“Look your best on paper. Show your best in person.”
I trademarked that slogan because it’s how I help lawyers land jobs. I have been helping lawyers craft and refine their resumes for years as a professional resume writer and legal recruiter.
If you are a partner in a law firm with a significant portable practice, a law firm may be less interested in your resume and more interested in your book of business. Your website bio might suffice.
But in all other instances, your resume really matters. It matters if you are seeking an entry-level position. It matters if you are seeking a lateral position as an associate or junior partner. And it matters if you are seeking an in-house position.
As a Major, Lindsey & Africa recruiter, a former law firm recruiter, an interview coach and a former law firm hiring partner, I have read and refined a lot of resumes. Most need a major face-lift. I find myself giving the same advice to lawyers at all levels so they have a better chance of making it to the “yes list.”
If you are like most lawyers, you start with the resume you drafted in law school, dust it off (figuratively) and add your current work. But the formatting probably needs to be changed, some information is no longer relevant and your resume looks outdated and cluttered.
Perhaps these legal resume tips might help you land an interview:
- The five second rule. Form and substance matter. Did you know that a recruitment professional takes about 5-to-10 seconds to decide how to act upon your candidacy? Your resume, therefore, needs to look clean and organized and provide easy-to-digest, compelling information.
- The order. List education first and experience second if you have less than five years of experience. Place all school honors, law review/journal and activities under each school rather than in a separate section. Beyond five years, list your experience first.
- Use headings to guide the reader and organize experience. The most impactful and easy-to-read resumes are ones that list experience and achievements in bulleted format. Often, using bolded or underlined headings to group different practice areas, skills and achievements will help your resume pop.
- More style tips. Your resume is not a legal document. Footnotes are for briefs. If something is important enough to call out in a footnote, then add it to your resume or your cover letter. With that in mind, use the word, “including” rather than “including but not limited to.” Font size should be no smaller than 11 points in Times New Roman, Garamond, Calibri, Arial or other conservative fonts. For a more tailored look, use small, square bullet points instead of the round ones.
- Align your resume with the requirements for each position. You should tweak your resume before you apply for each job. For example, if you have experience in corporate, M&A, and regulatory matters and you are applying for openings in firms that focus on regulatory clients, then focus your resume primarily on your regulatory experience.
- List specific achievements using action words. Where possible, describe your employment in terms of substantive work and/or successes, keeping descriptions short to use as talking points in your interview. For example, you could write, “Tried and won a 10-day jury trial on behalf of a defendant in a trade secrets case.” Every place on your resume where you list “responsible for,” you can revise with an action verb like “prepared,” “analyzed,” “collaborated,” “led” or “devised.”
- There is no “I” in “resume.” Remove all language using “I” and replace it with an action verb. But write your resume in the first person using present or past tense. For example, use language for current positions like, “Provide creative estate planning advice for high-network multi-generational families and create family trusts and other complex planning documents.” For past positions, use language like, “Advised Fortune 100 business on Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and conducted extensive multi-jurisdiction internal investigation.”
- Recruiters and lawyers prefer to read down, not across. Many resume templates place dates of employment and even the city and state of your employer on the right side of your resume. But think about how much harder on the eye it is to read from the left, then to the right, and then to the left again. Your eyes get tired. This example works better and looks much cleaner:
Law Firm or COMPANY Name, City, State
Title, January 2015 – Present
- Add white space and remove clutter. Resumes that have spaces between jobs, company names and titles, bullet points and section headings are much easier to read and comprehend than resumes without enough white space. Take a look at your resume and find a way to add a little space to help the reader.
- If you have not changed anything on your resume since you were in law school, review it to determine what can be deleted. For example, if you still list internships or clinic work as jobs on your resume, consider either removing them entirely if they do not relate to your current job or place the information as one bullet under law school. Less is more in most cases. Clutter could detract from what’s important: your most recent attorney positions.
- Proofread, proofread, proofread. Your resume needs to be error-free. Proofread your resume from top to bottom and then from bottom to top for both content and typographical errors. Then ask a friend or colleague to read it over. Some lawyers will not hire people whose resumes have even one typo.