Have you ever applied for a General Counsel position and felt you were the perfect fit for the role but then never heard back after sending in your resume? General Counsel jobs are so coveted that inevitably the recruiters and HR departments attempting to fill these roles become overwhelmed with hundreds of applications shortly after beginning the search. As a result, they usually have large stacks of resumes to review, which makes it important to be sure your resume grabs their attention quickly. Below are some tips that can help ensure that your resume clearly demonstrates your qualifications for a GC role and help increase your chances of getting noticed.
Highlight Your "General Counsel-Type" Experience
A General Counsel is a leader, a business partner, an advisor and an important resource for any company's Board of Directors, so it's important to make sure that your expertise in these areas is highlighted on your resume. For instance, any experience managing attorneys and non-attorney legal professionals should be prominently noted, as should any experience running a department and managing a budget. It's also important to highlight any experience giving presentations to Boards of Directors as well as other interactions you've had with a company's Board. And keep in mind that experience serving on a not-for-profit Board of Directors also provides valuable insight and experience for a GC role at a for-profit corporation, so if you've ever served on a Board in any capacity, be sure that service is prominently mentioned on your resume. In addition, you'll want the reader to know that you have experience advising C-Suite executives on day-to-day operations, both from a business and a legal perspective. Since your resume may get a quick review during the first screen, make sure the most relevant experience is noticeable so it's likely to be considered during the initial evaluation.
Emphasize Your Experience with Areas Key to Business Leaders
Money matters to all companies! For-profit companies exist to make money and not-for-profit corporations generally must operate within the confines of a tight budget, so at both types of companies, the individuals in charge of hiring will want to be sure that all members of the senior executive team, including the General Counsel, understand how to read a balance sheet. In addition to understanding the company's operations, it's key to be familiar with the basic principles that are at the forefront of the CFO's mind, so it never hurts to demonstrate your understanding of things such as the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), Key Business Indicators (KBIs) and General Ledgers (GLs). Also, if you've regularly reviewed any type of financial report, it can't hurt to demonstrate your experience reviewing (and understanding) Excel spreadsheets generated by a finance department.
Beyond the numbers, it's also important to understand the company's most valuable asset, which in many instances is the company's intellectual property. A company's assets are a measure of the company's value, and without an understanding of those assets, it's hard to gain an understanding of how the company makes its money. As a result, to demonstrate the value you can bring as a GC, you'll want to clearly show that you have the ability to understand the company's assets—and demonstrating your understanding of an IP portfolio can go a long way in that regard. Further, in this increasingly global economy, more and more companies are looking to expand their geographic reach in an attempt to make more money, so demonstrating experience with international legal and operational matters can go a long way in helping your resume get the attention it deserves.
Finally, in this era of increasing regulatory scrutiny (and the potential accompanying fines), compliance is front of mind for most CEOs, so a showing of your compliance experience also can help your resume stand out from the crowd.
Don't Get Overly Technical
Since the initial screen of your resume may not include a thorough, in-depth review, it is important to be clear and concise. GCs must be good communicators and must be able to translate complicated legal theories into simple language for non-lawyer business partners to be able to understand and evaluate. Because the person doing the initial screen of your resume may not be a lawyer, or may not be familiar with your industry or past employers' businesses, don't assume the reviewer will understand legal terminology, abbreviations or industry-specific (or company-specific) lingo. If the reader can't readily understand your resume, you aren't presenting yourself as a clear communicator and you aren't conveying your qualifications for the job.
One way to help a reader quickly gain an understanding of your ability to handle the GC role is to include a brief (5–6 bullet points) Executive Summary section at the top of your resume, which highlights the big picture, most relevant components of your background.
Also, note that the suggestion to keep things straightforward applies to both content and substance; for example, it's best to use basic block-style font as scripted fonts aren't as easy to read—and you don't want to do anything to give the reader a reason to toss your resume aside quickly and move on to the next one. In addition, if the organization of your resume isn't simple to follow and the reader can't quickly and easily ascertain the relevant, top-line information (i.e., chronological employment history, promotions and tenure at each employer), the reviewer is more likely to disregard it. In short, to maximize the chance that most of the content of your resume will be reviewed, keep it clear and uncomplicated.
Less Is Sometimes More
The primary purpose of a resume for a GC job is to get the attention of the reader in order to get an interview, so your resume should be like a highlight reel—and the highlights should be relevant to your rise to a GC-ready lawyer. It is not the appropriate place to recite everything you've ever done as a lawyer, as there will be a time and a place for that down the road if you get past the initial screen and land an interview. As a result, it's worth the time to eliminate extraneous content from your resume and to eliminate clutter that could detract from your significant, GC-relevant experience.
To keep it tidy and clear, it's best not to use full sentences, and there's no need to use words like "I" or "my," which don't add anything to the content but do take up space and could create clutter. That being said, things such as written publications, speaking engagements and deal sheets can be valuable to submit in connection with a job application, though consider putting them in an addendum. That way, this additional information is still available should your reader choose to take the time to consider it—and the potential employer will have it on hand if you progress through the interview process—but your resume itself is still concise.
Be Mindful of Space Allocation
Prioritize your use of space! The "one-page rule" for resumes no longer applies, particularly for a senior position such as a GC, but at the same time you don't want to overload your reader with too much information and risk them missing the important aspects of your work experience. To that end, consider minimizing—or avoiding completely—any mention of irrelevant work experience. Also, if you graduated from college more than 15 years ago, taking up four lines on your resume to describe your senior thesis would only be a good use of space if the thesis topic is directly related to the job for which you're applying. And don't waste space on information that is likely redundant. For instance, if you note on your resume that you graduated in the top 5% of your class, you probably don't need to mention the fact that you were on the Dean's List all semesters, as the top 5% of your class is enough to give the reader an understanding of your academic success (and the Dean's List honor likely will be assumed). Also, allocate space to discussing your past jobs in accordance with their relevance, timeliness and proportion of your total working career spent in each position. For example, if you are 15+ years into a legal career and spent your first 3–4 years at a law firm and then went in-house, the work you did at the firm isn't likely to be as relevant to a GC role as is the work you did in-house; as a result, when describing your time at the law firm you'll want to keep it brief and discuss your in-house work in more detail. On the flip side, if you spent the majority of your career at a law firm and only recently took an in-house position, your reader will expect to see more information about your work at the law firm, so you'll want to allocate more space to your law firm role while also including a discussion of your relevant in-house experience.
Create an Image of Yourself
If you have a hobby or community involvement that isn’t related to the job for which you are applying but does make you stand out, feel free to mention it but again be mindful of space allocation. These topics can be great to get a conversation started during an interview and help create an image of you overall as a person. Use discretion, however, and make sure the personal interests and activities you note aren't likely to give a negative impression to any of the dozens of viewers who may review your resume during the interview process.
Be mindful of the fact that your resume is the first impression you will give to any potential future employer. Following the tips above could not only help you land an interview for a GC job but also help get you off on the right foot if you do begin working in a coveted GC position.
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Melba Hughes is a Partner with Major, Lindsey & Africa's Atlanta office, where she is a member of the In-House Practice Group. Melba conducts senior level searches, including General Counsel and strategic leadership positions. She has successfully completed placements throughout the country and in a variety of industries and organizations. She can be reached at 404.601.1618 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Kimberly Lerman is a Director in the In-House Practice Group of Major, Lindsey & Africa's Atlanta office. She specializes in placing attorneys in corporate legal departments in a wide range of industries. Kimberly can be reached at 404.601.1621 and email@example.com.