Presenting legal work experience on a cv

In November, I took a day off to give a talk and review cvs at the University of Sussex in Brighton; and then did the same thing after work in February at Brunel. The cv reviews were tightly organised involving up to 18 people in a row (each for a frustratingly short ten minute slot, but that was the only way). So after the first 2 minutes with each student (in which we explored the standard interview questions, such as “Why do you want to be a lawyer?” and “What sort of role / firm?”), it only left 8 minutes to go through the cv – a good discipline for me to cut to the parts that I thought needed the most attention.

And it was mainly the way that Vac Schemes and other legal work experience were presented.

Of course the main objective of any work experience is to help students decide whether a particular career is the right one, and to do that it is really important to talk to lots of people and learn about the work. But I’d like to see something on the cv / application form about output.

Any reader of a cv knows that during a 2 week vac scheme at a law firm, it is unrealistic to expect a student to be running files and advising clients, but it’s good to see the impact of students’ contribution. For example, to do some legal research is not of any use for its own sake – better that a supervisor read it and gave some comments; even better that the lawyer used it to prepare an advice memo; better still if that memo was sent to a client; and the best would be for the client to have read and used that advice.

Another example is the first draft of a contract or some meeting notes – again it serves no purpose on its own; it is of some use if it is reviewed by a lawyer; but the ideal is that it was used as a basis for a document that is sent to a client and used.

So I think that it is important to show that a student’s contribution, however small and indirect, made the life of a lawyer a little easier and even helped a client of the firm.

TC applications – a project management approach

With Freshers’ Week over, students thinking of applying for vac schemes or training contracts with law firms should now consider that they have until the end of July next year to make those applications – (I’m referring to final year law or penultimate year non-law for TC applications).

This makes me think of a few conversations that I have had with some LPC students over the last year, who regret not applying for (enough) training contracts during their undergraduate studies. So as the new academic year starts, I wanted to share some thoughts on this.

One LPC student in particular recalled a feeling that there just wasn’t enough time at University to prioritise filling in those (admittedly daunting) application forms. He told me that he was sure that a career as a solicitor was the path that he wanted to follow, and he knew that the firms made offers 2 years ahead. So in the back of this undergrad’s mind was that by leaving applications to the final year, it would automatically mean that he would have to take at least one year off after the LPC.

We discussed this a bit, and to me it doesn’t make much sense, as I really don’t think that it is a full time job being a student. If you are sure that this is the right career, then you should start to make a plan near the beginning of the autumn term – i.e. now. And I think that it’s best to organise this as a project over the course of most of the academic year: identify the target firms, work out the deadlines (mainly end July) and schedule in the hours to complete the forms one at a time and well in advance. By the way, five applications is probably not enough no matter how good you are– I made about thirty.

I know that each application form takes a really long time, and you need to be very organised, but I don’t think that this type of project approach – i.e. working back from a deadline and planning – needs to be to the detriment of your academic work, outside interests and having a good time.

(In fact, it’s a good experience in itself – as a slight digression, the Legal Education and Training Review (LETR) has identified project management as one of the crucial skills that should be taught as part of lawyers’ professional education.)

Or is this message a bit harsh? Maybe it’s too early to be sure about a specific career path? And maybe a year off in the long term isn’t so bad, especially with a training contract offer in the bag. I’d still say that it’s better to have actively decided that a year off is what you want to do, rather than to take one because you didn’t get round to filling in those annoying forms.

TC application form advice from A&O

A guest blog from Sally Shoult, Graduate Recruitment & LLM Specialist at Allen and Overy

“What do you look for on an application form?” “How can I make my application stand out?” “I meet your academic criteria and have lots of work experience but can’t get past the application form stage. What am I doing wrong?”

These are, without doubt, the most common questions I get asked when out and about on campus. Application forms can often be the hardest part of the recruitment process to navigate your way through successfully. You will be facing stiff competition from thousands of other applicants, so it really is worth investing some time up front in order to give yourself the best possible chance of making it through to the next stage. In my time as a graduate recruiter I have literally read thousands of applications and believe me, it’s not as hard as you think to make yourself stand out. I hope this blog post will help demystify those dreaded forms, as well as provide some helpful tips to get you over that first hurdle…

Without further ado, here are my top tips….

1. Avoid the scatter gun approach. ‘Quality over quantity’ is precisely what you should be focussing on. Given that no two law firms have the same application form/process, and that we are all looking for slightly different things, completing a solid application form can be a time consuming business. Merely copying and pasting will not do you any favours. Do your research and only apply to places where you genuinely want to work. Which leads nicely on to my next point…

2. Do your research. Successful candidates are always those who have gone the extra mile, thoroughly researched their options and have reached clear conclusions as to why they want to work for a specific firm. You should be tailoring your responses specifically to the firm you are applying to. It is no use making sweeping statements such as “I want to work for the biggest clients, on the biggest deals, in a global environment”. To a recruiter, this is a generic statement that could be said about numerous, different firms but what we really want to know why you want to work for us. Whilst the statement itself may be true, try to think of ways in which you can articulate the same sentiment in a more specific, tailored way. Reading annual reports, visiting the organisations website (not just the graduate website), talking to employees on campus, thinking about how firms differentiate themselves from competitors, for example, are perhaps just a few things that may give you some ideas that could be incorporated into your applications.

