The Cover Letter
Although your cover letter should be short and to the point, it is very important and will be read with care. It gives a potential employer insight into your personality and gives you the opportunity to demonstrate that you have a skill which law firms prize highly: the ability to write clearly.
If you have a particular skill or achievement that tie into a motivational or interpersonal skill, it is helpful to highlight it. Similarly, if you have an interest in a particular area of practice, it is useful to mention it because most firms will ensure that you are introduced to lawyers practising in that area.
A letter tailored to the particular firm is better than a standard form letter. The firm will be impressed by your research. If you have a particular reason for applying to the firm, you should feel free to express it. For example, you may know of someone who has worked or works at the firm and has spoken highly of it, or you may have an interest in an area of law in which the firm has particular expertise. If you do tailor your letter, however, make it genuine and specific.
The resume used in the legal profession typically follows a format which covers education and awards, employment experience, extra-curricular activities, interests and skills. You should feel free to set the resume out in a way that you choose, but it should cover these items, and be concise and clear.
Your resume should highlight your intellectual, motivational and interpersonal skills in as concise a manner as possible. Try to describe every item on your resume in a way which ties it to one of those skills.
Formal academic accomplishments are the easiest to describe. Essentially this means listing post-secondary degrees and institutions attended in reverse chronological order. You should, however, also list any particular language abilities you have, papers you may have published or special research projects you have undertaken.
The things which most easily demonstrate motivational skills are specific accomplishments for which you have obtained recognition from third parties. In assessing your motivational skills, a law firm will look for evidence of drive, determination and staying power on your part in whatever personal achievements you may have to date. Those achievements could be in sports, the arts, business, volunteer work, student politics, or other extra-curricular activities. If you have overcome particular obstacles in your life, those too demonstrate strong motivational skills.
While interpersonal skills are probably demonstrated most readily during the interview, you should mention any particular jobs or activities which have required or developed these abilities.
Lawyers are trained to be critical and to place a high value on written work. Spelling errors, typographical errors and grammatical errors are surprisingly common and not well received. Have someone else proofread your application materials.
Use headings to highlight categories so important information is emphasized.
Keep the resume short. Two pages should be sufficient. If, however, you need to list a page of prizes or publications, do not feel constrained by this convention.
It is absolutely critical that you prepare for your interviews.
For each firm, you should read its brochure and visit its website. You should not ask questions in your interview that are already answered on the website.
Prepare a list of questions you want answered. Remember, at the end of the day you will have to pick a law firm so you want to collect as much information as possible so that you can make an informed decision. After all, it is very important for you to be happy with the experience and the environment that the firm can provide. Do not be afraid to ask more “in-depth” questions. These will help to show your insight and will also allow you to find out more about the firm. Examples of questions you may wish to ask are: “What qualities does the firm look for in its summer students?”; “What are the challenges, rewards and opportunities for a student at your firm during the summer, and later during the articling term?”, etc.
In order to prepare for some of the questions you will be asked, review your resume. You should be able to intelligently answer questions about every item in your resume. For example, “Tell me about the skills you acquired in [a particular job/task/activity]”; “What did you get out of it?”; “What motivated you to participate?”.
Take the opportunity to speak to students at firms. They are an excellent source of information and can help prepare you for the interview process. Finally, many schools have “interview skills” sessions or panel discussions which are valuable to attend.
In most interviews the overall pattern is for the interviewer to take the lead in asking questions during the first part of the interview, after which you will tend to take the lead in asking questions during the second part.
Both you and your interviewer have exactly the same goals during the interview. Each of you is trying to answer two questions:
- Can this student/firm give me what I want?
- Can I give this student/firm what they want?
A law firm has four essential goals in conducting an interview for an articling or summer position. It wants to assess a candidate’s intellectual skills, motivational skills and interpersonal skills and finally, it wants to attract the student to the firm.
1. Intellectual Skills
While your academic record and achievements will obviously be relevant in this regard, the interview also gives the firm important information about your intellectual skills. Your insight in answering the questions you are asked and the curiosity you display by asking questions about the firm are important indicators in this regard. Similarly, the ability to analyze the questions you are asked and the ability to respond to them in a clear, direct manner will help the firm develop an impression of your intellectual skills.
2. Motivational Skills
These include your drive and enthusiasm for your work, the ability to be a self-starter, perseverance when faced with difficult issues, a positive outlook and attitude, and the ability to maintain long-term relationships both within the firm and with clients.
3. Interpersonal Skills
The question at the back of the interviewer’s mind when assessing these skills is, essentially, “Do my clients and I want to spend a lot of time with this person in what are frequently stressful circumstances?” A number of personal qualities might help an interviewer answer this question just as they will help you answer the same question about the interviewer.
Interviewers will be asking themselves whether you are articulate, confident, mature, optimistic, self-disciplined, energetic, etc. While not everyone has these qualities in equal measure, it might help to reflect on what you perceive your interpersonal skills to be and ensure that they are reflected in your presentation.
4. Attracting You to the Firm
The fourth goal of the firm is to attract you to the firm. Whether it succeeds really depends upon what you are looking for. For most interviewers, the questions you ask about the firm are as important as the answers you give to the questions they ask. Like your answers, your questions will provide insight into your intellectual, motivational and interpersonal skills.
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