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November 26, 2020

Career Services Blog

The Legal Resume, Part 2: Top 10 Tips for Creating a Powerful Resume

Now that you have the basics for which sections your Legal Resume should include, this article offers the Top 10 Tips we routinely offer to law students and graduates on how to fill in the details: 

1. Keep it Concise: Remember, your resume is the highlight, not the novel. Another metaphor, you say? Okay, it’s the trailer, not the movie. One more? It’s the compilation video of Michael Jordan’s best plays, not the entire 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls season.

Generally speaking, a legal resume should be limited to one page, particularly for students. There are exceptions. If you are entering academia, for example, then your academic-oriented Curriculum Vitae would likely be more extensive to include publications and research, or if law is a second career. Your ability to edit is a skill legal employers are judging and the industry expectation is that your resume will be a single impactful page, when possible.

To keep your resume to a single page:

  • List only your most relevant and impressive experience, and the most relevant and impressive tasks you performed at each experience.
  • Use bullet points to list your tasks in clauses – not in complete sentences or prose.
  • Remove unnecessary articles like “the” and “a/an,” and find ways to say things in fewer words. Rather than “Conducted research in regards to motion to dismiss,” keep it at “Researched law on dismissal.” Or, instead of the mouthful “including but not limited to,” try “such as,” or simply “including.” Don’t say it in ten words if you can say it in five.
  • Oftentimes, the struggle to keep a resume to a single page is an issue of formatting and spacing. Choose formats that combine several items to one line and use the space effectively.

Credit: Image by Joey Guidone on Behance2. Choose an Elegant Format: Notice how we say “elegant” and not “boring.” Legal resumes are expected to be clean, simple, and conservative, but that doesn’t mean you have to pick a format that you find dull. Just remember to make sure the design isn’t too crowded or hectic, and doesn’t draw the eye all over the place. Make good use of white space; a good way to test this is by moving a couple of feet away from the resume, and if it looks pleasing from that distance, you’re in good shape.

There is also a balance to strike in choosing a format. It is helpful to choose one that helps you to stand out among other applicants, but it should not be overly flashy. If you are using color, do so sparingly and think lawyerly about it. This also applies to whatever graphics you may be using. They should enhance the look of a resume, but keep in mind that the most interesting part of a resume should be the content of it, not the format, color, or graphics on it.

Also be wary of choosing a trendy pre-designed format that many other people may be using. It is not uncommon for employers to receive multiple resumes with the same design, which does a disservice to the applicants, as they don’t stand out from each other at a first glance.

3. Make It Easy to Scan: You have about 30 seconds to impress a recruiter with your resume so make sure they can find what they’re looking for quickly with a quick scan. Make the most important information jump to attention by using headers, bullet points, bold, and italics. Make sure you are using a font that is easy to read. Times New Roman is the industry standard, and Arial is typically a safe bet – but if you don’t want to use one of those, try not to deviate too far afield and pick a font that is practical and readable. Fonts like Cambria, Garamond, and Calibri are also acceptable.

Something to keep in mind in our digital age is the way that files transfer in the uploading and emailing process. If a document looks one way in your word processor, it might not stay that way once you send it off to someone who may use a different program. Choosing a complicated format or including graphics may not hold up in a technology transfer, and puts you at risk of sending off a jumbled and messy-looking resume that the recruiter will likely not want to take time to decode; they only have about 30 seconds, after all!

4. Tell a Story: How can you tell your story to show you are the best fit for this job? How can you show that you are already a match for the norms and values of the employer? What experiences do you have that are congruent with what they are seeking, and how can you best share those experiences so that when they see your resume, they know you are what they’re looking for?

Have these questions in mind as you work on your resume for the job to which you’re applying. The suggestion here is to tailor your resume to each specific job and have multiple resumes on hand. Is the job public interest or private practice, criminal defense or prosecution, litigation or transactional, environmental law or general practice? Make sure that you are showcasing the most relevant of your experience to match the position description. Also, mirror the language used in the job posting, and try to emanate the ethos and pathos (i.e. vibes) of the company. Show that you have a genuine interest in the work that the company does by highlighting any relevant experience you’ve had in the practice area as a volunteer, member of a club, or anything else that may help portray you as a proper candidate for this particular job. 

This is not to say that you should dim your personality or human side; in fact, employers are looking for authenticity – so show your uniqueness, too.

