How to show you’re a good lawyer

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June 13, 2011

Just the job

By Marilyn Stowe

Thinking about applying for a position at Marilyn Stowe’s firm? For goodness’ sake use a fountain pen

Every week I receive at least three CVs ‘on spec’. They are emailed and posted, unsolicited, by recruitment agencies and by lawyers who seek positions within our firm. I am also sent requests for work experience from students and prospective trainees. Our firm encourages applications, because we are always on the lookout for good people. So why do so many of these CVs have me reaching for the delete button?

Some applications are more memorable than others, of course. I received one in which the candidate described, in painstaking detail over several pages, how she handled her own divorce. It made awkward reading. I recall another in which the solicitor ranted and raved about the senior partner at his previous firm. Vitriol flew off the pages, in what must be a textbook example of what not to do. Why criticise your previous firm to us? If you can do it to them, you can do it to us. No thanks.

A carefully crafted CV is an indicator of good judgement, a vital quality in a lawyer. So I am instantly wary of any would-be candidate who ignores the recruitment information on our firm’s website. Our recruitment page is prominent and concise. It provides our address and asks applicants to post CVs to our chief executive. To be fair, the majority do. But there will always be those who prefer to search out my email address and contact me directly. Perhaps they think that it gives them a head start. In reality, it cheeses me off. As the firm’s senior partner, I have many responsibilities. When we recruit I often come in at the final stage, dependent upon the position, but HR falls to our management team. When an applicant misses or disregards the application instructions on our website, it creates a bad impression.

I am also startled by the personal tone adopted by the growing numbers of correspondents who address me as ‘Dear Marilyn’. Perhaps times have changed, but I’m of the old school. Those who work alongside me call me by my first name if they wish, but such uninvited familiarity from strangers? It is not how I would go about impressing a senior partner I have never met. Neither would I send a CV without a covering letter – but plenty of people do.


So what does impress me? A well-written covering letter goes a long way. Also – and this should be obvious, surely – the letter should be signed. Years ago, a missing signature would have been an embarrassing oversight; these days, its omission seems fairly standard. Perhaps those who write more emails than they do letters have fallen into bad habits; perhaps applicants are printing off letters and sending them to hundreds of potential employers. Either way, it comes across as lazy and sloppy. My personal preference is for a handwritten letter, in fountain pen, on decent paper. It may be old-fashioned, but it tells me plenty about the writer.

As for the accompanying CV: why waste space on irrelevancies such as sports prizes won at junior school? I like to see a neat paragraph or two about career and academic achievements. I also look for personal details, set out in bullet points, which provide evidence of the qualities I look for in a good lawyer. These can include technical skill, leadership skills, judgement, intellect and concern for others.

CVs and covering letters do shed light on a candidate’s qualities, good or bad. If a candidate can’t be bothered to read and digest a website, prepare a decent letter with a straightforward enclosure and remember to sign it, what kind of lawyer are they likely to be?


Marilyn Stowe is the senior partner at Stowe Family Law. She blogs at




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