Critical CV Writing Techniques For Lawyers


I read a lot of legal CV’s from a wide variety of lawyers. Surprisingly often, the quality of writing leaves a lot to be desired.

Even those written relatively well often reveal some poor writing techniques. Common bad habits include a failure to use plain English, the inclusion of worthless adjectives and adverbs, and the use of the passive voice.

In this article, I’ll explain why these poor techniques can affect your job search and how to improve them. I’ll also share one of my favourite writing tools to help you avoid these pitfalls.

Use Simple Plain English

Communication is key – both in your role as a lawyer and in your CV.

To communicate well you should strive to use short, plain English words and phrases wherever possible.

Of course, as a modern lawyer you know you should be using plain English. However, it’s very easy, and common, to slip into longer, more complex writing. This will impair the clarity of your communication and affect the impact you have on the person reading your CV.

Therefore, you must always conduct a manual review of your CV to identify where you can edit the English to make it simpler.

As well as a manual review, I also highly recommend a free online writing tool called the Hemingway app. It will highlight where your writing can be simplified for greater clarity and impact.

Remove Adjectives

Trying to communicate personality attributes in your CV is easy to get wrong.

Most adjectives you would choose to include have become tired CV cliches. For example:

  • Team player
  • Self-starter
  • Enthusiastic
  • Motivated
  • Hardworking
  • Committed
  • Driven
  • Professional

Unfortunately, they make you sound like everyone else. And you seriously don’t want that – you need to stand out from the crowd, not blend into it!

The mantra I drum into my CV Relaunch clients is:

Demonstrate Don’t Tell”

It’s more convincing to provide hard factual details and tangible evidence than self-praise with adjectives.

The key to this is to state what you achieved NOT what you think it says about you.

So, be careful to manually review your draft CV for self-serving adjectives about yourself.

Remove Adverbs

Again, you will find it’s easy for these to make it into your CV writing.

Adverbs such as “successfully” or “skilfully” don’t add anything. It’s much better to provide concrete evidence to demonstrate “success” and “skill”.

Manually review your CV for adverbs and see if you can remove them. Use verbs with more impact instead.

Again, to help you identify adverbs in your writing I recommend running it through the Hemingway app tool.

Use the Active Voice not the Passive Voice

Many CV’s I review breach one of George Orwell’s Six Elementary Writing Rules, which is:

Never use the passive where you can use the active.”

Use of the passive voice often sounds like you aren’t claiming responsibility for actions taken. It can easily slip into your CV and it really dilutes your impact on a recruiter.

It’s much better to use the active voice as it gives your points energy and immediacy.

In an active voice sentence, you clearly describe what you have done. It is clear you have performed the action stated by the verb.

By way of example, here is an achievement statement phrased using the passive voice:

“A project plan was created to manage the review of litigation documents…”

Changing this into the active voice means it starts with a strong action word and has more impact:

“Created a project plan to manage the review of litigation documents”

The Guardian Style Guide says this about the use of action words:

active verbs are much more effective, especially in headlines: compare “my hamster was eaten by Freddie Starr” with “Freddie Starr ate my hamster”

Ultimately, each of your achievement statements on your CV is a mini-headline so make sure they are active!

Again, to check your writing for the passive voice I recommend running it through the Hemingway app tool.

For more on this important writing technique, I encourage you to review this helpful infographic.

Recruiters Will Thank You

If you apply these critical writing techniques your CV, and your writing generally, will improve.

If you don’t eliminate these common writing issues then, at best, you will irritate recruiters. At worst, they may well conclude that your communication skills, analytical skills and/or attention to detail are not at the level they are looking for.

So, take the time to edit your CV to eliminate these issues before you send it to someone who could determine your future career path.

Want a blueprint for a winning law CV?

Make sure you check out our Essential Guide to Creating a Successful Lawyer CV.

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Matt Oliver

Matt is the founder of Law Career Plus and a former in-house lawyer (Sky Sports, London & Foxtel, Sydney). With over 12 years of experience as a career consultant & executive coach, he supports lawyers with their career development & career transitions. He does this through this website, a regular email newsletter and his one to one lawyer career coaching.

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