I set out 20 tips for legal job applications. This article covers the start of the job application process with the submission of the cover email/letter and the CV.
Seize this chance to impress and to secure an interview. I see many common mistakes so I wanted to highlight some of them.
I set out these tips largely targeted at applications for internship, paralegal or pupillage. These are my personal observations and different employers will have different requirements. But some of the tips below are universal.
Cover Email/Letter Tips
#1: Follow the application process listed on the website
The law firm’s website may give you a specific email address to send the application to. Some firms may have an online form to submit. Follow that process.
If you are sending your application (wrongly) to the firm’s general email address or to a specific partner, that tells me that you did not read the website carefully.
#2: Enclose all necessary supporting documents
The law firm’s website may request a required set of supporting documents. Make sure you enclose them all. If there are requested documents missing, I will assume that you are careless.
Separate attachments are fine and have each document clearly titled. If the documents are all in a Zip file, it makes it harder to open the documents on a mobile device.
#3: Job position and name in subject title
If sending your application by email, it helps to have the specific job position and your name in the subject title. This helps with managing the large number of job applications that come in.
#4: Consistent display name and sign-off name
It helps to have the same email display name as your sign-off name in your application. I commonly see Christian names, shortened forms or variations of names in the email display name. Yet, I see a different name in the job application or sign-off name. Again, the same reference makes it easier to organise the applications and to track the applicants.
#5: Get the law firm’s name correct
I see several email applications misspell my law firm’s name. For instance, I have received “Lim Chee Wei Partners” (or some variation of that) a few times instead of Lim Chee Wee Partnership. That almost guarantees a rejection of the application.
Even worse will be the cover letter that says “I am interested in joining a reputable firm like Different Law Firm’s Name.”
This is a common horror story among employers but it still happens from time to time.
#6: What makes a good cover email or cover letter?
I will often receive a short cover email that encloses a longer cover letter and other attachments. It is helpful for that cover email to give a brief introduction of yourself. Include a summary of your educational background in one or two sentences.
Next, the cover letter.
First, there must be good grammar in the letter. A fundamental requirement but one where I commonly see grammar mistakes.
Second, keep the cover letter short. A one page cover letter can still be very effective.
Third, tell me more about yourself, your strengths and keep me, as the reader, interested. Why are you suitable for the law firm you are applying to?
If you are applying to a large law firm, and you are drawn to the rotation system, you can set that out. But still highlight some practice areas you are interested in or that you did well in at LLB. If you are applying to a boutique law firm, specialising in certain areas, explain why you are applying to such a specialist area.
Fourth, personalise the letter to highlight why you are interested in certain aspects of the firm or the firm’s work. Why is it that the firm’s work or culture matches your interests or strengths? If you highlight some of the specific cases or work areas, be prepared for us to ask you more about that at the interview.
Fifth, I see some applicants highlight areas of work that have nothing to do with the firm. My firm is a boutique dispute resolution firm and where we focus on commercial disputes. Yet, I receive applications highlighting the desire to be a corporate lawyer, or an interest in intellectual property.
Overall, as I read through the cover letter, I want to get a sense of whether the cover letter was personalised to my law firm or whether it is a generic one-size-fits-all.
#7: Address weaknesses in the cover letter
I have seen instances where the cover letter effectively addresses any weaknesses. It is better that you pre-empt any doubts or hesitation by the possible interviewer.
The cover letter can be your chance to address any gaps in your educational background, any exam re-sits, or to explain the lower-than-expected grades.
Good cover letters answer any doubts and can get you through to the interview stage. We may then again ask you to explain those weaknesses in greater detail.
#8: Formatting, grammatical or typographical mistakes
First, this bears repeating again. You must get your grammar right.
Common mistakes I see are: “pupil in chamber” or “I have completed my Bar exams, and is currently waiting for my results.”
Second, no typographical mistakes anywhere in your cover email or cover letter. I have even seen a typographical mistake where the applicant misspelled his own name (!)
Third, I also typically pick up on this formatting issue in the cover email. Whether there were different fonts or formatting for certain paragraphs in the cover email. This indicates to me that this was likely a copy-and-paste formatting issue.
I next move on to CV tips.
#9: Academic history first – reverse chronological order
Since this guide is primarily for applications for internship, paralegal or pupillage, your academic history is important. To me, this should be the first section of the CV.
