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How to write a legal CV and cover letter

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First impressions always count. How you choose to present yourself on paper can make a big difference. This is the case not just at the start of your law career, but also as you climb the ladder.


Your legal CV and cover letter are your opportunities to stand out. They can set you apart from other applicants and demonstrate why you are the best possible fit for a particular role or organisation. Within the increasingly competitive and popular legal sector, it pays to make a positive, lasting impression.

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Getting the basics right is crucial when it comes to writing your legal CV. The document should be well-presented using a clear and professional font. It should be thoroughly proofread to avoid any unnecessary grammatical or spelling mistakes. It should follow a simple layout, incorporating sub-headings and bullet points to improve readability.


There’s no set length for a legal CV. It depends largely on your experience and the necessary attributes for the role you desire. Generally speaking, a legal CV will be no longer than three pages in length. We believe less is often more.


Before putting your fingers to the keyboard, remember that your legal CV should focus solely on providing factual information. Your supporting cover letter is where you can add in the narrative and personality to aid your application.


So, what information should your legal CV include?


Personal details

Your name, address, email and telephone number should all be clearly provided. If relevant, you may also add any appropriate professional websites or online links to support your application.


Education and academic qualifications

Your legal CV should list your academic qualifications (degree, A-levels, GCSE results), as well as details of any professional memberships and qualifications that directly relate to the practice of law. When referencing your degree, it is important to be clear about the areas of law that you have studied. This helps the recruiter to see, at-a-glance, where your current expertise lies and align this with the vacant position.

Work experience

A comprehensive list of accrued work experience, both paid and unpaid, should be provided chronologically. Your work history should include details of any company that you worked for, its location, your job title and your focus areas. Remember, it doesn’t necessarily have to be legal-focused but should always be relevant. Details should be given of your key roles and responsibilities, with an emphasis on the results achieved. This is an opportunity to demonstrate, factually, how this experience makes you a strong candidate for the vacancy. Depending on your level of work experience, you may consider splitting this out into areas of specialism or differentiating between paid and voluntary roles. Each position is a chance for you to reference the wider benefits of your time spent in previous roles. For example, developing leadership skills, learning delegation or growing commercial understanding.


IT skills and languages

Be honest and open about your level of proficiency with IT, detailing your skill level with popular software such as Microsoft Office, as well as any more specific IT software that may be relevant to the role. And if you speak any additional languages, be sure to outline your level of fluency. This could be another factor that sets you apart from the competition.

Personal interests

Your CV is your opportunity to demonstrate all of your relevant experience, not just in the workplace. Detailing your wider personal interests is your chance to offer a glimpse of the person that the recruiter may welcome. This is the case not just useful for the interview, but also for the hiring organisation. Use this to your full advantage. List activities and pursuits that will help you to stand out positively. This could be membership into a club or society at university, sporting achievements, awards you’ve received or community projects that you’ve been actively involved in.

Avoid everyday hobbies such as keeping fit, reading books or live music. Instead, concentrate on what has relevance to a law career or indicates a transferable skill set. These personal interests often serve as rich talking points during interviews, so be prepared to talk confidently and passionately about any information that you choose to include in your CV, if asked.


References

Depending on your personal circumstances, you may prefer not to list references on your CV, unless directly asked to do so. Instead, you can write ‘references available on request’. You should, however, be able and willing to quickly provide referees’ details before the interview if requested, so be sure to have two strong referees lined up in readiness. In most instances, your current or most recent employer will act as your first reference.

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A strong, well-researched and punchy cover letter is always worth the time and effort. It should never be treated as an afterthought to your CV. Your legal cover letter and CV should perfectly complement one another. It should give the recruiter the full picture of who you are and the value you bring to the table.


Your cover letter allows you to sell yourself to a potential new employer. It allows for you to demonstrate why you are a candidate that is well worth consideration and inviting for an interview.