5. Avoid First-Person: Remember, there is no I in resume. Avoid that, as well as me, my, and our. Rather than saying “I conducted research,” simply say, “Conducted research.” Instead of “I like to spend time with my cat,” use “Enjoy spending time with cat.”

6. Use Active Verbs: Bring your experience to life! When listing your tasks and responsibilities at past and present workplaces, begin each bullet point with an active verb. Words like coordinated, organized, produced, executed, created, developed, launched, yielded, consolidated. Avoid weaker verbs like “assisted,” even if you weren’t the one spearheading an effort; it isn’t dishonest to say “Reviewed documents” instead of “Assisted in reviewing documents.” This gets to the point quickly, is less wordy, and allows you to take ownership of your accomplishments.

Be sure to use past tense for prior experience and present tense for current jobs, and avoid repeating the same verbs. For example, if you’ve “reviewed” documents at multiple positions or in different capacities, try using “evaluated” or “assessed” for some of your bullet points. Use a thesaurus, or google “action verbs for resumes” and you’ll find several helpful sources.

Credit: Image by Joey Guidone on Behance7. Describe Your Work: While being succinct is important, so is describing your work in enough detail so that it’s clear what you actually did. Paint a picture of you doing the work by being specific. How was this research different from that research? Use the 5 Ws (who, what, where, when, how) to really highlight what you did, how you did it, and why you did it.

A good strategy for describing your work is to use the “Awesomeness Sandwich” method: List your most impressive task first, and your second most impressive task second, but save your third most impressive task for the very last bullet point. This is how our brains read bulleted lists and goes back to the 30 second scanning rule; it would be a shame to have a recruiter miss out on one of your stronger accomplishments simply because it was in the middle of the list and not at the end.

8. Emphasize Skills: If you feel like you don’t have relevant prior experience, you may just need to dig a little deeper. Legal internships aren’t the only valuable experience! What are the highest-level tasks that you performed for each experience, and which tasks transfer well to the legal world?

For example, if you worked in a call center as a customer service representative, you might highlight your client interaction, problem-solving, professional writing (think emails with customers and superiors), and sales skills, leaving out “answered phones.” Listing the obvious, mundane, or mediocre tasks detracts from the interesting, excellent, and relevant ones.

Most likely, there will always be something relevant in even the most seemingly unrelated lines of work. As far as legal-related skills and tasks to emphasize, consider skills like writing, research, presentations, client contact, collaboration, decision-making, leadership or management, advocacy, policy, compliance, and contracts. Other skills that aren’t necessarily specific to law but are still valuable are business and financial acumen, marketing, business development, dedication, work ethic, people-oriented tasks, language and technical skills, and industry experience.

9. Avoid Fluff: Concrete examples are the way to go when writing a legal resume. Simply tell them what you did and document your achievements without the fluff. This means avoiding adjectives and adverbs, and not making something sound more important than it is. For example, rather than saying, “expertly created a website,” simply say “created a website.” Let the skill or task speak for itself, and whoever is reading your resume will see its value and relevance.

Leave out words like “very.” As the writer Florence King said, “‘Very’ is the most useless word in the English language and can always come out. More than useless, it is treacherous because it invariably weakens what it is intended to strengthen.” This same logic applies to most adverbs; best to leave them out. Almost always, if you chose a strong enough active verb, it will need no padding, is more succinct, and will have a greater impact.

It is also worth noting that summaries and skill sections are generally considered to be fluff in a legal resume, so showcasing rich work experience is the goal. However, summaries and skill sections, along with many of the more trendy aspects of resume creation, tend to be more acceptable on a JD Advantage resume where you are applying for a non-lawyer job that will use your legal skills.

10. Proofread: This cannot be emphasized enough. No matter how qualified you are, if there are typos in your resume, that’s an immediate “no” for recruiters. Spelling and grammar errors are so easy to miss when you’ve been working on your resume for a while; you likely won’t notice them on your own if you’ve been tinkering away at it. A tip to catch some typos is to read your clauses backwards—this is a strategy that will cause typos to stand out much more clearly. Take a break from looking at it for a few hours or overnight, and then go back to it and see what you notice. Be sure to repeat these steps every time you add new content to your resume, too. Once you feel like your resume is done, get a second or third pair of eyes on it.

Now, more than ever, it is important to give your resume the time and attention it deserves. Use these tips to really get at the core of what your story is and how your unique experiences help you shine in this job market.  

by Devra Sigle Hermosilla, Assistant Dean of Career & Professional Development,
and Jessica Peterson, Career Services Graduate Assistant