Essential Tips for Law Firm Job Applications – Part One

Lord Bobo has been greatly disturbed by reports of appalling job applications and interviews involving law graduates in Malaysia. His Supreme Eminenceness in all his benevolence proceeded to mind-control five minions to sit their busy (but undoubtedly well-formed) bottoms down and type up these essential tips for law firm job applications, targeted at applicants for pupillage or first/second year associate positions.

The contributors are Donovan Lee Shyun Hyn of eLawyer, Fahri Azzat of Messrs Azzat & Izzat, Goh Siu Lin of Shook Lin & Bok, Lee Shih of Skrine, and Marcus van Geyzel of Peter Ling & van Geyzel. They represent the full spectrum of the legal employment market in Malaysia – big firms, medium-sized firms, small firms, and a legal recruitment agency. This Part One will address job applications, and if you stick to the tips in this article, then you will also find Part Two (which will be published later this week) relevant, as it deals with job interviews. These tips are required reading for anyone applying for a pupillage or junior associate position in a law firm – you no longer have an excuse for that shoddy job application/interview!

How important are first impressions when it comes to job applications? What are the things that make an immediate impression (positive/negative) on employers when receiving an application?

Donovan: VERY crucial! First impressions either make or break you, as they stay the longest in someone’s mind. If you make a great first impression, you have won half the battle. Whether or not you get shortlisted depends on the presentation of your CV.

When employers receive an application, most expect to see your cover letter and CV/resume together. The immediate impression will come from the cover letter, CV and the way your email is written. A neatly presented CV and cover letter which are free from grammatical errors, and with a detailed description of your working experience will certainly capture the employer’s attention. Referring to or citing where you saw or heard about the job opening will give a positive impression that you are serious about applying.

Fahri: Contrary to popular belief and widespread advice, don’t waste your time with first impressions, especially if they are not true to your character and lifestyle. If your first impression is false, you will be found out eventually. That’s what the probationary period is for – to evaluate whether you are the real deal or a fake. And even if you are confirmed, your quality will soon become apparent.

Instead, cultivate qualities that leave a lasting impression with whomever you meet and speak to. Develop your emotional intelligence, practice delayed gratification, cultivate politeness, read widely and indiscriminately, engage with cleverer people, mouth closed and eyes open, ask why often, do the right thing – doing these things often enough would go a long way to moulding you into a person that often leaves a lasting impression.

The most immediate impression I glean from the application is the academic results because it is so prominently displayed, and really the only thing they give us by way of evaluation. The candidates would make a big impression if they explained why they wanted to specifically pupil at that firm.

Lee Shih: In most cases, the first thing I will scroll and look at will be the covering email if there is one. I have seen some very effective covering emails which immediately grab my attention. So for example, in one short introductory sentence the applicant states “I am a First Class graduate from the University of … and I would like to apply for pupillage at your firm.” On the other hand, I have seen applicants not leverage off their strengths, with weak covering emails not showing off their good academic qualifications.

Next will be an examination of the CV. I want to have a snapshot of the law degree classification, the university, and the CLP or BPTC degree classification. A CV with a professional-looking photograph does help an applicant stand out. But a photograph lifted off your Facebook profile or cropped from a group picture may not assist you much.

It is unfortunate that I find it rare to find well-formatted CVs. Elements such as the addition of a  bit (emphasis on a bit) of colour, the good use of white space, details like page numbers, headers and footers, do help to make a good impression.

Marcus: First impressions are important, but are not the be all and end all of the application process.

My first impression of an application is always the cover email (we don’t really get traditional cover “letters” anymore). Your email subject must be clear and simple – something like “Application for the position of an Associate” is just right, and much better than “FOR YOUR ATTENTION: MY APPLICATION FOR POSITION OF LEGAL ASSISTANT IN YOUR ESTEEMED FIRM”. An eloquent cover email makes a very good first impression. Keep it simple and to the point. Don’t be overly verbose or use big words that you don’t usually use and which are obviously out of place. Stick to writing like how normal human beings write to each other on a day-to-day basis.

Moving on to the CV/resume, formatting is important – be conscious of using an appropriate font and font size (Comic Sans 12 makes an awful impression, unless you’re applying to be the office clown). Stick to commonly-used fonts like Arial, Times New Roman, Calibri, Verdana, or Garamond. Use paragraphing, indents, headings, and tables to make the reader (your potential employer) happy to read your CV/resume.

I always ask that a photograph of the applicant be included. There is no excuse for using a badly-taken or inappropriate photograph. No selfies in bathroom mirrors, or a cropped image from a group photo from a night out. Any applicant should have a smartphone with a decent camera (or have a friend who has one) – put on something professional, and take a photo. It makes a difference.

Siu Lin: Your job application is the first step to creating a relationship with your future employer. Therefore, in crafting a resume, yes, first impressions are highly important.

Impeccable English is a must. If a photo is required, then make sure that it looks professional. Some candidates have in the past used playful, casual photos.

