CVs, cover letters and applications: LCN's guide to formal writing

According to recruiters, too many applications are let down by sloppy writing skills. Read on for a quick crash course in the precise parlance of formal application writing.

Shakespeare made up words, spelt his name however he pleased and is still praised for his mastery of language. However, if his CV was written along those lines today, every law firm would bin his application.

All recruiters say the same; simple errors in spelling and grammar derail otherwise-competitive applications. Most hopefuls are no doubt able to spell to an acceptable standard, but despite continual reinforcement of the importance of good writing, simple mistakes are easy to make (and miss) when you're under pressure.

Equally important is the tone in which you write your applications. Just as there should be a big difference between how you talk to friends down the Dog and Duck and prospective employers at interview, your writing style should be tailored to your audience. Good writing is the manipulation of language according to context and desired effect; it's essentially just a game that we all have to play. Admittedly, formal writing too often disappears up its own pretentious posterior (think corporate speak, where "people from different departments had a discussion" can instead be described as "a concert of cross-functional expertise"). A good writer rejects pretence in favour of conciseness and clarity.     

If you're not as confident with the rules of the writing game as you could be, read on. Utilising cross-functional expertise Here are some troubleshooting guidelines to help you eliminate those costly mistakes from your applications and develop a clear, simple style of formal writing fit for a legal professional.

Spelling

Let's start with the basics. Everyone can make typos when writing in full flow, so proper proofing is essential. Don't rely on your word processor to do it for you; print out what you've written and go through it, word by word, with a pen. Don't do this straight away; leave enough time to rest and look at what you have written again with fresh eyes – waiting until the next day is ideal. It's also crucial to get someone else (with good literacy skills) to go through your writing - another person will almost certainly spot mistakes that you have missed.

Best of British
Use British spellings, not American. This means an American 'z' usually becomes a British 's', so it's 'organise', not 'organize', and 'prioritise', not 'prioritize'. There are other differences too, so be aware that the British spelling is 'calibre' not 'caliber', it's 'centre', not 'center' and it's 'programme', not 'program' (unless you are referring to computer software).

Mis-shapes, mistakes
The formal vocabulary contains so many words that can easily trip you up, either in their spelling or by similarities to other words. Don't get caught out; be aware of the following:

  • You are 'pursuing' a goal, not 'persuing' it.
  • 'Persevere' is 'severe' with giant-come-footballer Per Mertesacker's first name before it.
  • You 'gauge' the extent of your progress, not 'gouge' or 'gage' it.
  • You want to work at a reputable legal 'practice', but you 'practise' the violin (or with ‘practice’, your violin playing will improve). You aspire to be a 'practising' lawyer.
  • You're 'grateful' for the opportunity, not 'greatful'.
  • It's good to 'accept' criticism, 'except' if your critic is clearly a moron.
  • You're 'desperate', not 'desparate'. Actually, never use this word in an application.
  • You don't care about your 'company's' fate now that you're hawking yourself to other 'companies'.
  • 'Hone' your skills, don't 'home' them.

Grammar

At best, poor written grammar makes you seem slovenly. At worst, it makes you seem stupid - so familiarise yourself with the following rules:

  • Writing numbers: Write 'one' through to 'nine' in words. Use digits for 10 upwards. Punctuate bigger numbers for clarity, such as 1,000, 50,000 and 1,500,000.
  • Capitalisation: Never write a word in CAPITALS for emphasis, unless you want your application rejected. Capitals are commonly overused elsewhere, too. Generally, they start sentences and mark proper nouns. You don't need to use capitals for words like 'company', 'client' or 'solicitor'. That said…
  • Lower case: Using lower case when upper case is required is an easy mistake to make when typing. It's 'I am', never 'i am'.  
  • Repetition: Avoid repetition of words in the same paragraph and certainly in the same sentence. Not words like 'the' or 'in', but everyone has pet phrases and words that they overuse. They are easy to go back and change - and this is where getting someone else to proof your work can also be very helpful. If you ask them to be on the look out, they should spot your ticks.
  • Tenses: Never change tenses mid-sentence.
  • Which/that: It is common to confuse the use of 'which' and 'that'. Use 'which' in a sentence when providing additional information that is not necessary for the sentence to make sense. Essentially, using 'which' does not limit the scope of the noun to which it refers. For example, "The cat, which is ginger, loves to leave mice on the doormat." Use 'that' when restricting the scope of the noun, eg, "The cat that is ginger loves to leave mice on the doormat". Here, the description of the cat as ginger is necessary for the sentence to make sense, as the speaker is singling out and identifying a specific moggy as the culprit.
  • Who/they/have: Don't refer to organisations, groups or entities with 'who', 'they' or 'have'. "Ashurst, who have a high NQ retention rate which they are very proud of…" is wrong. Law firms and companies are not people, so instead write: "Ashurst, which has a very high NQ retention rate that its partners are very proud of…"

