Writing a law CV and cover letter

Jaymes Carr
Jaymes Carr
Team GradAustralia
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First impressions are lasting, and this is especially true when it comes to CVs and cover letters for law jobs. After all, the content of your application is only half the game – as a law graduate, it will also be expected that you can write clearly and persuasively. Moreover, recruiters are often time-poor professionals who want to separate the wheat from the chaff quickly, before reaching out to candidates who distinguish themselves with their academic credentials, work experience or diverse interests. So, to help you put your best foot forward, we’ve assembled some tips on how to create a killer cover letter and resume.

Creating a Standout Cover Letter

The Basics

A cover letter is like a sales pitch, and what you’re trying to sell is your own suitability for a target job. Successful cover letters:

  • Highlight the important parts of your resume
  • Provide a sample of your written communication skills
  • Show how your skills, education, and experience are relevant to the position for which you’re applying
  • Address any specific selection criteria in the job advertisement
  • Draw attention to your achievements
  • Use appropriate formatting and a professional and confident tone of voice
  • Encourage prospective employers to read further into your resume or CV
  • Demonstrate one’s command of the rules of grammar and style.

Why invest time in writing a good cover letter?

Cover letters can be time-consuming, and that’s largely due to the importance of writing a new one for each application. Nothing turns off a prospective employer quite like the sense that they’re reading a template letter. It’s vitally important that your submission – or, at the very least, the bulk of it – is specific to the employer in question. It’s a chance to convince them that you want to work in their industry, for their specific organisation, and in the job role they advertised. For example, why do you want to use your law degree in a community legal centre? What, to you, is the appeal of pursuing a public career instead of a private, commercial one?

The contents

A cover letter should include the following:

  • Your personal/contact details
  • The date
  • A salutation/greeting
  • How you heard about the job/company
  • What attracts you to the job or company (you can mention some of their recent projects or significant staff members)
  • Why you believe you would be an asset to the team
  • How you will follow up
  • A closing/signature.

The trick is to have a clear idea as to what the company does and what the job entails, then draw out evidence of your own relevant skills, interests and experience. Here, the more specific you can be, the better. For example, instead of simply writing that you’ve “interned at a leading law firm”, you could say “as an intern, I helped to draft supporting documents for a case that was ultimately settled in favour of the firm’s client”.

Structure and tone

Your cover letter should have a clear structure with an introduction that leads into a summary of your relevant skills and experiences. This should be followed by a closing statement that reiterates your interest in the job, thanks the employer for their time, and includes a ‘soft pitch’. For example, you might write something like:

“I look forward to speaking with you further about how I can make a positive contribution to your team”.

Throughout the letter, your tone should be polite and professional. This doesn’t mean, however, that you should tie yourself in knots trying to sound overly formal. Simply avoid colloquial language wherever possible and focus on providing evidence of why you should be hired (as opposed to simply claiming to be ‘excellent’ or ‘talented’).

Finally, keep your cover letter succinct – it should be no longer than one A4 page and have your details clearly written as part of a letterhead.

Get to the top of the pile: writing a successful CV

A curriculum vitae (CV) is a written overview of your experience and other qualifications for a job opportunity. Creating a good CV generally takes more time than writing a cover letter. However, once complete, a CV can be submitted to each new employer with only minor adjustments.

The Basics

A CV should concisely outline your relevant educational history, work experience, professional accomplishments and qualifications. It may also include details of referees (if requested).

A successful CV:

  • Can be read easily, and uses a clear font in a reasonable size with logical headings and well structured bullet points
  • Uses a skills-focused or chronological format
  • Emphasises skills or job experiences that are particularly relevant to the job description.

Why invest time in writing a good CV?

The role of a CV is to provide recruiters and prospective employers with an easily scannable summary of your achievements so that they can decide whether or not to progress your application by offering you
an interview.

As a law graduate, you’ll often find that your educational pedigree is similar to other applicants, many of whom will have completed near-identical degrees at equivalent institutions. Consequently, it’s
worth taking the time to figure out what differentiates you from the crowd before subtly emphasising it in your CV.

For example, you might bill yourself as a lawyer with strong communication skills and include in your CV the fact that you volunteered for a community law centre. Or perhaps you speak another language, love coding or have a specific five-year goal that the role you’re apply for will help you to achieve. Giving your CV a novel ‘twist’ is a surefire way to make sure it doesn’t get lost in all the noise.

The Contents

A law CV should include the following:

  • Your contact details, including your phone number, address and email
  • Your residency status
  • A career overview (with an emphasis on industry positions, or on the transferrable skills of other jobs you’ve had)
  • A summary of your education and training
  • A list of any professional accreditations/other qualifications you have (this is where you should mention if you’ve received, say, a certificate of proficiency in a different language)
  • Details of your referees (or an explicit offer to provide them).

Education

Your educational history from your university years should include your predicted or actual degree grades, information on group projects and your dissertation, any units relevant to the job, and relevant academic awards. Employers don’t need to know the specifics of units that don’t relate to them.

Work experience

You should prioritise any legal work experience you might have, and highlight specific accomplishments that are relevant to the position for which you’re applying. Of course, as a graduate, your experience in law may be limited, if you have any at all.

Fortunately, many employers look very favourably on achievements and experiences outside of the law. Examples worth mentioning include fundraising, voluntary work, independent overseas travel, sporting achievements, or leading roles in university clubs or societies. You needn’t go into too much detail – a summary of your achievements and any relevant transferable skills (e.g. leadership, teamwork or problem-solving skills) will suffice.

Structure and tone

The most common CV format is the reverse-chronological approach, which presents your most recent work experience and educational accomplishments first, before moving backwards. If you follow this approach, make sure that the chronology is clear and that there are no large gaps which could confuse or worry employers. For example, if you took a year off to go travelling between jobs, you might even include that as a CV entry.

