Resume writing. Something few people enjoy but many want to know how to do it better. No matter if you are a recent graduate or a senior partner, a good resume can be the difference between getting the job you want and being stuck on a career path that doesn’t excite you. And yes, it is important at any level in your legal career.
Crafting a perfect legal resume is a challenge. In today’s competitive job market, you need to build a resume that stands out from the crowd. Your resume is your sales pitch to the hiring partner. You need to make your value to the employer clear, and because your resume will likely only get about 30 seconds of the partner’s time, you need your value to be emphasized and evident from a quick scan and cursory examination.
Indeed, resumes are probably the most important thing for hiring partners at the beginning of a relationship. After all, resumes are the first impression that any hiring partner has of you. Please, please make sure that it’s spell-checked and accurate. Also, even though you’re an attorney and not a graphic designer, you will want to make sure that the format is appealing and easy to read. Concise, accurate, error-free, well organized, clear, easy to read, and visually pleasing. Repeat.
If you want your resume to make it past the first person (or computer) who reviews it, include key words from the job posting. Length does matter. Limit your resume to one page if you are a law student, a recent graduate, or have two to three years of experience. If you have a two-page resume, the second page should take up at least half or three-quarters of the next page. The tips below outline how to create a perfect legal resume that gets results.
1. Reflect on your target audience. Are you writing to a law firm, small nonprofit organization, large government agency, or judge? Find out as much as you can about the types of projects in which you would be involved if hired. Based on that information, determine which skills you should highlight. For example, are your writing and research skills most important, or your communication and negotiation skills? You may choose to have a few resumes geared toward different types of employers.
2. Make every word count. Your resume should not generally exceed one page. That usually means that you have to make some strategic omissions in your work experience or academic sections. You need to make the most important stuff to jump off the page, remembering that every word on your resume should serve the purpose of showing that you are the best candidate for the specific job. It’s just one page, use it effectively, be a lawyer.
3. Emphasize your relevant experience. Customize your resume to each job you apply for. When describing your legal experience, give concrete examples. Make sure that you indicate the types of practice areas in which you have experience (keeping in mind that you’ll want to emphasize the work most related to this particular job.) For example, if you’ve gained experience in antitrust, labor and employment, M&A, private equity deals, so state.
4. Highlight your accomplishments. Accomplishments are more important than your responsibilities. Which sounds more impressive: the fact that you were “responsible for estate planning” or that you “structured trusts to minimize clients’ tax liability”? Responsibilities are a passive description. Using Action Verbs will revive the active voice and energize each job’s duties and accomplishments. Several important Action Verbs to keep in mind are enacted, performed, supervised, maintained, organized, and developed.
5. Show off your skills. Make sure that you highlight any special skills or knowledge you may have to set you apart. Make sure your resume reflects the unique skills that are required in the position. Do you have three years of Westlaw research experience? Can you speak Chinese? Obviously, Westlaw experience is crucial. Many firms love foreign language proficiency – particularly in international firms.
6. Be sure you can talk intelligently about every thing you include on your resume. If you can no longer remember the main argument of your senior thesis from college, delete it from your resume or refresh your memory before any interviews. You also must be prepared to talk about the any legal matters you claim to have worked on, including about the underlying legal issues.
7. Proofread your resume carefully. Then proofread it again. Then ask a friend to proofread it. And another friend. Then proofread it again. After spending all week writing your resume, you will be tempted to skim it. Resist this temptation. Please, do. The importance of language in the legal profession only heightens your responsibility to send an error-free document.
8. Make your resume easy to read. Busy hiring managers will pass over a resume that is sloppy, poorly formatted or full of grammar and punctuation errors. Use headings and bullet points to break up text, use consistent fonts and make sure margins, bullet points and indents are cleanly aligned. The legal industry is ultra-conservative so don’t get too creative with your resume presentation.
9. Leave them wanting more. It’s obvious that you’ll want to include relevant work experience. However, you don’t have to include details about every motion you’ve ever written or every case you’ve ever tried. Show a little restraint and leave something for the interview.
10. Use a cover letter. In this age of electronic submissions, it’s tempting to write a simple “my resume is attached” e-mail to prospective employers. However, a cover letter is another tool to help sell you as a candidate and set you apart from the sea of applicants. A detailed cover letter that sells your skills and outlines how you fit the position will encourage the hiring partner to give your legal resume a glance (check out our 5 TIPS TO WRITE A KILLER LEGAL COVER LETTER).