Formal tone

A good formal writing style does not require you to use long, obscure words and sentences where shorter alternatives will suffice. A formal tone is achieved by using a clear and precise vocabulary that is appropriate to your audience. Avoid colloquialisms and vague, catch-all terminology - don't write "I got my law degree in 2010", because the verb and noun do not fit together as well as other options. "I completed my law degree" is more precise (and it just sounds better). Here are some more suggestions (none of which involve archaic, pretentious terminology) to give you an idea of how to formalise what you are likely to write in your applications:

  • Instead of "I go to" and "I went to", write "I attend" and "I attended".
  • Instead of "field of law" or "law industry", write "legal profession" or "legal sector".
  • Replace "good" with words like "beneficial", "positive" and "advantageous". If you are good at something, write that you are "proficient" or "skilled" - but it's better to demonstrate such a claim with examples.
  • Don't write "I am looking to"; it's better to write "I am aiming to" or "my aim is".
  • Avoid "I love", it's not professional. "I enjoy" or "I am interested in" is better.
  • Instead of "I was voted", write "I was elected" or "selected".

Make sure that you don't stray from formality into academic pomposity - the pet hate of Amy Elderfield of AllHires. She despairs at the "Biblical tone" of many applications which are too influenced by the phraseology of academic journals remembered from university. Formal writing should never have to involve unfamiliar, rarely-used words. Trying to pass off a style with which you are uncomfortable will be obvious to recruiters.

Substance > cliché
Your writing must avoid clichés of any kind. Don't make any point with a tired metaphor when plain, direct English will do. No achievement is the "jewel in your crown", you don't "think outside the box" and your gap year did not help you to "grow as a person" because that doesn’t mean anything.

Even more important to dodge are 'application form clichés' like, "I would relish the opportunity to work at (insert law firm)". Don't boldly state that you are a highly motivated individual - say what it is that drives you instead. Similarly, don't claim that you are "creative", a "team player" or a "natural leader". Instead, use examples to convey that impression without being explicit and let the recruiter decide.  Keep 'passion' and 'passionate' to a minimum - they are words that crop up too often in applications. Use them when necessary, but only with supporting examples that illustrate that what you are claiming is genuine.

Cover letters
Let's consider starting and signing off your covering letters for a moment. First and foremost, you should research to whom you should address your applications on each firm's or chambers' website - this information is usually very clear. In the unlikely event that no information is provided, never open with "Dear sirs" – it is a pretty sexist assumption to think that those reading your letter will definitely be men. You should always do some research to find out who the cover letter should be addressed to, but if this information is not available, it should always be "Dear sir/madam". If you are signing off to a specific person at the firm, having found the right name, sign off with “Yours sincerely”. If you opened with “Dear sir/madam", sign off with “Yours faithfully”.

Formal vocabulary
Here’s a starting list of accessible words that are useful for writing applications. Vocabulary like this makes your writing articulate and precise, as opposed to dull, stunted and vague. Don't feel limited to the list - it really is just a starting point, but these kinds of words can help to add polish and eliminate repetition, which almost always creeps into a first draft. Variety is important to keep your application fresh and interesting, especially as recruiters will be trawling through hundreds of them - many of which will be similar.

Involvement

Participation

Advocated

Compelling

Proven

Gained

Establish

Secure

Volunteered

Contribute

Organise

Enable

Manage

Coordinate

Value

Initiate

Complete

Defended

Assist

Delegate

Benefitted

Report to

Enable

Opted

Illustrate

Influence

Welcome

Devise

Demonstrate

Responsible

Distinctive

Keen

Intended

Captained

Promoted

Represented

Afforded (the opportunity)

Possess

Attended

Exhibit

Persuade

Succeeded

Appointed

Influenced by

Sparked

Exposed to

Aspiration

Nominated

Inspiration

Opportunity

Implement

Enhance

Interact

Explore

Engage

Ensure

Establish

Finally, keep a decent dictionary and thesaurus to hand - never use a word without knowing its exact definition. Practise a formal style to make yourself comfortable using it, avoid pretence, vagueness and repetition and your application will not get forgotten in the pile. Write on!

Get the LCN Weekly newsletter

Get our news, features, recruiter and lawyer interviews, burning questions, blog posts and more sent straight to your inbox with our weekly newsletter. You also get access to a free personal MyLCN account.

Comment

Sign in to MyLCN to have your say.