Set the information out in reverse chronological order:
- If applicable, CLP or BPTC.
- LL.B at university.
- A-level or pre-university equivalent.
- SPM or O-level equivalent.
Academic grades are not the most important criteria. But taken together with your cover letter, one aspect is for me to get a sense of general academic strength to shortlist you for the interview stage.
#10: LLB is important – showcase your strengths
I look at the LLB overall grade, the type of subjects taken, and to see if you wrote any dissertations or research papers.
LLB grades are not the end-all and be-all. But I want to have a sense of your grounding in the law.
To me, CLP or BPTC grades are secondary to the general sense of how you did at LL.B.
For example, at university, did you opt for more commercial law-based subjects? What were the options you did? What areas did you cover in any dissertation or research paper? None of these are mandatory requirements. But these subjects open up more areas for us to speak on at the interview.
I am looking for analytical skills, your written skills, and a general strength in your law subjects.
Hence, showcase your strengths. Your CV can give a breakdown of some of your high-scoring law subjects or the dissertation title.
#11: Don’t hide your grades
Your CV should spell out the overall grades at each level of your academic history. Don’t hide your grades. A glaring omission at a particular level will only lead me to look at the supporting document or certificate anyway.
#12: PDF format for your CV
Have your CV (and cover letter) all in PDF. That preserves the formatting.
I don’t mind it in Word format but this is rare nowadays.
Do not send your CV in PowerPoint format. I have received one or two CVs in that format.
#13: Other legal internships and (relevant) work experience
I now better appreciate and value past legal internship experience. Especially if that internship exposed you to similar practice areas. It may give you a bit of an edge over other applicants. At the interview, this also allows us to ask you more about your other experiences and the lessons learned.
Set out relevant or interesting work experience. More important is how your CV explains the relevant skills you have picked up from that work experience.
#14: Punchy description
In setting out your past work experience, give a punchy description of what you did and the lessons learned. Don’t have long paragraphs. Punchy bullet points are better.
I often see grammatical mistakes in this section. I may see inconsistent use of past or present tense or bad grammar in general.
#15: Extracurricular activities at university, interests, and hobbies
List out the extracurricular activities at university or other levels. I am interested to know law-related and non-law related activities, societies or clubs you were involved in.
Showcase and describe how you worked in a team, took on a leadership role, or surpassed certain challenges or targets.
If you play any sports, describe that in more detail.
Highlight (relevant) hobbies. Relevant hobbies being other than listing out watching Netflix, going to the movies or shopping (all of which I commonly read in CVs).
#16: No need to have a bar chart of your abilities
No need to have a bar chart or bar diagram of your abilities or skills. I often see this in several CVs.
#17: More than 1 page is fine
Having a CV length more than 1 page is fine for me. I would rather have a 2-page nicely formatted CV, with lots of white space, and with enough description of the details I set out above.
I am used to CVs with simple black and white colours.
Subtle use of some colour is fine to help provide a bit of emphasis.
If in doubt, err on the side of a traditional more boring formatted CV rather than using striking colours.
#19: If you have a photograph, make it a professional one
Some law firms specifically request for a photograph with their applications. If you do submit a photograph, whether requested or not, please make sure the photograph is taken in a plain and professional way.
Stick with the ‘mugshot’ style of mainly framing the face. No selfie and no cropped photo with a distracting background.
#20: LinkedIn – an extension of your CV
Increasingly, I see applicants with a link in their CV to their LinkedIn profile. Your LinkedIn profile will be an extension of your CV. So I will read your recent posts, likes, and any articles or updates you have written.
Even if you don’t post a direct link to your LinkedIn profile, employers will likely check on LinkedIn as well. This is part of a general social media sweep.
Bonus tip: check and double check
Finally, check and double check. Based on the drafting of your cover letter and CV, I am assessing how meticulous and careful you are. Important attributes of a future lawyer.
With that, I hope these 20 tips will assist you for your future applications. For other useful articles, I also set out below other recommended reading.
- Loyar Burok’s Essential Tips for Law Firm Job Applications – Part One.
- Loyar Burok’s Essential Tips for Law Firm Job Applications – Part Two.
- Marcus van Geyzel’s internship and pupillage applications tips.