Personal Statement on a cv

I spent a very rewarding day at Huddersfield University a couple of weeks ago – cv sessions in the morning and a group talk in the afternoon on legal careers, application forms and interviewing.

In the morning, I had about ten one-on-one meetings, each lasting 15 minutes to review cvs and explore general motivation towards legal careers. One observation was that most cvs had a motivational statement at the top. It seems that the students had been advised that this type of paragraph is a good idea.

I’m not so sure.

Particularly when these statements are assertions of skills which could be better illustrated by evidence, through e.g. work experience or achievements in outside interests.

I think that these statements can be useful in some situations, such as the career changer with many years of unrelated work experience with a place on the LPC, who now wishes to make a move into a legal role. Or the candidate who has a bad set of exam results that were a genuine anomaly – (e.g. A-levels or 1st year Uni). Apart from those specific situations, I really don’t think that there is anything that should be expressed in a cv as a personal statement – better in other parts of the cv or a good bespoke cover letter.

In those specific cases, a short paragraph that mentions each of the past, present and future works best for me, and there is some really useful advice in this link from @TheSuccessfulCV: http://careers.guardian.co.uk/careers-blog/how-to-write-a-personal-statement-for-your-cv.

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/.

Home address on your cv?

Recently I wrote a post with some cv tips (https://legaljobtips.com/2012/11/15/my-top-10-cv-tips/); tip no. 9 included a view that you should leave your home address off a cv.  When I wrote that all I knew was:

1. most people included it, and

2. I had a hunch that it didn’t seem right,

but other than that I hadn’t given it that much thought.

Not really a major point, but since then I have been asked quite a few times why I said that – and have luckily just found a really good answer that I now use.  It’s to be found on pages 84 and 85 of the updated 2012 edition of my favourite careers book “What colour is your parachute?” by Richard N. Bolles (http://www.jobhuntersbible.com/). 

I remember enjoying an old edition of that book about 10 years ago, but it didn’t include this new section about the on-line world.   Basically what Bolles now says is that you lose control of your cv when you send it out, especially if you choose to post it on line.  There is effectively no way for you to take it down and he mentions “digital spiders” that can copy anything posted on-line. 

I don’t really know what a digital spider is, and it’s probably not that big an issue; but Companies House no longer requires company directors to publish their home addresses in the public domain for security reasons.  So the same thing might apply to everyone else.  What I do know is that (i) you can trust large potential employers on their application forms if they ask for your home address and (ii) for everyone else, they can get in touch via e-mail.

cv advice

I am doing a cv tips session next week at Reading University, and am thinking of splitting the session in 2: i.e. half the time will be me making some general remarks and the other half will look at some example cvs sent to me in advance by the students in the room. I’ll then stay around afterwards to finish off one-on-one with specific questions, and to cover the cvs that I might not have had time to review in the plenary.
So over the past few evenings, I have been reviewing about 20 cvs from the perspective of a future employer, and am now thinking about my general comments – and they are just my personal opinion. Here are my top 10:

1. Tell stories.
Most graduate jobs don’t actually need a cv + cover letter any more – they use on-line application forms, so the cv is a template from which you will pick out, paste and adapt the relevant details. Notice that most application forms ask questions, inviting you to tell a story to e.g. show how you reacted, dealt with a difficult situation or explain what you learned; so present some of your experiences as mini-stories about your role in a situation.

2. Put the most relevant section first.
For a graduate job your university academic details are more important than your work experience, except if you have a lot of full time work under your belt (maybe a year or more) – see my previous post about experienced candidates.

3. Local currency for degrees and exam results.
If you are applying for a job with an employer in a country other than where you have studied, then include the “local equivalent” of that result – much easier for the recruiter.

4. Your choices give me some clues about your motivation.
I want to see some evidence of the decisions that you have made: which electives? What is the title of your dissertation? And are these consistent with the type of job that you are applying for?

5. Academic details pls for an academic job.
If you have completed any university exams yet, then a legal employer is going to want to see those to see that you are on track for a good degree result – include the details, especially if in any exams you have attained a very high mark. In the UK a first would really stand out, even in a first year exam.

6. Positive words in your work experience section.
Whatever your work experience happens to be, then include positive words about your role: avoid “observed”, “attended”, or worse “was encouraged”.

7. Skills.
Organise your description of work experience and activities around skills that are relevant to the job – this shows the employer that you know what skills a lawyer needs – not always obvious to all candidates.

8. Show me that you finish things off.
Another useful thought to have in mind with respect to work experience and interests is to demonstrate output and completion – i.e. that you can organise and deliver something, even against the resistance of others.

9. Leave it off.
In my opinion, there is no place on a cv for: typos, bad grammar, date of birth, politics, full clean driving licence, photo, referees or home address – not everyone agrees with me on these, particularly that last one.

10. Non-obvious relevant IT skills.
I assume that all law students can use Microsoft Office and legal research packages, but I’m more interested in for example document management skills (see above about demonstrating that you understand the skills that a lawyer needs). I’d even include relevant use of social media, if for example you think that it helped you organise an event or a group.

(Footnote: this post has been republished in Legal Week: http://www.legalweek.com/legal-week/blog-post/2227317/top-10-cv-tips-for-budding-lawyers)

CVs – make it easy – your degree in local currency pls

I did a cv session during the last academic year with a group of mainly Masters law students, and am doing a similar session again on 20th November – so have been thinking about that session last year, and about the other cvs that I have reviewed since. 