Next, decide on an attractive resume format that is uncluttered, sleek and easy to read. Make use of headings, spacing and write in short simple sentences. There is no need to use bombastic words as this will more likely annoy rather than impress. Avoid long wordy paragraphs, devoid of punctuation and small fonts at all costs, unless you are prepared to face the ire of impatient and short-sighted partners!

I frequently encounter candidates who submit cookie-cutter type resumes. This reflects a lack of effort. Tailor each resume to the prospective firm according to the firm’s practice areas and skill-sets, and this will obliquely convey the message that you are keen to be part of their legal team.

Strive to be concise in highlighting your academic credentials or past work experience. Focus on your relevant achievements and provide some elaboration on past work experience to showcase your strengths (be it writing flair, oratorical prowess, leadership ability or organizational skills).

There is a delicate balance to be struck, as a candidate who excessively blows his/her own trumpet is off-putting to the reader. Always be honest and do not over-inflate your abilities. For example, a common mistake among fresh undergraduates would be to say, “I am well placed to contribute to your organization.” It would be more relevant instead, to indicate that you are prepared to work hard, under stress, are committed and willing to push yourself to contribute to the firm’s / client’s well-being.

Excellent results are a given and I often look at the candidate’s extra-curricular pursuits to have a better idea of the candidate as a person. However, listing unusual hobbies may back-fire by attracting too much attention, deflecting discussions on your legal ability.

Name three common things you have come across in job applications which ensures an immediate rejection.


(1) Kangaroo CV. Although you have good academic results, if you change jobs like changing clothes, the potential employer would not have confidence in your working ability and commitment. In most cases, the best way to understand someone is to understand that person’s history.

(2) Bad English. A CV which is full of grammatical mistakes and/or with improper use of language shows that you are a careless person, and that you may not be able to communicate effectively with your clients and others. The ability to communicate effectively and the ability to be meticulous are both essential qualities in lawyering.

(3) Applications to multiple employers. If a particular employer receives your application with other employer(s)’ email addresses as recipients, it provides a very negative impression that you are not professional, do not understand basic work ethics and more importantly, not serious about joining the employer’s firm.


(1) An emailed application that encloses the resume without any written introduction or explanation. “Do I look like I’m begging here?”

(2) An emailed application sent en masse with all the law firms emailed to baldly stated in the “To” field. “Delete.”

(3) Poorly written cover letter/email for the application. “I don’t want to deal with the language issues.”

Lee Shih: I could only think of two very common things I keep seeing crop up:

(1) Missing the grade – where the applicant fails to provide details of the degree classification of his law degree, CLP, or BVC/BPTC degree. These details are especially important for a pupillage application. If there is an omission to state these details, I would have to assume that the degree classification must be low or that the applicant is embarrassed.

(2) This may spell your doom – bad spelling or bad grammar in the covering email/letter or your CV will weigh heavily against you. Examples would include “I graduated from the Unversity of London”, “Being a graduate who have completed his LLB, I would like to apply to your firm”, “I would like gain exposure in different area of laws” and “Your firm has intentional (presumably, it should have read international?) practice areas.”


(1) Horrible English. This is probably the most common deal-breaker. Language is an important tool for lawyers. It is fair to assume that a cover email and CV/resume would have been written and double-checked before being submitted. If it is still full of grammatical errors, then it shows that the applicant is incapable of writing in English at a reasonable standard. Also bad (as I mentioned in the previous section) is over-writing; using big words which have obviously been picked up from a thesaurus, or are misused and don’t even make sense.

(2) Not addressing the application properly. This may seem obvious, but is painfully common: Ensure that you have sent the correct application to the correct firm – I will not read an application which is sent to me but addressed to another firm. Also, when emailing, don’t put multiple addressees in the “To” field. If it’s too much to ask that you write a fresh email for each firm (and it shouldn’t be), at least use the “Bcc” field. If your application is attached to an email and all the email says is “See attached”, all your application will see is the Trash folder. If you want to be a lawyer, mistakes like this are inexcusable.

(3) Irrelevant hobbies/interests. I love it when applicants have interests outside of the law – we are after all not just looking to hire “good lawyers” but also hopefully people who will make good colleagues and friends, and be a part of an interesting and vibrant office culture. However, some applicants make the mistake of listing too many hobbies, and some which they only dabbled in. I don’t need to know what your favourite television shows are.

Siu Lin:

(1) Weak academic credentials.

(2) Horrific English grammar and typographical errors, badly written content.

(3) Overall impression that the candidate is not driven or interested in the profession/firm. For example, the applicant refers to another law firm as the addressee.

What are your top three tips for applicants?


(1) Tailor-make your CV. It is crucial to know/understand the job description before you apply for a particular position. A job description usually contains the job scope and the employer’s requirements in respect of skills, experience, and education. Highlighting your particular experience or strength which matches the requirements and described job scope makes your application outstanding. Needless to say, you must be genuine in doing so. Never state any experience which you do not possess as it can be easily spotted during the job interview.

(2) Explain the reasons you left any previous jobs in your CV. If you have an unstable career track record, briefly state the reasons you left each job. This will eliminate the negative impression/imagination that the potential employer may have.