A legal cover letter should be succinct, clear and highly targeted. This shows that you have undertaken your research and given due thought to why you are a strong fit for the organisation. Yet it should also grab attention, in a positive way. This is your crucial first impression and the start of building a relationship with what could end up being your future company, so start as you wish to go on. Put time, care and thought into the language used, how you present yourself and how you would like others to perceive you.

  • The position you are applying for and how you became aware of the vacancy.
  • A brief summary of who you are, your current career stage and your circumstances. Explain, briefly and clearly, how your past paid or voluntary work experience, academic qualifications and, in some instances, personal interests add up to make you a strong asset to the business. If you can, be specific, link this directly to the vacancy or organisation that’s hiring.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the business, explaining why you have chosen to apply, what attracts you to the law firm and anything specific to their operations that has personally piqued your interest.
  • Conclude with practicalities – explain that your CV is enclosed, outline when you are available for interview and, if relevant, answer any specific questions mentioned in the job vacancy.


Your cover letter should be tailored to a specific job or organisation. So, including keywords from the job advertisement within your letter can indicate both attention-to-detail and corporate alignment, as long as keywords are used sparingly and not blatantly!


And be confident in your language. While there’s a fine line to tread here, it’s important to be proud of what you have achieved and to understand, recognise and communicate your value. If you are unsure whether you have struck the right tone, don’t be afraid to ask a trusted friend to read your cover letter and give you their honest feedback on how you come across.


Can I use Qualifying Work Experience on my CV?

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Qualifying Work Experience (QWE) becomes a key part of qualifying as a solicitor under the new SQE model that will be officially introduced in England and Wales from September 2021. All candidates will need to have completed a minimum of two years full-time (or equivalent) QWE before they can complete the SQE route to qualification.


The intention of QWE is for it to be wide, varied and flexible. As a core part of the SQE, it will play a vital role in shaping the next generation of legal practitioners. QWE covers everything from working in a law clinic to providing voluntary legal support to a charitable organisation, to working as a paralegal. All that matters is that the work experience gives candidates the chance to build the skills and expertise needed to develop the necessary solicitor competence requirements to practise law.


As such, your legal CV should include any relevant work experience that demonstrates your competence to work in the legal profession. You should include details of the organisation, your responsibilities and your learnings from the experience. It all adds up to provide a full overview of the professional individual you are and the areas that matter most to you.

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For over half a century, BARBRI has been a leader in training and supporting aspiring lawyers to grow and excel in their legal careers. Our innovative testing and learning technologies making us an ideal partner for future solicitors preparing for the SQE.


Here are five expert tips to create a winning and memorable legal CV:

  1. Get to the point quickly: resist the temptation to bulk your CV out with unnecessary words and overly complicated language. Always think with the recruiter in mind. What are they looking for and how can you show, swiftly, that you’re the right person for the job? Remember that the recruiter is likely to be short on time with many CVs to review, so grab their attention quickly.
  2. Avoid a personal profile at the top: it’s not necessary. A solid cover letter will tell the narrative of why you’re a great fit for the organisation. Leave your CV to concentrate just on the facts. If you’re concerned that alone won’t be enough for you to stand out, consider the use of bold and persuasive action words to accentuate your achievements and suitability.
  3. Don’t get personal: the recruiter doesn’t need to see a photograph of you, or know your date of birth, marital status, nationality – or see your social media profiles (unless specified). Only include the essential information that’s relevant to the role you are applying for.
  4. Leave no gaps: there shouldn’t be any unexplained periods in your work experience or employment history. If a gap exists, explain the reason for this and the learnings from this time. The more questions that your CV fails to answer, the less likely it is that you’ll be invited to that all-important first interview.
  5. Simple is always best: your legal CV doesn’t need to look creative or visually striking. Often, garish and unusual formatting can count against you. Stick to a simple, clear and easy-to-understand layout. Don’t let trivial elements get in the way of your achievements and suitability for the position.

As a BARBRI student, during your SQE studies, you will have access to a number of opportunities to help boost your employability. There are regular webinars, workshops, a personal 1:1 careers service, and more, available to students throughout their studies. To find out more about career support on the SQE Prep, visit this page here.

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