I encourage students to share their cvs in advance, so that we can review them together in the group – by the way, it’s a good idea to share early drafts widely with friends and family, so these students were already doing the right thing.  And just to clarify, when I mention cvs, these days I’m nearly always talking about application forms.  

Many of the overseas students had a first degree from a university outside the UK.  And of those, there were a lot who were pitching their cv to English law firms.  What I say to this category of applicants is: make it really easy for the recruiter reading the cv to understand: 1. your situation, including when you will be ready to start a training contract and 2. the class that you obtained in your first degree + the class of all of your exam results throughout.

For number 2, it is easy to assume that the recruiter understands your first degree class or grade, but I doubt that they’d know what a 3.7 GPA or a 17/20 score equates to.  Most recruiters and applicants at UK firms will be graduates or undergraduates of a UK university, so the recruiter quickly understands what a 2(i) means – so my tip for those with an overseas degree: make sure that you list your actual degree grade and its equivalent in the local “currency”. 

It can be frustrating to read the academic part of the cv at the beginning and not really understand the quality of the degree grade.  And you might be underselling yourself, for example I am told that a “mention très bien” in France really is exceptional, so make sure that the employer knows that.  The Department for Education has some materials that can help with this exercise:

https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/SchoolsSO/Page7/ITT-OQ-GRADES

In fact, I suppose the same thing applies to UK students applying for jobs in other countries.

So, if you believe the literature (e.g. my favourite careers book, What colour is my parachute? By Richard N. Bolles – http://www.jobhuntersbible.com/) the recruiter will only glance through your cv for a few seconds before making a quick decision.  If there is any confusion or unfamiliarity about degree grade, that could be annoying enough for your cv to be heading straight to the reject pile.

CVs – it’s academic

After a few contact details, what should you start with on your cv? 

I agree with everyone else that should you start with the most important part – i.e. what you are doing now.  So if you are a student looking for a job, you start with your academic background including your current studies; and if you are an experienced candidate, you start with your work experience, listing jobs from most recent to older.

Nearly all of the cvs that I have seen get this right, but only partially.  I see cvs of final year law undergraduates that list full details of grades in GCSEs, A-S levels and A-Levels, but fail to list anything about the 2 full years that they have spent on their degree, except its name.  Not because they are hiding bad results, but more because they don’t consider it interesting enough.

If you are studying and applying for a legal job, my view is that it is NOT a waste of paper, ink or time to list all exam results right from the start of your degree.  The law is an academic job, so many commercial firms are going to want to see that you have the intellectual brainpower to get started quickly.  They will want to see a candidate on course for:

 1. the top degree – in the UK a first,

2. an excellent degree – in the UK a high 2(i) or

3. a very good degree – in the UK a 2(i)

in that detailed order of preference.  So if you have a top mark – i.e. a first or equivalent in any exams, make that very clear.  And if you have some bad results, for a good reason and you think that you’ll end up with a good degree, it might be worth explaining.

The other aspect that I’m interested in is any electives that a candidate chooses – these need to be consistent with the work of the firms to which you are applying.  Someone who chooses 3rd year electives such as family or criminal lacks credibility applying to a large commercial firm. 

Another interesting choice is a candidate’s dissertation – great if that is relevant to a firm’s work somehow; and the other advantage of listing a bit of tempting detail on your cv is that you are likely to be asked about it in an interview.  One crucial skill of a lawyer is to be able to explain something in a clear way to a client, who knows less on that subject than their lawyer – and your dissertation is one of the only things that fits into that category in an interview situation.  In addition, if you enjoyed your dissertation, it is easier to be enthusiastic and confident when you describe it. 

So if you are applying for your first job in law, expand the detail of your university academic record.

CVs – any relevant skills / work experience?

One candidate came to me during 2011 with her cv and we reviewed the work experience section together – mainly 3 holiday jobs working in a shop, a restaurant and a lettings agency. I asked whether she thought that any of this was relevant experience for an application to be a trainee solicitor, and her answer was “not really”. So I asked her to describe the types of activities involved, which led onto a discussion of the skills that she had developed – by the end it was clear to us both that her experience was very relevant.
Let me explain – this candidate had:
1. worked in a mobile phone shop, which involved discussing with customers about their requirements and then advising them on the type of contract to take out
2. managed the process of getting a tenant to sign up to a tenancy, juggling the landlord, inventory, credit checks, deposits etc.
3. dealt with difficult customers in a busy restaurant, and taken responsibility for writing up procedures and training up new waiters and waitresses on procedures
So we rewrote the experience section of her cv under various headings such as “Stakeholder Management” “Client Advisory” and “Project / Document Management”.
Then I asked the question again: “Do you have any relevant experience for the role of trainee solicitor?” – Answer – “YES”.
So I take away from this that any holiday job can be helpful in developing skills that are relevant to the role of being a successful solicitor. It also gives a candidate the chance to show that they understand what skills are needed to do the job well – that’s important.
Finally, I’m not always that impressed by candidates who have not done any holiday jobs except legal internships. Don’t get me wrong, these legal internships are very useful – in fact that was how I landed an offer from a large City firm. It’s just that the better candidates have done other jobs as well and can talk about the positive transferable skills that are relevant to being a solicitor – it just needs a bit of creative thinking.