How to write the perfect CV

Rebecca Towers says academic underachievement is not necessarily a bar to a legal career, but poor spelling could be.

Winning a training contract is always going to be difficult with places so sought after.

Last year, Lovell White Durrant received more than 2,000 applications for just 70 trainee positions. The story is much same for the Bar. Statistics gathered from the first year of the Pupillage Application Clearing House (Pach), the centralised pupillage application system, showed that 1,800 graduates applied for just 700 pupillage places.

But whether you are looking for a training contract or a place in chambers, you can improve your chances by heeding the advice of the people who read those application forms and CVs.

A graduate’s first contact with a prospective employer used to be the CV but standard application forms are now increasingly preferred, mainly because they are considered a fairer method of assessment.

Do not be afraid of these. Many young solicitors believe that well-established standardised application forms tend to discriminate less than CVs. For chambers, the position has been clear ever since the Bar Council produced its chambers equality code, which recommends that chambers use only set application forms.

Common sense advice that applications and CVs should be legible with correct spelling and accurate grammar still bears repeating.

“It helps us if students send in legibly written forms and it’s also a good idea not to make spelling mistakes – a significant percentage still make one or more spelling errors,” says Alison Gallico, personnel director at Lovells.

All legal recruiters look for their applicants to demonstrate similar essential qualities. Sarah Bates, graduate recruitment manager at Allen & Overy, summarises these as “intellectual capacity, academic performance to date, plus a broad range of other skills including personal and interpersonal skills, drive for achievement and a proven interest in pursuing a career in the law”.

Recruiters look for consistent academic excellence – not just at university.

Peter Reade, managing partner at Torquay firm Kitsons, says: “We get dozens of applications and CVs. In order to motivate us to offer an interview, the person needs to have a good record in GCEs and A-levels in traditional core subjects such as English, French, maths and history. Ideally we’re looking for a 2:1 and above but we don’t rule out 2:2s. We also look at the university where they got their degree and the reputation of the law faculty.”

Although legal recruiters regard academic excellence as very important, academic ability alone does not earn a training contract – it only puts an application in contention.

Also, a less than distinguished degree does not necessarily represent an insurmountable obstacle to a legal career. Jennifer Jones, a barrister at 5 Fountain Court in Birmingham, says: “People [should] explain any mitigating circumstances. If a candidate genuinely believes that their grades do not reflect their academic ability, they should say so.”

Rachel Dobson, partner and training director at Manchester firm Pannone & Partners, takes a similar view. “We look for a really good mix of things. Although academic performance is important, we don’t exclude people if they get a 2.2. But they will need to make up for it in other areas.”

Doing some homework on the firm or chambers your application is destined for is one way of impressing recruiters. “Research, research, research” is the key to a successful Bar application says Chris Maguire, senior education officer at the Bar Council. His view is shared by Gallico at Lovells. “Research the firm thoroughly and make sure that if [an applicant is] going to refer to a specific area of law, that the firm in question practises it,” she says.

Louise McCalmont, personnel manager at Bristol firm Osborne Clarke, advises applicants to use their application to bring out aspects which will be of interest to the firm.

For example, Osborne Clarke looks for people who can demonstrate their interest in the commercial aspects of the profession and the way in which law and business interact. The same is true for the Bar. According to Maguire at the Bar Council: “Having a depth of understanding of areas of law that turn you on is good.” Despite this, he is keen to point out that students at this stage are not usually expected to have determined their specialisations so early on in their legal careers.

Recruiters recommend careful thought in completing applications and CVs. City firm Freshfields’ advice is to “avoid tiresome cliches such as ’I work well in a team and can take personal responsibility’. If you express skills and accomplishments, do so by example”.

And examples should be relevant and recent – unlike an application to Pannones in Manchester whose author claimed “monitor of school fish tank: 1971-1973” as a position of authority.

Overall though it can be hard to demonstrate the ill-defined but vital qualities which recruiters are looking for. Legal experience attending court hearings, doing legal secretarial work or spending law-related holidays at a firm is always viewed favourably, but recruiters are equally impressed by experience gained in other fields.

Jennifer Jones at 5 Fountain Court says: “If you were thrown in at the deep end and survived, tell us about it. We don’t want people from sheltered backgrounds – we are looking for people with good life skills.” Similarly, Pannones’ Rachel Dobson, says: “Healthy outside interests are equally important [as academic qualifications], we don’t want people who are just interested in law.” Kerry Macgill, partner at Bradford-based Lumb & Macgill, says: “As a legal aid practice we want individuals to have a good academic background with good all-round experience… and evidence that they can communicate with people… as well as a willingness to take on people not everyone wants to deal with.”

Winning a training contract does not necessarily guarantee a flying start to a legal career. The effects of the recession in the 1980s meant that many firms took an increasingly hard-nosed approach to taking on trainees. This left a large number of law graduates

without training contracts and many newly-qualified lawyers unemployed.

With the economy again teetering toward recession, Chris Maguire recommends that applicants scrutinise the legal press and Bar directories to find out the tenancy and employment records for each set or firm they want to apply to. On this basis, applicants can make an informed decision on taking up training contracts – and hopefully avoid disappointment at a later date.

Fortunately, there are many firms and chambers which regard trainees as a valuable long-term investment, vital to a firm’s continued success. Kitsons has several former trainees who now work as assistant solicitors and partners. Managing partner Reade says: “The simple reason we take trainees is because we see them as our future and our hope would be to produce capable young solicitors to join the firm at the bottom end.”

Do:

think carefully about what the firm or chambers is looking for;

thoroughly research the firm or chambers;

carefully proof read covering letters, CVs and application forms;

illustrate achievements and attributes with examples;

demonstrate “non-legal” skills, accomplishments and interests.

Do not:

make spelling mistakes or grammatical errors; *leave gaps in your education and work history; *highlight out of date or irrelevant accomplishments or qualifications;

ignore the value of “non-legal” experience, skills and achievements;

dress inappropriately at interviews.