As with your cover letter, your tone should be polite and professional, and your entries as specific and detailed as possible. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Describe achievements, not just job titles. Don’t just say that you were ‘an intern at Arup’ – mention specifically what you accomplished, learned or contributed.
  • Emphasise more recent jobs and achievements.
  • Be honest – you should expect that your CV will be read critically and that important points will be cross-checked with referees or industry databases.
  • Keep paragraphs to three or four lines and space them well. This helps the reader pick out the main facts and assimilate a number of points quickly. Use bullet points wherever they add clarity and visual style.
  • When writing bullet points, use direct action words such as ‘designed … ’, ‘built ... ’ and ‘organised … ’. This has the effect of assigning credit to you for your achievements and enhances the CV’s overall credibility.
  • Prioritise relevance but also leave some room for things that make you seem interesting or well-rounded. For example, there’s no reason not to include a cooking qualification as a point of interest, and you needn’t claim that it will be integral to your success in law.

Sample cover letters

Sample cover letter #1

Applying for an internship

[INSERT YOUR NAME]

[INSERT YOUR ADDRESS]

[INSERT YOUR NUMBER]

[INSERT YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS]

 

[INSERT DATE]

[INSERT NAME OF RECIPIENT]

[INSERT RECIPIENT’S POSITION]

[INSERT RECIPIENT’S ADDRESS]

Dear [RECIPIENT]:

I am a [first/second/third]-year student at [insert academic institution] and I’m writing to apply for [name of position advertised] position with [name of organisation]. I have a strong [insert average mark], which I achieved while [include example of extracurricular activity or personal challenge]. Completing a placement at [insert organisation] would allow me to continue my commitment to [insert an issue relevant to the organisation, and for which you are genuinely passionate]. I feel confident that I will make a positive contribution to your office while strengthening the skills I’ll need for a career in [insert relevant area of law].

[NB: We will assume from this point that the author is applying for an clerkship at a commercial law firm.]

As a student at [insert academic institution], I wrote an honours thesis on the need to reform our approach to financial market manipulation, focusing on the legal implications of the way ‘manipulation’ is defined in the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth). My master’s thesis focused on regulatory responses to the financial crisis in Singapore and Indonesia, allowing me to better understand how other countries handle these complex issues.

I was drawn to [organisation’s name] because it is my career goal to work in financial regulation. As a market leader in banking and finance, [organisations name] has [insert example of its involvement in this area, such as a major case or client]. These matters resonated with me because [insert why these matters resonated with you].

This semester, I participated in the semi-final of the Ashurst Commercial Law Moot, which allowed me to demonstrate my oral argument skills and exposed me to the work lawyers can do to promote responsible market regulation. Additionally, joining the Business Law Review has kept me updated on the legal issues facing commercial law practitioners. I’m particularly passionate about the effects of commercial law reform on smaller businesses. Working in the outreach division of [insert firm] would allow me to gain experience advocating for the specific client populations I hope to assist in my career.

Because of my familiarity with the issues facing smaller businesses and Australia’s market regulation policies, as well as my background in commerce, I would be very happy to work on cases dealing with transactions in remote communities or regional areas. I’d also be delighted at the opportunity to work in any of the other areas on which your office focuses, including mergers and acquisitions for larger organisations.

I have enclosed a resume highlighting my education and work experience. I hope to have the opportunity to interview with you about a summer position, and I will call your office in a few weeks to see if I may schedule a time to speak with you. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

[insert name]

 

Sample cover letter #2

Applying for a graduate position

[INSERT YOUR NAME]

[INSERT YOUR ADDRESS]

[INSERT YOUR NUMBER]

[INSERT YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS]

 

[INSERT DATE]

[INSERT NAME OF RECIPIENT]

[INSERT RECIPIENT’S POSITION]

[INSERT RECIPIENT’S ADDRESS]

RE: Application for [Position] at [Organisation]

Dear [Mr/Ms last name of contact person],

I am writing to apply for the graduate program at [organisation name]. I am currently in my penultimate year of an [insert degree and uni], having previously completed my undergraduate major in [insert subject]. I have a strong distinction average, which I have achieved while maintaining multiple extra-curricular commitments, including being elected by my peers in 2016 to the role of [position] in the [student society/leadership organisation], and working part-time.

I am applying to [organisation name] because of its position as the leading law firm in the Asia Pacific Region, and the first and only global legal practice headquartered in Asia. This is reflected in [organisation name] success in consistently winning the [award], as well as its prominent role in [litigation/deal/matter].

My interest in commercial litigation was born of my experience participating both the 2015 and 2016 [moot Competition]. Later in 2016, I conducted research as a summer legal intern in the litigation department at Mallesons, where I also assisted the lead counsel in a pro bono community outreach case. During this time I learnt [provide examples].

In addition to my summer positions, I have taken every opportunity possible to prepare myself for a career in commercial litigation. Through my work on the Commercial Law Journal, I have refined my research and writing skills. My training during an on-campus Litigation Workshop has helped me to develop the strong legal reasoning skills so critical to litigation, and I am now putting them to use by volunteering at a community legal centre.

I am the ideal candidate for [organisation name] because my achievements and experience exemplify the characteristics it seeks in its lawyers. My role as a [position] at [organisation name] provided me with legal experience in working in-house for a commercial client, allowing me to strengthen my stakeholder management. Furthermore, my attainment of a High Distinction in Advanced Commercial Law reflects my commitment to excellence in this area of practice.

I believe that my legal research and writing skills, my litigation experience, and my dedication to [organisation name]’s mission will enable me to make a positive contribution at your firm. Please find enclosed my resumé and a copy of my academic transcript.

Thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

Yours sincerely,

[Your name]