How to Prepare a More Effective CV

12 October 2015

Following on the heels of the interview that Le Petit Juriste recently conducted with Steve, we were asked to provide some advice and guidance on how to prepare a more effective CV.  It will be published in next month's edition and will be circulated to law students throughout France.

Although targeting law students and lawyers who are very early in their careers, we think that the pointers also apply to lawyers with a bit more experience under their belts.  What follows is a slight variation of the article as it will be published.

The first thing prospective employers see will almost always be your CV.  On the basis of that one document, they usually form an immediate opinion about you and your suitability for a job.  It is thus essential that you put your best foot forward at the earliest stage of the employment process – the application.

Remember:  you only have one chance to make a great first impression!

Studies show that employers spend less than ten seconds reviewing a CV.  Yes, you read that right – ten seconds!  If you do not get their attention within that time, they will very often move on to the next candidate.  Even if you are an excellent candidate, you are unlikely to get the chance to prove it if you cannot get past this first hurdle.  A properly prepared and presented CV can help you put your application in the best possible light.

CV Structure

As a general rule, a CV should be no longer than two pages and should succinctly set forth your background and experience.  There is no “magic formula” as regards its structure, but we prefer to see a CV in four sections:

  • personal and contact information
  • education
  • work experience
  • additional information

Personal and contact information

This is self-explanatory, but there are a few things to keep in mind.

Ensure that your contact details are current. You may have a permanent address (with your parents, for example), but also include your current address while you are at university; the same goes for telephone numbers.  If employers reach out to you, you want to be able to respond as quickly as possible because they may move on to the next candidate if it takes a week or more for you to respond.

Most applications and initial correspondence are done through email, so ensure that your email address reflects well on you.  If you use an email address for friends (“playboy1995” or “sexy_suzy”), you should set up one that sounds more professional.  Studies show that 76% of CVs are ignored if you use an unprofessional email address.

Education

At this stage your university education will necessarily serve as an indicator of future success.  Most employers know that your performance at university, while not wholly predictive, is usually a good proxy for your talent as a lawyer.  Grades are important, so be sure to include any academic honors or awards you receive.

Work experience

It is unlikely that you will have much experience working in the law, apart from the occasional internship if you are lucky, but that does not mean that you should not show your work history.  An employer wants to see that you can function in a work setting, even if it was unrelated to the practice of law.  Did you sell sporting goods at Decathlon?  Were you a construction worker during Summer breaks?  Did you work in a hospital on a part-time basis?  Include that fact, together with a brief description of the job and what you did to excel at it.  Be sure to mention if you received special recognition or promotions from your employer, but avoid bragging or exaggerating.

Additional information

The fourth and final section allows you to tell a prospective employer more about yourself.  It gives you another chance to set yourself apart from other candidates.  It should include extracurricular activities and academic honors, but it should also show your personality and personal interests.  Employers want to hire intelligent and clever lawyers, but they also want lawyers who have lives and interests outside the office.

I think that most of you will struggle to put together a two-page CV.  That is not unusual at this stage of your lives.  I would prefer to see one page of well presented and relevant information than many pages of superfluous trivia.  In this regard, we recently received a CV from a candidate who had just completed his law studies.  His CV was laughable:  it was eleven pages long, presented on yellow paper that was meant to look like parchment paper, and included pictures of Greek temples!  He mentioned every award, accolade and swimming certificate he had ever received starting from the age of ten.  It was an exercise in vanity that no employer would ever take seriously.

CV Presentation

The single most important requirement for any CV is to present your details in a clear and easy-to-understand format.  It seems that some new fashion in CV preparation appears every few years; however, it is best to avoid fashions and trends in favor of style and substance.  Coco Chanel said it best:  “La mode se démode, le style jamais.”

A good CV, while very important, is easy to prepare if you remember a few basics regarding presentation:

  • keep it simple
  • present information clearly and succinctly
  • avoid any appearance of deception
  • do not use photos!

Present your CV simply and effectively

How do you get – and, very important, keep! – the reader’s attention?  Given the “10-second rule” noted above, you should prepare your CV so that it sets forth all essential information simply and in a format that is easy to read, avoiding complication and artifice.  What do I mean by “complication and artifice”?

By that I mean CVs containing various fonts of different sizes.

Some applicants think that such gimmicks set their CVs apart from others.  They are right – just not in the way they intend.  Far from getting and keeping a reader’s attention, CVs like that are almost always ignored because they are difficult to read and understand.  Frankly, when I see things like that, I find myself wondering whether the candidate is trying to hide something.

Keep things simple.  Pick a font and stick with it; pick a size and stick with it.  No one will object to the use of bolding, underscoring and italics to emphasize specific points, but be selective and emphasize only the truly important parts of your CV.  Remember:  if you emphasize almost everything, you ultimately emphasize nothing.

