The Canadian economy is still picking up since the 2008 recession. Despite this, the annual unemployment rate is still around six or seven per cent, which is much higher than a lot of other developed countries. Also, with the rise of the cost of living and an increased number of university graduates, having a Bachelor’s degree or even a law degree doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a job.
Further exacerbating this is the rising number of law school graduates, an increasingly demanding clientele, and a changing legal profession that sees the demise of large-scale Bay Street firms like Heenan Blaikie, and an ever challenging and competitive candidate pool.
When you’re someone who finds yourself looking for a job in the legal field today with little to no practical legal experience, what do you do? How do you stand out from the crowd besides doing the two traditional things: 1) getting good grades and 2) joining extra-curricular activities?
Too many students are focused on grades in law school and forget that employers are not just interested in the “law side” of the student but the candidate as a whole. What distinguishes one candidate from another with similar grades is what is unique about that particular person, why they have decided to apply to the particular firm, and the reasons they give to make a firm want to hire them.
What is special about you?
Much like applying to law school, the statement of intention is very important. It forms the basis on which the employer will do the first screening to cut out all the uninteresting applications from its pile of resumes. While it is true everyone is unique in their own way, employers tend to look for people who are driven, persevere despite obstacles, and show they are dedicated to their work.
Here are some questions to start you off thinking when you are preparing your cover letter to a potential employer for an articling position:
• Have you overcome tremendous hardship, either financially, socially, or emotionally in order to get into law school?
• Do you have an entrepreneurial spirit or exceptional leadership skills and been recognized for it in the past?
• Do you have a specific goal in mind to achieve once you are equipped with the skills that law school can give you?
This is what you have to write about in your cover letter — the CV should then back up what you wrote in your cover letter so that you can stand out from other applicants.
Employers generally look for candidates who demonstrate a willingness to go the extra mile. That includes committing to work by staying later than required to finish tasks, taking the initiative to do things or improve work without being asked to, and taking the time to review work thoroughly before submission.
Why are you applying to this firm?
In your cover letter, specify what is special to you about the firm you are applying to. Here are some questions to start you off thinking:
• Are you applying because of its speciality practice areas?
• Are you applying because of a certain case you have read about which someone from the firm was involved in?
• Are you applying because the firm demonstrates a commitment to social causes or pro bono service, which you find important?
The idea here is to distinguish yourself from other candidates by pinpointing what about this firm makes you want to be a part of it.
How can you contribute to the firm?
Other than describing why you want to apply to the particular firm, take some time to explain how your skills and qualifications can contribute to it. Here are some questions to ponder:
• Do you have business-related skills/training — i.e. accounting, finance, dealing with transactions, experience with corporate clientele, sales experience, etc.?
• Do you have other talents outside of law — i.e. ability to speak and understand a different language, public speaking skills, event planning, or web design skills?
• Do you have a demonstrated ability to comprehend complicated matter within a short amount of time; to work with others in a team; or to work with tight deadlines and handle lots of pressure?
Why should the firm hire you?
This is obviously the question most firms would like to see answered before they even want to interview you. Give some compelling reasons why you are the best candidate among all those CVs they have in hand. Explain how your passion and personal characteristics fit with the firm environment and/or practice areas and how you can contribute to the firm’s success.
Remember your cover letter and CV will be the first impression you make on a potential employer, so make sure it is free of typos, spelling, and grammatical errors. Present it in a nice package — one solid pdf file, rather than having multiple attachments because HR/hiring partners never have time to download all your files. You must catch their eye enough in the first few seconds that they want to offer you an interview.
Best of luck!
Jenny Poon, currently an articling student at Metcalfe Blainey & Burns LLP, has an LLM from Osgoode Hall Law School and a JD from The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.