3. Avoid silly mistakes. Poor spelling and grammar, or use of an unprofessional tone are all errors that will count against you. Attention to detail is an essential skill that all successful lawyers possess, get this wrong on your application form and you are putting yourself at a serious disadvantage. Equally, pay attention to the structure of your responses – we are not just looking at what you say, but how you say it.

4. Sell yourself. This is your one chance to highlight all of the fantastic skills and experiences you have acquired thus far, so don’t sell yourself short. Try to avoid merely listing your experiences, but instead draw them back to the key competencies that each firm is looking for. If you are the president of a society, for example, don’t just state this as a responsibility. Bring it to life by describing how much of a time commitment this is, you may have had to deal with some challenging team dynamics, or perhaps implemented an idea that has greatly improved the society as a whole. These are the things that firms are interested in – the things that truly demonstrate key skills such as time management and leadership/teamwork. Equally, don’t just assume that you have ticked the ‘team-work’ box by stating you are on the rowing squad, for example. We want to hear about specific examples of a skill and we won’t infer that you are successful at it just through participation.

5. Answer the question! Make sure you read the questions carefully and answer all parts in full. For example, at A&O we ask all candidates to tell us about a recent challenge they have faced and how they overcame it. You’d be amazed at the amount of applicants who merely tell us what the challenge itself was, but fail to tell us anything about how they resolved the situation or what they actually learnt from the process.

6. Evidence. As a recruiter we are looking for solid evidence that you possess the skill set or competencies that we are looking for. Therefore, make sure your responses to competency based questions are drawn from appropriate examples, and clearly demonstrate you possess the required skill set desired by the individual firm.

7. Work experience. Include it all! Don’t fall into the trap of believing that only legal work experience is relevant. You may have worked in a shop, or a bar, or volunteered somewhere and developed a really useful, and relevant, skill. Make sure when discussing your non-legal work experience that you draw out and highlight what these skills are. If you’ve held down a part time job throughout university this could potentially demonstrate that you are hard working and can manage your time effectively – just make sure you write this down and explain how you’ve developed, don’t just assume this will be picked up through inference.

8. Commercial Awareness / Understanding. This is the one thing that ALL legal graduate recruiters are looking for. There are numerous ways you can demonstrate your awareness, for example; drawing on your own personal work experience, demonstrating your knowledge of the law firm you are applying to, or through your interest in current affairs and developments in the legal/business world. Importantly – don’t forget that law firms are businesses too! I am always impressed by candidates who fully understand our strategy and are aware of the key challenges facing the business in the near future.

And one for luck, but perhaps most importantly…

9. Be yourself. Don’t assume firms are looking for a specific ‘type’ of person. You’ll find that the majority of firms are open-minded and are looking for people who share that quality.

I hope that in reading these tips you have realised that completing a successful application form really isn’t as difficult as it initially seems. Do your research, highlight your skills, tailor your applications, and be yourself – it really is that simple. Good luck with your future applications!

Mooting / debating on a cv

Those 2nd and 3rd year undergraduates serious about becoming lawyers, are quite rightly focussing their energy around now on application forms for law firms’ vacation schemes and mini-pupillages. I read that just over half of training contract offers are made to those that have completed a vacation scheme with the offering firm (http://www.allaboutcareers.com/campaigns/vacation-scheme-deadlines-2012-2013). What’s more they can be good fun, well organised and paid. They would also give students something to talk about in an interview. However, considering the numbers of places available compared to the numbers of applicants, it can be even harder securing a vacation scheme place than a training contract / pupillage.

As the end of January seems to be a big deadline, I thought that I’d share a specific thought about something that I have noticed on some cvs / application forms recently – it’s about mooting. What I often see is a reference to the fact that an applicant has been involved with mooting and debating, but never enough detail, which in my opinion is a missed opportunity. I see for example short references to “Member of the University Mooting Association” or “Involved with debating”. What I can’t tell from that is what the applicant actually did – Watched? Organised? Prepared the case? Or actually stood up and made the arguments?

It would be better to proudly provide more detail, because it can really demonstrate some of the skills that are very relevant to the job. So if you were standing up in front of the “judge”, or preparing the case, then say so, include a short summary of which side you were on, what arguments / cases you used etc, and whether you won or lost.

As I have mentioned before in previous posts, (i) by adding this detail, you are showing that you understand which skills are relevant to the job https://legaljobtips.com/2012/09/21/cvs-any-relevant-skills-work-experience/ and (ii) as with a detailed summary of your dissertation, this is setting you up for a successful interview https://legaljobtips.com/2012/12/16/dissertation-or-another-elective/.