Right, I’ve covered the really basic application and CV fails. But what about the candidates who avoided all of the obvious mistakes, but still didn’t get through to the initial interview stage – where did they go wrong?
This is where it gets a bit harder. A lot of candidates wrote reasonably competent CVs and cover letters, but just not good enough. Sometimes it was a lack of excitement, or sometimes a false note in one particular part of their application. Sometimes it was just that other candidates had gone further and tried harder.
So in this post I’m going to try to show how to be one of those good candidates…
1. Focus on the role With training contracts at such a premium, I expect to get applications from candidates with experience in other areas of law. Not a problem, as such, but if you fall into that category then you need to recognise that you’ll need to work harder to convince me than candidates with relevant experience.
In particular, you need to avoid setting out your non-relevant experience in great detail in your cover letter. You’re right to be proud of your achievements in family law, but it’s not the story that you need to tell to get a job in commercial law.
And simply saying “I’m happy/keen/desperate to switch to commercial law” isn’t enough. You need to show that you have skills that will be applicable to the advertised role…
2. …So talk about skills If your legal experience isn’t on point, or even if it is, then talk about your legal skills. These are often common across different areas of practice – you might have gained experience of drafting, negotiating, presenting and advising (all relevant in commercial law) through practice in conveyancing or family law or whatever.
This is the one area where even good candidates fall down in my experience. You need to think about what skills are relevant for the area of law that you’re applying for, and cover those – but not just by stating that you have them. Not easy, but essential if you want to be the best candidate.
3. Don’t discount non-legal experience Obviously the business of law firms is the law, in one area of expertise or another. But that’s not true for in house positions – we employ lawyers, but our business is selling stuff, or running things, or whatever. If you have experience that relates to that business, talk about it – it may be the most important part of your application.
For example, my employer mainly deals in telephone-based customer service and debt recovery. Top marks, then to candidates who can tell me how their experience of consumer interaction will be helpful in the role.
4. But don’t go on about it As in, I don’t need to see your bar jobs on your CV. I guess I’m being a little bit contrary here, as young candidates in particular may not have much experience of work and there’s plenty of advice around about not leaving gaps in your work history, and fair enough. But I’ve seen a lot of CVs run on to 3 or more pages because of an interminable list of casual jobs, and, if they’re on my desk at least, they don’t get read all the way through.
5. Research! Obviously, every candidate knows that you should do this. What I mean is, do it properly – because other people will.
A small example may suffice: my employer is part of a well-respected corporate group, but almost nobody mentioned it in their reasons for wanting to work for us. One candidate who had actually worked there failed to mention it in their cover letter. To put it mildly, this is a missed opportunity.
6. But don’t use verbatim quotes That’s not research, it’s copying out. And (whisper it) corporate websites tend to be sales puffery aimed at potential clients, so direct quotes come over as rather obvious and insincere attempts at flattery.
And consider this: I received around 20 applications with the same two quotes. And there’s nothing less likely to make your application stand out than using the same website quotes as 20 other candidates.
7. Don’t try to be funny Jokes really don’t work in job applications. First of all, not everybody shares your sense of humour (and some might say that many lawyers don’t really have one at all). But even more importantly, humour just doesn’t come over properly on the page.
My favourite from this last recruitment process is the candidate who (quite reasonably) put their involvement in organising and participating in a sports tournament down as evidence of their team-working skills, but then utterly ruined it by adding a winking reference to the boozy dinner that followed. The exclamation marks didn’t help.
8. Pay attention to personal interests They’re not essential – I’ve never discarded an applicant because they didn’t include them. But if you do include them, they need to be real. Looking blank/terrified/angry when you’re asked about them at interview (all of which I’ve seen) makes you look, shall we say, less than credible as a candidate.
A special mention here, though, to the candidate who put “money” as one of his personal interests. Honesty is a virtue, I suppose.
9. Finally… write well! By which I mean, perfect spelling and grammar isn’t enough to truly stand out. This is really hard to do, especially if you haven’t got much experience at business writing, but there are some basic rules that you should follow:
- your cover letter should be no more than one page
- …but longer than one paragraph
- no paragraph should be more than two, or at most three sentences
- avoid run on sentences – any sentence with more than a couple of commas needs to be looked at again
- plain language is fine – I will be reading your CV, rather than perusing it
- there is never, ever a need for scare quotes
- or exclamation marks
Well, that about covers it. But before I go, I’d like to acknowledge that it’s not all bad – I did receive some fine applications, and I’m really looking forward to meeting the candidates we’ve selected for interview.
Finally, a disclaimer: all of the above is taken from my own experience as a candidate and a recruiter, and other application processes may differ (especially in private practice).