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.

Vacation schemes

I read an article recently (http://www.internshipprograms.com/become-a-super-intern/) shared on twitter by @UKLawStudents giving 25 really useful tips about how to behave on a vacation scheme; for example socialise, be positive, be modest, ask questions and stay in touch. I agree with all of these, and perhaps knew some of them already without realising, as years ago I got an offer from a large City Law firm after a summer vacation scheme.

When I look back at those 3 weeks during the summer of 1994, it really was good fun: a trip to the High Court, lunch-time learning sessions from all of the main departments, evening drinks with partners at the firm, informal drinks in City pubs with other vac scheme students, a tour of Lloyds and staying in London for 3 weeks. There was also the opportunity to get an insight into the type of work that is involved. In fact, we got to do real trainee solicitor work, such as legal research and bundling – some even attended client meetings.

But there is a crucial part missing in both of the paragraphs above.

The real point of these types of opportunities is to check that your chosen career path is the right one – do bear in mind that the vacation scheme is very different to actually doing the job – and students might get the wrong idea about what a certain career actually entails. At the end of any such vacation scheme, I’d bet that if you polled the students, nearly all would have a very positive view – but is that based on a well organised vac scheme or a realistic view of whether it’s right as a long term career?

So if you are lucky enough to secure a vacation scheme at a law firm (or any other type of future employer), I’d advise taking a step back to check that the skills required are aligned to what you are good at and enjoy using – doing the job can be very different to attending a vac scheme. It’s OK to conclude that what you thought was your chosen career path, is not actually for you – and if you do, then that’s time very well spent.

Dissertation or another elective?

I was talking to a student recently who was trying to decide whether to choose an elective course or do a dissertation – it was with this in mind that I wrote cv tip number 4 in a recent post published on legalweek.com (http://www.legalweek.com/legal-week/blog-post/2227317/top-10-cv-tips-for-budding-lawyers):

“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?”

Whether they choose an interesting elective or a dissertation, I think that students should not underestimate how important this type of choice can be when it comes to the job search process. As I suggest above, this choice has the most positive impact when it is consistent with the type of job / employer that is being targeted – so it is not credible to apply to large commercial City law firms when an applicant’s electives / dissertation are all about e.g. crime or family law.

On balance, I’d go for the dissertation, because it allows you to become an expert on a very specific subject, and this can have some real benefits in an interview:

1. If you give a few key details of your dissertation in a prominent place on your application form, then you are very likely to be asked about it, so you can prepare – I’d suggest including at least the title and your conclusion;

2. If it is an interview for a legal (or any advisory / professional services) job, then one of the main skills that might be tested is the ability to describe complicated ideas in a digestible way to somebody who knows less than you. With due respect to any student interviewee, your dissertation is likely to be the only relevant subject about which the interviewer is going to know less than you;

3. In the actual dissertation you should not be afraid to come to a conclusion on one side of an argument, as long as you acknowledge any counter-view, so that in the interview you can defend that position with your evidence – another relevant skill for the job; and

4. If you spend say 10 minutes on this subject, I’d bet that it’s going to be one of the best parts of that interview. You should be very confident of your subject matter, and if so, you will be able to speak fluently and convincingly.

So I really do think that a good dissertation can make all the difference between an OK and a very good application form, which could tip the balance towards being filed in the “interview” pile. This can hugely improve the quality of the interview, which in turn might just land you the job.

I also think that another benefit is that by choosing a dissertation, you are likely to spend more time with a tutor that you like, and who might be more inclined to write a good reference.

So in good time during your degree, consider doing a dissertation, think very carefully about the specific topic, explore your ideas with a tutor and put in the hard work.

One-way video on application forms – a prediction

As a recruiter (and probably without knowing it, as a candidate), I look back at some interviews that very quickly and obviously became a waste of time.  I know that good interviewers do try to challenge their own assumptions, which are made based on their first impressions, but that can be hard.  And the problem is that interviewers feel obliged to fill up the allotted hour out of respect for the candidate – frustrating for both parties.  It’s not necessarily about bad candidates – there needs to be a mutual click at a human level that sometimes just isn’t there.

The point of this post is not actually to do with hiring experienced candidates.  In fact, this normally works well, as it is very common to use a specialist recruitment agency to filter down to only quality candidates.

It is more about the application process for first jobs – I’m thinking of training contracts at large law firms, and graduate schemes at banks and large multi-nationals, which all receive thousands of applicants.  The brutal reality is that very very few of the applicants are invited to the 2-way interview stage, whether face-to-face, by telephone or by video, because the internal recruitment teams have limited time / resources.  The risk is that they are missing some of the best candidates, based on a quick-skim of an application form, knowing that there are a limited number of interviewing hours in the calendar. 

For all of the jobs that I mention above, communication skills are crucial: both written and oral, but today’s application forms are performing the first filter based on only written skills – so I think that this is an inefficient and incomplete process.  That’s why I think the future application form for these types of jobs will include a video clip of applicants’ answers to a few questions: for example the “Tell us about a time…” type questions – this is already starting to catch on in the US. 

Students are very comfortable filming short clips and sharing them, and they don’t need a special room or to invest in any new technology.  And for the recruiter, it doesn’t take that long – they can watch these short clips in their own time, to get a more interesting first impression.  Most importantly they get better coverage, i.e. a good insight into many more candidates than they could dream of inviting to a first interview. 

So I predict that the one-way video will become a standard aspect of any graduate job application form, to quickly improve the quality of the candidates that are invited to the 2-way phase of the interview process.   In turn, this improves the quality of the cohort of new starters – thus giving the company / firm a competitive advantage.  What remains to be seen is when this happens, and whether they use a 3rd party outsourced provider, take a white label service integrated into their application process or simply ask applicants to paste links to a video of their answers.

[ 5th Feb 2013 postscript – this article was published at: https://www.lawcareers.net/Information/LCNSays/One-way-application-videos-a-prediction ]

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)

When to decide where to qualify?

When I was a trainee I remember really enjoying getting involved with recruitment. One time I went back to my old university (Edinburgh) for the milk-round evening at the Balmoral Hotel (nice sandwiches) – and I gave a short presentation about life as a trainee.
This is going back a bit, but I do remember making a serious point about not deciding too early about which department to qualify into.
The story that I told was this: “When I was at Law School I spoke to a friend who was going to start a training contract at Ince & Co. She had a view that Shipping was THE area of law in which to specialise – so I decided on-the-spot that that would be a good department for me to qualify into at my firm: but what I hadn’t fully understood was that her future firm was a specialist in this area, so it was quite a likely route for her to take. Luckily my motivation only lasted a few weeks when I realised that of the 100+ newly qualifieds every year at my firm, there was a maximum of 1 job offered in the small and soon to be axed Shipping Department.”
The general point that I’m making is that unless you have a real reason (such as previous experience or a Masters, which I certainly didn’t) to want qualify into a specific department, then I think that it’s better to have a reasonably open mind at interview and if you are lucky enough to be offered a training contract, then do seats in your firm’s big departments. Like that, you spend the 2 years finding out about different types of legal work – it’s interesting how trainees’ thinking evolves during that time.
And during conversations with decision-makers in each of your 4 seats, it’s important to be flexible about qualification – you may qualify in a downturn, it turns out that there are more jobs available in Litigation than Corporate and it does look good to have been “taken on” by your firm after you qualify. So be open to what’s available, unless you have very strong motivation to specialise in something that your firm can’t offer.