Many lawyers ask our recruiters for advice about their resume. One recurring question comes from lawyers who have practiced in one area but who also have experience in another area of law. They want to emphasize one area over the other in response to their current level of interest in a particular practice area, or, very commonly, in response to what the job market is seeking in terms of practice area. As practice areas wax and wane in terms of popularity, lawyers, especially in an increasingly competitive job market, want to craft their CV to what’s “hot.”
Take, for example, the situation of litigators who want to be considered for General Counsel positions. Knowing that companies typically choose corporate lawyers for that role (why this happens is the topic for another article), litigators are concerned that their "litigation resume" will prevent them from getting a job that is not 100% litigation, which GC roles are decidedly not. But most litigators, except for inveterate trial lawyers, actually have done a combination of litigation and commercial work. This is especially true of IP lawyers, whose litigation skills and experience often force a licensing arrangement.
Here is my advice: Your experience is what it is, and you should portray it as such. You certainly don't want to lie on your resume, nor do you want to seem disingenuous. It's the latter area that is tricky because there is a lot of gray area in what one can say on a resume. And, of course, gray areas can be shaped and accented, especially by wordsmiths, which lawyers happen to be. I have also heard countless stories from lawyers who tell me that they were advised by friends or search professionals to emphasize this or that area of their CV to take better aim at a desired job or potential employer.
In the case of person with a “litigation-heavy” resume wanting a job that may not call for litigation, the candidate is tempted to manipulate the CV in such a way as to emphasize the non-litigation experience, and, correspondingly, de-emphasize the litigation. When I see resumes showing a combination of transactional and litigation work, I always ask the candidate this question: What is the percentage of each? I think my client is entitled to know that answer. So, if a candidate seeking advice on this subject has a headhunter like me, or is presenting their CV to an employer who is thinking the same question, it may be better to simply provide those percentages on your resume, even if it's a rough estimate.
Another important issue in resumes is what information to include and what information to omit. Candidates who omit important information, such as their complete employment history (for fear of appearing to be a “job hopper”) or dates of their law school or college graduation (for fear of age bias), run two risks. The first is that they may appear to be deliberately omitting important information so as to appear deceptive. Bad situation. Given the multitude of online sources that can be researched by a search firm or an employer to pinpoint employment or graduation dates, this deception is both silly and annoying because it creates more work for the person evaluating the resume. It also can make the candidate look ridiculous, especially those people who provide excruciatingly detailed information on dates and locations of, for example, speeches they have given (experience that I, for one, do not consider especially important), but somehow omit details that, to me, are vital. The second risk is that the reader of the resume may assume something that is worse than the reality. I have seen resumes from people who have graduated from law school in the 1980s omit their graduation date. This leads me to assume that they probably graduated in the 1970s or earlier.
So what can a candidate ethically do to accent his/her experience, within the bounds of a resume accurately conveying the percentages or weight of the lawyer’s experience in one field or another? One strategy is to emphasize one’s skills in a desired area (commercial transactions, for example) by supplying examples of specific deals that the person has done. Putting that experience first on a long list of other experience is a common resume trick that I believe rarely works and, if abused, can lead me to believe that the candidate is trying to deceive me. For example, take a candidate who has done 99% litigation but has one or two commercial deals under their belt. When the latter are “front and center” on top of his/her list of accomplishments, I start to wonder about the candidate's willingness to accurately portray his/her experience. Several years ago, when Intellectual Property was a “hot” area and there were relatively few practitioners in that field, we started to see resumes with IP on top of many lists of experience. Suddenly, everyone was an IP lawyer. Another example I often see is when a lawyer gets an “executive M.B.A.” or similar program from a prestigious school like Stanford or Harvard, which leapfrogs on the CV to the top of his/her educational credentials. Sure enough, a few lines down there it is: a law degree from a lower-tier law school.
A reader of resumes can quickly grow cynical, and they do. This reality should guide any person – lawyer or not – crafting their CV.