While many aspects of the practice of law have changed and modernized, if you are submitting an application for a job, which is now likely posted online, you will still be asked to submit a resume and a cover letter. While you should utilize networking for the vast majority of your search efforts, even if you get a direct referral to a job, it is likely that you will be asked to submit these documents. Unfortunately, the vast majority of attorney resumes, and to some extent cover letters, are poorly designed, written and laid out. Because I have spent a significant amount of time in my career coaching attorneys who are job hunting, and have also assisted employers by screening candidates and reading resumes, I have looked at thousands of lawyer resumes and cover letters. Here are some suggestions about improving the likelihood of garnering an interview by presenting the best documents that you can.
While it would be simplest to write one generic resume and use it for all of your job applications, this is a mistake—but fortunately, it’s easy to correct. Remember that once a job is advertised, it is open to all comers. The employer should have taken the time to write a relatively detailed job description. If you submit a generic resume that fails to address the specified needs of the employer, you will not get an interview. If you think that you can address any possible shortfalls in your cover letter, understand that it is likely that the employer will never read your letter. Most letters are read after a quick perusal of your resume to determine if you have met the basic requirements of the job.
Using the employer’s language is wise, but even more highly suggested if you are applying to a large employer that may use software to search your resume for keywords. Better yet, write a unique summary at the top of your resume, after your name, that highlights how you meet the employer’s ask. A summary will give you the opportunity to demonstrate to the employer that you read the job description, and you are responding in three or four sentences how you meet or mirror the job requirements. It also gives you a chance to show how you want the prospective employer to read the rest of your experience.
Never forget the purpose of this individually targeted resume. You are submitting it because you want to secure an interview and a subsequent job offer. Consider aspects of this to be like playing musical chairs. You do not want to write anything that could limit you from consideration or from a job interview. While it is more time-consuming, it signals that you are not applying for every job that you encounter, but instead are targeting your efforts to match this employer’s specific need. If you are also working through an inside contact, submit your resume to them in advance of your formal submission. They can give you good feedback on whether or not you are hitting the mark.
Form and Function
Most resumes today are read online. Retire Times New Roman as a resume font. Microsoft did so as their default a number of years ago and replaced it with Calibri. You are not reading or writing a brief. Sans-serif fonts are used almost exclusively in online design. Why? Because they are easier to read on-screen. Serif fonts are helpful for reading books when eye fatigue can be a problem. Online, serifs cause eye fatigue and have a tendency to look old-fashioned. Sans-serif fonts like Calibri, Ariel, Verdana, Trebuchet, and Helvetica can all offer better online readability for resumes.
- Save all caps for differentiating categories like Experience or Education. Writing your name in all caps at the top of your resume in 22 point font is the equivalent of shouting and not something that you do on a daily basis. It will not make you more noticeable in a good way.
- Dismiss the one-page rule. When queried, most people will say that they were “told” that their resume had to be one page, but can rarely remember by whom. This is an artifact of the 1980s when people blindly sent 500 one-page resumes to the Fortune 500. Now that we scroll on screens, most people will continue to the second page without a blink. If you have had more than a year of work experience and additional activities, your resume will probably need to be longer than one page. Three is pushing it.
- You don’t have to say “email” or “phone” in your heading. Just include the address and the number. We get it.
- Do not write large blocks of text, particularly starting with “I.” Write past-tense third-person bullet-pointed statements that are easy to understand, and focus on the size, scope, numbers, and outcome of your activities. Avoid the passive voice. You want to appear active.
- A resume is not a litany of every task that you have ever performed. If you don’t ever want to do something again, don’t include it on your resume.
- Include non-legal work experience, particularly if it was full time. Many employers are interested in people who have worked between college and law school. It demonstrates real-world experience, indicates that going to law school was something more than a default decision, and may demonstrate your ability to relate to clients.
- Don’t separate Experience into Legal and Non-Legal. It’s all experience. And two headings take up more space.
- Unless you are fewer than three years out of law school, list Experience before Education. Employers are interested in your education, but more so in how you meet their job requirements. And yes, even if you are 20 years out of law school, if you had a high-class rank you may want to list it. If it isn’t positive you can skip it.
- It’s probably wise to include seemingly esoteric skills. If you are particularly adept at technology, indicate this in a Skills section. The same goes for foreign languages or any other areas of mastery that you believe will enhance your competitiveness, or that speak to your commitment to experience enhancements or work product.
- I recommend a brief mention of Interests and/or Community Service. These additions offer a bit of insight into who you are as a person outside of work, and offer the possibility of business development or community engagement.
Cover Letters—It’s All About Them
Remember that both of these documents are your first writing sample to a prospective employer, even if you are also required to send a legal writing sample. Your cover letter is the first opportunity to present a persuasive argument on your own behalf. Please do not start it with a lead sentence that says, “My name is XXXXX.” It makes sense to reference the position, but use the lead as an opportunity to offer a thesis statement on why you would be a great fit for the employer, and why you possess the skills and experience necessary to make a substantial contribution.
While I am asked all of the time for templates or examples or cover letters, I frequently politely decline. This is your chance to present the way in which you write, and in this instance on your own behalf. Many job applicants make the near-fatal error of using their cover letter to tell the potential employer why the job will be a great addition to their work portfolio. Big mistake. While you are, of course, applying because you are interested in getting this particular experience, the only thing that matters to an employer is how your background and experience will benefit them. Don’t make them guess, tell them.
Before hitting submit, make sure that your documents are 100% error-free. This is not always easy, as we often autocorrect our own mistakes. While this may be wasting paper, consider printing your documents and reading them in hand before sending. Better yet, ask a friend or colleague to read them for content, meaning, clarity and accuracy. Nothing is more painful than submitting an application for your dream job in a field that requires precision, only to discover later that you have made a typographical or grammatical error.
Waiting to hear from a prospective employer is frustrating. Processes often move considerably more slowly than any eager candidate would like. Try not to absorb the slowness of the process as a likely rejection, as it can undermine your energy and your self-esteem. Understand that unfortunately, circumstances outside of your control frequently have an impact on the process. If you have an inside contact at the employer, you may want to contact them after a reasonable length of time has passed for an update. You have put the time and commitment into the process to put your best candidacy forward. The rest of this part of the process is outside of your control. The interview is your next opportunity to prove yourself as the best person for the job.
About the Author
Wendy L. Werner, principal of Werner Associates LLC, is a career and executive coach and law practice management consultant. She was the chair of the ABA Law Practice Division’s Law Career Paths Task Force and is the co-chair of LP’s Book Publishing Board. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.