Lawyers can be interesting creatures. I know, I was one and I work with many every day. Lawyers are some of the most intelligent people certainly in very key jobs requiring a high degree of skill and also commercial nous. I feel privileged on a daily basis to work with some of the best minds (and loveliest people) in the in-house legal market.
However, I make this comment as when it comes to doing something personal, the ground tends to tremble a little under the feet of a lawyer. And doing a CV seems to fall into this category….a CV is, essentially, putting yourself on paper. Rest assured, this is a task that you are more than equipped to do, in fact it is a lot more straight forward than you think it may be. And when it comes to applying for GC level opportunities, it’s even more important to be direct and relevant.
There are no hard and fast rules about a CV; it is your document and you can draft it however you like. There will also be mixed ideas on what’s allegedly right and wrong from relevant people reading your CV (and it’s impossible to please everyone.) However, I know it can sometimes be hard to start and there are some things which I think are key to include (or perhaps not include) especially when applying for GC positions – I hope this framework helps.
The “two page” fallacy
Despite a degree of general chat around the “correct” length for your CV, there are no rules – you will not be asked or not asked for an interview on the basis of the length of your CV – unless it’s too far one way or the other. I have had candidates not requested for interview for a GC position because the company thought there was not enough detail (which was then interpreted to be a lack of interest in the role) in the applicant’s CV; however, I do not mean to imply a 7 page CV is ok – it is not. You need a balance and a common sense approach – you will do doubt have interviewed yourself and you will know what you like to see on a CV, what you don’t and how much you want to read.
Most of the time, for a GC CV, this will be more around 2 – 3 pages….and dropping font to a size 6 1/2 so it all fits neatly on two pages is not required, please go onto another page!
What to include and what not to
As you gain more experience, your earlier experience can take up less space in your CV and your more recent experience will take prominence. For example, when applying for GC roles, definitely list the seats of your training contract but it’s unlikely you’ll need any actual experience under these.
You will want some experience (maybe 2-3 bullet points) about your first couple of years as a qualified lawyer but again, it’s unlikely you’ll need more. Most companies will want to know what type of lawyer you were as a newly qualified (either in a certain practice area in private practice or perhaps a generalist lawyer from the outset, if you trained in-house or moved in-house on qualifying) and but any further details are largely irrelevant.
Your most relevant experience will come from your most recent experience, particularly if you are already a GC or Head of Legal and it’s best to add detail to your more recent experience (most likely the last 4-5 years.)
Headings – a snapshot of you
Headings are key. You don’t know who might be first viewing your CV or how long they will spend reading it (it possibly won’t be a lawyer who first views your CV, it will likely be HR or talent manager or someone from the business) and you want the headings you choose to provide a snapshot of your experience which then encourages further reading of the detail.
Headings are an excellent way of both giving the person who is having an initial look at your CV an understanding in the first few moments of what your experience is as well as helping your CV to read well. For example, if you are a GC or Head of Legal, you may have a number of things which encompass your current role, which will certainly cover your technical expertise but also things like Management Responsibilities (if you are on the exec or management team, this can all be included here); Corporate Governance; Risk and Compliance and/or Company Secretarial.
The amount of detail you put under the headings should be reflective of how much this work is in your current role (e.g. you may currently be the company secretary for your business but if this is not a large part of your role, two bullets points may suffice.)
Headings for previous non-GC/non Heads of Legal positions should perhaps be more reflective of your technical experience in these roles (e.g. Commercial, IP, Tech, Privacy, etc) these are very much for you to decide. Think about what you want someone to know about you just from reading the headings on your CV.
Where to start
Have a think about the one or two defining things that are the most relevant about your and your experience – if you want someone to know one thing about you, these will be it. These points, then, should be the first bullet points on your CV, either in a very short Professional Profile or Key Skills section at the beginning (usually with no more than 4-5 bullet points for this and keep them concise) or it’s also perfectly fine to include this in your experience (in which case it’s perhaps a good idea for your first heading to be reflective of this experience.)
Think about who will be reading your CV (it is unlikely to be a lawyer) and bear in mind the CEO or CFO will probably be seeing your CV rather early in the process – what will he or she want to know about you? Something like how much you’ve reduced external legal spend in your current business, an idea of the size of the business you are currently responsible for or how you’ve helped your current business expand into new markets are all possibilities but it really does depend on you, your experience and the business you are currently in.
You may want to start with the detail and come back to the above – the overriding snapshot of you is something which is more big picture and may come to you as you write down the details of your experience.
I sometimes see a GC CV which is skills-based (all headings) and simply a brief rundown of the candidate’s employment history; it’s debated in various circles what is best, the most common legal debate being that there’s repetition if skills under included under each and every employment position. That said, it’s certainly been my experience that the preference is for a CV to reflect the skills and experience the candidate has or had or was responsible for under each individual position. It’s always best to start with your most recent role and work backwards, with the amount of content you include for previous roles diminishing accordingly.
If the companies you’ve worked for are perhaps unknown and may need explaining, don’t hesitate to include a line describing them, certainly including industry sector and perhaps an idea of the size of the business. Make things easy for the person looking at your CV and make it an easy read for them.
If you’ve been promoted whilst at the same organisation, list all the job titles and the dates you had these jobs titles with that employer and if relevant, depending on what your roles were, still the same as above with the appropriate skills and responsibilities for those roles (e.g. you may not have managed people when you first joined the organisation but now manage a team of 15) so what your responsibilities are for one organisation can indeed vary as you’ve worked in different roles. This also looks great!
Personal information – what to include and what to leave
We all know the legal industry is somewhat defined (rightly or wrongly) by PQE; indeed, most of the CVs I see lead with letting me know the person’s level of qualification. I appreciate this is relevant in the legal market but I like to think PQE becomes a lot less relevant, especially for in-house lawyers, after a certain level and an individual is more defined by their genuine experience and contribution to the business. Certainly for a GC position, there is much more to person than PQE. GC CVs leading with a pronouncement that the person is “17 years’ PQE” or “24 years’ PQE” or even “a lawyer with 20+ years experience” is somewhat unnecessary; if someone wants to know your exact level, it will be obvious from looking at the beginning of your experience. Leading with this can show a lack of awareness of what might be relevant information, especially if the people most likely looking at your CV will be non-lawyers. Try perhaps to lead with something more substantial – you are more interesting than your level of PQE!
Always include contact details (phone and email) and if you are unable to relocate for a position or need to avoid a long commute, best to put your home address or an indication of where you live (e.g. Hertfordshire, East London, Derbyshire, etc.) I will say, after this current time, I’d be surprised if lawyers don’t spend less time in offices so this may become less relevant but before the current situation, location was absolutely key for in-house searches, hence the suggestion.
Interests are always good but marital status, number of children, names of pets, anything else personal can be left off the CV (or certainly saved for conversation during an interview.)