In two weeks’ time, Anderson Law will be welcoming its eleventh (lawyer) employee. The first joined about 15 years ago. Of the first ten, eight are still with our firm, although one of the eight (Paul) is now a partner with Mark, rather than an employee.
Most of these lawyers joined us after responding to job adverts. In the last 15 years we have considered several hundred job applications. This is small beer compared with the number of applications that large firms receive every year, but it has given us an insight into how some applicants spoil their chances by making very poor applications.
Employers have different priorities, so this article makes no claim to universal truth. The wise applicant will try to make their application attractive to a range of employer preferences. For example, IP Draughts cares not a hoot whether an applicant, in his application letter and CV, splits an infinitive or ends a sentence with a preposition, but he would recommend that applicants avoid these practices in case other employers care about them.
Below is a set of recommendations that is likely to be relevant to many IP employers, but not all. Some of these points may seem obvious. They probably are obvious to any candidate who is good enough to be called for interview. But it is just possible that there are candidates who are good but naive, and who disqualify themselves by making ill-considered applications.
1. Follow the instructions for making an application
Our instructions are simple. Provide a CV, covering letter, and written answers to the legal questions that we have set. We set questions because we think this is a more useful way of finding a suitable candidate than some of the other methods that we have encountered, such as psychological assessment. (But in case you get an interview with another type of firm, have ready your answer to the following question: if you were an animal, what species would you be? Unless you are very confident of your talents or your interviewer, IP Draughts suggests a nice safe answer like dolphin rather than something more eye-catching such as pit bull terrier or locust.)
It is remarkable how many applicants waste our time by not sending in any answers to our legal questions. For example, when we were recruiting a trainee in 2010, we received 27 such incomplete applications out of a total of 75 applications, or 36% of the total. Why do they bother? Their applications are not considered.
2. Go through your application documents and make sure they are relevant to the application
If you are applying, say, to a small IP law firm in Oxfordshire, do not mention in your application letter that you want to work for a large employment law firm in Liverpool. Obvious, innit? The laziness and pointlessness of applications that do this type of thing is quite staggering. For example, we received an application recently that said the following:
My intact motivation for applying to your firm; Firstly, I am greatly interested in the firm’s substantial corporate and commercial practice. The firm has a reputation for providing an excellent client focused service to the most of Britain and Overseas clients. This is particularly evident in the firm’s Immigration practice, an area I am very much interested in.
This is not an isolated example. We will pass over the poor quality of English language and grammar in this quoted paragraph. Presumably the applicant had previously applied to a firm that did immigration work, and used the same covering letter when applying to us. A few minutes’ care would have enabled the applicant to avoid this fatal error.
3. Do your homework about the firm, the qualification criteria, and the area of practice
The applicants who impress are the ones who have done their homework on our firm, on IP practice, and (if relevant) on qualification criteria, and demonstrate their understanding in their application letter and at interview. The ones who don’t impress are those that give the impression that they are desperate for any job and have no special interest in us as a firm, in IP law as an area of practice, or even any particular interest in practising as a lawyer in the UK.
In our last recruitment exercise, a few months ago, we put a job advert on LinkedIn. This resulted in several applications from lawyers based outside the UK. If you are going to apply for a job with a UK law firm, make sure you understand the process for qualifying as a UK lawyer, and the immigration rules, and make sure you have a convincing explanation as to why you want to work in the UK. Otherwise, your prospective employer may gain the impression that you are desperate for any job; once this impression takes root, your application is almost certain to fail.
4. Tell me why you want to work for my firm
It is not enough to demonstrate an interest in IP law. You need to tell me what it is about my firm that has prompted you to apply for the vacancy. If you are called for interview, you should have some pertinent questions ready (see below), but you also need to demonstrate interest in the firm in your application letter. This recent application letter (name changed to spare blushes) doesn’t cut it:
I attach a CV for the legal trainee position.
I have good languages and a paralegal background.
Ideally there should be a sentence or two in the letter that shows why you really want to work for my firm. To be convincing, it must be based on understanding what is distinctive about the firm. There is plenty of information on the Anderson Law website that will help any applicant.
It doesn’t need to be over-worked. The following statements (from two separate trainee applications) are simple but give an impression of thoughtfulness:
I would welcome the opportunity to continue my training and develop my skills with Anderson & Co who have particularly impressed me due to their technology-based client list and their specialism in Intellectual Property law. I feel that being involved in this area would provide for an interesting and highly stimulating working environment.
Reviewing the firm’s recent transactions and large deals provided great insight into the work of the firm. I was particularly drawn to the firm’s work with universities and SMEs, both in the UK and on an international platform.
5. But keep the application letter simple and avoid empty sentiment
Avoid the over-use of adjectives about your personal qualities. Avoid padding generally. Stick to the key points, ie a brief overview of the following:
- Which job you are applying for
- Why you are applying – what makes you want this job over others
- What are your main qualifications and experience
Avoid this kind of waffle:
I am a strong candidate for this position as I am energetic, enthusiastic and committed when carrying out any task. Through time, my self confidence and ability to take on responsibility has grown, while still valuing the importance of team work.
Although the letter should be simply written, it should be a proper business letter, laid out in a conventional way, with the address of the sender and recipient, date, salutation, etc. Even if you were not taught to write a business letter at school, it is easy enough to find templates on the internet. Transposing email text into a Word document doesn’t make it a letter!
6. Provide information about your qualifications and employment history
Your CV should state your academic and professional qualifications, including names of institutions and grades, in date order. Conveniently missing out grades that weren’t as good as hoped is likely to draw attention to the omission.
Don’t have any mysterious gaps of several years in your employment and academic history. Again, this will draw attention to the omission.
7. Tell me what relevant experience you have, but be selective
At Anderson Law, we are interested in candidates’ commercial experience, as well as their legal and scientific qualifications. But we are not interested in seeing several pages about holiday jobs, such as working behind the counter in a video rental shop. Nor do we care too much about your gap year trip to South America. Keep that stuff brief.
8. Don’t make unrealistic applications
This is the hardest part of this article to write. Law is a competitive profession, and poor A level subjects and grades, poor choice of university, and poor grades at university and in the professional exams, all add up to giving a bad impression. While we don’t automatically reject candidates based on degree grades, unlike (we are told) some firms, there needs to be an overall picture of someone who is academically gifted.
For example, two Cs at A level in non-traditional subjects, eg media studies and law, a 2.2 from a local university, and a pass grade in the LPC: this is not a bad set of accomplishments, but it is unlikely to impress sufficiently, given the competition from much more accomplished candidates. If there is no other ‘stand out’ item in the CV, such as very relevant commercial or IP experience, an application of this kind is very unlikely to win an interview with our firm.
9. Proof-read your application documents
Application letters and CVs should be checked to ensure that they don’t contain spelling mistakes, major errors of grammar, formatting problems, changes in font size, redlining showing, or other careless errors.
10. Be prepared to ask good questions at interview
The key to this is preparation. If you have read and understood the parts of our website that explain what our good points are, and what makes us different to other firms, you should be able to think up some questions that demonstrate your understanding and your desire to work for us. Don’t, whatever you do, give us the impression that you really want to work for a large City firm and that you are slumming it, or taking out an insurance policy, by applying to a small firm in darkest Oxfordshire.
Good luck with your interviews!