(3) Apply through a recruitment agency. More often than not, a job application which is submitted through the services rendered by a recruitment agency will result in a higher percentage of getting shortlisted. A professional recruitment consultant not only understands the job scope, required experience, requisite soft skills of a particular job opening, he/she also understands the culture of a particular firm. In most cases, potential employers perceive candidates recommended by a recruitment agency to have at least met the minimum requirements. A recruitment agency also has the capability to recommend other suitable job openings to you if your desired application does not fit you, or is unsuccessful.


(1) Ensure your cover letter/email is properly written. Have someone check it for grammar and typos.

(2) If your language is weak – especially English – please improve it. Sign up for an English course if you have to. Language is a lawyer’s tool.

(3) Explain why you want to pupil specifically at that firm. Why is it important that you pupil at that firm?

Lee Shih:

(1) Show off your strengths – Let your CV be self-contained and show off your strengths. Don’t have the interviewer hunt through your supporting documents. So where you have done well in certain subjects, or where you want to demonstrate that you have taken certain subjects relevant to your intended practice area, or a relevant research paper or dissertation, list out these details briefly in your CV, with the grades obtained.

(2) Check, check and double check – Whether it is your covering email, covering letter or CV, please check the spelling and grammar.

(3) It is not all just about the law – Have your CV show off a bit of your interests outside of law school. There is no need to only list out your mooting. Details such as any sport you play, any volunteering experience, leadership roles, help to give us a better picture of who you are. Gives us a chance to ask you more about these experiences to find out how you work in a team.


(1) Strive for an error-free application. Read what I’ve said in the previous sections. Ensure that your cover email and CV/resume do not contain grammatical or language errors. Make an effort with the formatting. Include a good photograph.

(2) Be honest, and let your personality show. Don’t use words you don’t usually use. Don’t pretend to be somebody you’re not. Avoid meaningless clichés like “I’m a team player” or “I think outside the box” (if anything, including the latter in your application shows that you certainly do not think outside the box). Most law firms receive many, many applications throughout the year – let your personality show, and make your potential employer excited to meet you at the interview. Some may say that the interview is where you display your personality, and that the application should be serious and formal, but I disagree – more often than not, the decision is already 60% made by the time you step into that interview room.

(3) Tell me why you want me. Any employer would appreciate if an applicant really wants to work for that employer, as opposed to taking an “I’m applying for 20 firms and will work at the one which makes me an offer and pays me the most” approach. Information on most firms/lawyers are easily available online. It would help greatly if your application shows that it was written specifically for the lawyer/firm which it is addressed to.

Siu Lin:

(1) Excellent English. Be succinct and sincere.

(2) Tailor your resume. Avoid careless typographical errors, be careful about formatting and lay-out.

(3) Think carefully about your content. Go for quality over quantity. Avoid over-lengthy resumes. I would suggest a maximum of 2-3 pages.

Look out for Part 2 later this week: Essential tips for law firm job interviews!

Donovan Lee is a Recruitment Consultant with eLawyer, the leading legal recruitment agency in Malaysia. His portfolio includes sourcing legal talents for law firms and corporations. He was in private practice for a short stint wherein he was exposed to litigation, corporate and conveyancing before he decided to take a leap of faith and do other things in life which are close to his heart – headhunting, dragon boating, fitness instructor, etc. He is reachable at [email protected].

Fahri Azzat is an actor who plays the role of a professional advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya during office hours and during official business of the same name at the firm of Messrs Azzat & Izzat. The role of court going lawyer for this series is with the director’s consent. At all other times plays he plays the role of his namesake to his family, friends and foes. He performs on occasion as @LBMinion1 for LoyarBurok and the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights events and initiatives. He has not performed in any other role and has yet to be nominated for any acting award despite critical acclaim (mainly from his mom).

Lee Shih is a corporate litigator and partner at Skrine. He has recently been spending a lot of his time looking at pupillage applications and sitting in interviews. He tweets at @iMleesh and blogs at

Marcus van Geyzel is a founding partner of Peter Ling & van Geyzel, a corporate/commercial law firm. He believes that lawyers (and all workers/employees in generally really) would be a whole lot happier if we stopped measuring success by how “busy” we are, and striving for more and more money and titles just because that’s what everyone else is doing. There are more important things in life. He hasn’t quite figured out what these more important things are, but believes that finding out is part of the fun. He tweets at @vangeyzel, and is almost permanently mind-controlled by Lord Bobo to run the most awesome blawg in the known and unknown universe, LoyarBurok. He rather enjoys referring to himself in the third person.

Goh Siu Lin is a daughter, wife and mother of two young children. Partner of Shook Lin & Bok, Chair of the Practitioners’ Affairs Committee, Kuala Lumpur Bar, Vice President of the Association of Women Lawyers. Mensan. Budding interest in women’s issues. Addicted to Latin Dancesport. Tweets at @ChachaSiu.

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Posted on 28 October 2013. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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