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'CV fodder' – myth versus reality

28 October 2015 | tagged New lawyers news

Rob Marrs

Graduates pursuing a career in law should think about what the classic CV lines like ‘excellent communications skills’ really mean, says Rob Marrs, senior policy manager at the Society.

There are certain things that always crop up on CVs and covering letters. Everybody, it seems, has ‘excellent communication skills’. Most people are ‘’good team players who can work well on their own’’. And we’re all ‘adept at most IT packages’.

The reason these things regularly crop up on CVs is because they regularly crop up on job descriptions. What organisation, after all, would want a disruptive influence who can’t work with others or communicate with clients and insists on using a typewriter?

I thought – having previously analysed that current must-have ‘commercial awareness’ – that it might be worth spending time on some of the other bits of CV fodder. What are ‘’excellent communication skills’? What does a good team player look like? What IT skills should you have?

Let’s start with ‘teamwork’

Teamwork is something most people assume that they can do well. We all think it is something that we do unconsciously, something we don’t need to practise, think about or work at.

Remember though, as a graduate, exactly what you are joining. You are being placed in an organisation which has its own culture, its own way of working and where work is already going on. The transition to the workplace from university life is a big one. In particular if you join a medium to large firm or in-house organisation, you will be joining something unfamiliar  – even summer placements, useful as they are, will not prepare you for this properly.

You will be working in a live environment with colleagues of varying ages, attitudes, competencies and capabilities. You will be working with people with vast experience and expertise, and across various levels of seniority. You will be working with people who have working patterns that suit them and the organisation. You will be working with people who love their job and others who are dialing it in.

I remember one student calling me frantically complaining that someone they were supposed to be working with on a Diploma assignment wasn’t pulling their weight. Unfair? Sure. But that will happen in every workplace.

So there’s probably more to teamwork than you think. That isn’t to say as a student you won’t have relevant experience or that you aren’t a good team-worker. I’m simply pointing out the sorts of teams you may be joining. If you understand that, it may help you reflect on your own teamwork skills.

What about communication?

Communication underpins pretty much everything else in the office. There seems to be a myth that good communication skills are the ability to knock out fantastic speeches and write compelling copy. That is partly true. If you are a superstar debater or writer or have a previous career making knock-out pitches and presentations for business then these talents will undoubtedly help you.

What really matters, though, in the workplace is communication with colleagues and clients on a day to day basis. Do you know when to ask questions (and when not to)? Are you brave enough to say to a busy partner that something is unclear? Are you clear and concise? Can you tell someone ‘no’ when you have other work pressing? Even if they shout at you? What would you say if you were going to miss a deadline? Can you explain in covering emails anything that may be wrong or where you struggled? How do you deal with an angry client? Or an angry or lazy colleague? Can you make complex legal issues sound simple to clients?

All of these come back to how you communicate but few people who say they have ‘’excellent communication skills’’ actually mean that. They mean they can use PowerPoint or they have given the odd presentation at university. And while these things shouldn’t be downplayed, they’re not necessarily what it means to have excellent communication skills.

Communication isn’t even just about you transmitting information. It is about how you receive information too. Do you need to be told things numerous times? Do you listen? Do you learn from mistakes you make? Can you adapt to the different sort of feedback you’ll get during the traineeship?

IT packages  

The third of the three things that appear on most CVs is the ability to use IT packages. This, let’s be honest, is where we see the most creative licence.  Recruiters aren’t expecting everyone to be able to code, but they do expect certain basics.

Law graduates should be able to use Word, Outlook and PowerPoint. You should be able to use search engines (including advance search, Boolean operators, and how to discern good and bad results) and sites like Lexis Nexis and WestLaw (if you are unsure about how much time you can spend on these, ask). You should have a decent understanding of social media.

You should be able to use Excel – and not just for basic data collection. Can you use formulas, references, macros, pivot tables etc? It can be enormously frustrating for employers to have to train graduates to do really basic IT functions.

It would also do no harm to read up on the digital signature-enabling Smartcard which is being issued to all Scottish solicitors by the Law Society.

How have you applied your skills?

Remember to think about times when you demonstrated these three qualities and not just the time you ‘rescued the team project by good communication and a PowerPoint’. A Director of HR at a large firm noted that she had once seen two candidates claim in interviews they’d rescued the same project!

Employers generally ask for communication skills, teamwork and IT abilities because they are all fundamental to the role you’ll perform. There’s nothing wrong in highlighting you can do them but it is worth considering why they want them, how you have used them, and what you’ve learnt in doing so.


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