing your application by having clear sections with heading, including all of the relevant information so they don’t have to contact you for more detail,' explains Katherine. 'Make sure that it is consistently formatted with a simple layout. Sell yourself, don't just say 'I worked for X firm as a Y.' Tell us what you actually did, the skills you developed and what you achieved.'
As well as following the above advice, you should also ensure that your CV is:
- presented using bold sub-headings and bullet points
- if necessary, 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.
It 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 - 'Double check spelling and grammar – a lack of attention to detail will inevitably mean that you do not progress to the next stage of the recruitment process,' says Katherine. Ask someone else (a family member, friend or careers adviser) to check your work. After all, 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. Firms like to see what you have been up to outside of your studies. Rather than thinking 'I have no experience' try to work out how to articulate the experience you do have in a way that firms will see as relevant.
For more tips on how to write a good CV see how to write a CV.
What should I leave out of a legal CV?
When writing a law CV, you shouldn't:
- leave any unexplained gaps in your career history
- add too much detail
- include 'personal details such as your date of birth, marital status, nationality or a photo,' says Katherine.
- include your age, gender, marital status etc. as these are irrelevant details and 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. Integrity in law is everything.
How do I write a legal cover letter?
As the number of applications often far outweighs the number of jobs available, writing a strong cover letter is essential for any law career, as it helps to persuade employers 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.
Bear in mind that employers look at your legal cover letter as an indication of your written communication, so make it interesting.
Write about why you want to work for a particular firm. For example, if you're applying to a niche sports law firm have you had work experience with a sports company or are you part of any sports teams or clubs? If you're applying to an international firm, is it because you have language skills or have you had experience of working abroad?
Make sure to read job adverts carefully. What is the firm telling you they want in a candidate? Do they mention communication skills, attention to detail etc.? This is your chance to choose something from your experience to demonstrate those skills. As prospective lawyers employers want to see you using evidence to support the points you make. If you're a good communicator what's the evidence?
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 what stage of your career you're at. Explain how your 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 exaggerating.
- 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.
Highlight what makes you stand out and make your cover letter punchy and accurate.
How do I target my 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.
Consider why you're applying to a particular firm, because it's more than likely you'll be asked this question at interview stage. What attracts you to certain areas of law and particular firms? Do your values match the firm you’re applying to?
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.
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.
How do I make my application stand out to legal employers?
You are more than the sum total of your academic studies and work experience so be brave and tell prospective employers what it is about you, over and above the academics and work experience that makes you the ideal candidate.
If your legal CV and cover letter do their job and your application is progressed to the next stage, learn more about the questions you might be asked in a law interview.