Do not crowd information onto your CV.  Although a two-page CV is the benchmark, you may find it challenging at this stage to prepare one of that length.  That is okay.  It is better by far to have a one-and-a-half page CV than to try to cram everything onto a single page.

Most of all, never use the Europass format for any job unless specifically requested.  This format, apparently designed by a dozen different committees, is worse than useless:  it is complicated, illogical, and absurdly structured.  In fact, employers increasingly instruct applicants NOT to submit Europass CVs.

Present your accomplishments

Your CV is a calling card that can open doors for you.  It gives you an opportunity to show prospective employers what you can do for them based on what you have already done.  It is a place to showcase your accomplishments.  It is no place for false modesty.

Not everyone can be top of the class, but there are many other personality and character traits that make for a good and successful lawyer.  You should include your achievements and successes, but not every minor thing that you have ever done.  Employers want to know that you participated in moot court, that you are an accomplished musician, or anything else that shows you to be a well rounded individual.  They want to know that you have captained a sports team, built houses for the homeless, or climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for charity.  Top grades are valued, but they are not everything.

Avoid the appearance of deception

Be honest and forthcoming.  If potential employers think that you are being dishonest on your CV, they will question your integrity and suitability for any role in the law.  The quickest way to get your application rejected is to be seen to be deceptive on your CV.  You should be aware that many job offers are made contingent on a full background check; in other words, misrepresentations on your CV can be grounds for termination, even after you have started working.

When it comes to showing employment history, one current fashion that I find particularly unhelpful is the use of dates in this format:

2013–2014


Smith & Jones
Brussels, Belgium
Intern

So, was the internship two years? Two months? Two weeks?

We occasionally see other variations such as, “2013–2014 (four months)”.  This is a bit better, but still not good because it lacks the specificity necessary for a CV.  It is best to use accurate dates (e.g., October 2013 – May 2014).

Honesty is essential.  We had a situation a few years ago when we received a CV from a candidate with apparently impressive credentials.  He claimed that he had been a lawyer with a leading international firm from 2011 through 2012; however, as we dug deeper we learned that the firm had employed him, not as a lawyer, but as an intern and for only three months (i.e., December 2011 through February 2012).  When confronted by our discovery, he admitted his attempted deception, explaining that he was trying to hide a gap in his work experience that he thought would be damaging to his chances of finding a new job; however, much greater damage was done by his misrepresentation.

Career and education gaps are okay and will never pose a problem if you address them head-on.  Everyone understands that life is not always linear and that it can sometimes be messy.  Explain any gaps openly and simply; it is when you seek to mislead or obfuscate that you get into trouble.

Do not use photos!

A CV photo almost never conveys what the candidate wants it to; in most cases an inappropriate CV photo can actually harm your prospects.

Several years ago we received a CV with a stunning photo.  The candidate was sitting on a sailboat with the Îles d’Hyères in the background, the sea breeze blowing through his sun-bleached hair, and with a tanned and shirtless chest; there was hardly a cloud in the sky, and the sky was the color blue one only sees in the Var.  It was a great photo – for a modeling job.  For a job as a lawyer?  Not so much!  I appreciate that this is an extreme example, but it is nonetheless instructive.

Given that studies show an 88% rejection rate of CVs that contain photos, it is probably wise to avoid them altogether.

Cover letters

I am not a big fan of cover letters, especially long, bland and tedious ones.  I am not alone in this opinion:  studies show that 83% of cover letters are ignored.  Nonetheless, a properly prepared cover letter can be useful if you keep in mind a few essential points:

  • pay very close attention to detail, including being absolutely certain to spell correctly the name of the law firm or company to which you are applying (studies show that one spelling or grammar error can cause your CV to be rejected);
  • avoid general and vague salutations (“Dear Sir/Madam”) in favor of specific ones wherever possible (“Dear Mr. Smith”);
  • be selective in your approaches, avoiding applying for any and every job;
  • research the employer in order to explain (briefly!) why you are a good candidate for the role on offer;
  • avoid the temptation to use form letters (statements like “I am a great candidate for your law firm or company” tells readers that you have made no effort to learn anything about them);
  • keep it brief (i.e., no more than three or four paragraphs); and
  • a cover letter should provide a summary about you and should not repeat every detail contained in your CV.

 

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Comments

  • Hi Denise,

    Thank you for your kind words and apologies for the delayed response!

    You are obviously taking the right steps to seek out the correct name, but if your research fails to turn up a specific name, then you really have no alternative but to use a general salutation.

    Good luck!

    Dave

    Dave Hemingway - 5 years ago

  • Thanks for great tips! How to avoid general salutations? Some companies do not have any HR on LinkedIn nor on website and when I call in to find out who is responsible for recruitment process the answer is they do not reveal the names. Ha!!

    Denise - 5 years ago


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