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Dos and Don’ts of Résumé Writing for Legal Pros

A résumé is not a “one size fits all” proposition. For instance, the terms and formatting that may resonate in one industry do not necessarily work in all industries. Learn the dos and don’ts of résumé writing for the legal profession to enhance your career development.

Don’t use an “objective” section. Your objective is, after all, to get the job. Make better use of that white space by beefing up the skills and qualifications in the main section of your résumé. That’s what will ultimately set you apart from other candidates applying for the position.

Don’t fuss over fonts. Despite what you may have heard, there is no general rule on the appropriate font for a résumé. Any commonly recognized business-style font (such as Arial, Verdana, or Times New Roman) using a 10- or 12-point setting is acceptable unless the employer gives instructions otherwise.

Don’t exceed one page in length—that is, unless you’re a senior-level candidate. Although page length conventions have eased in recent years, most employers do not expect to see multi-page résumés from junior-level candidates. So unless you’ve founded and sold a few companies by the age of 25 or so (and the experience gained in doing so is relevant to the job you’re seeking), hold off on increasing the size of your résumé with every accomplishment you’ve earned since year one. If you must use more than one page, then make sure your best credentials or career highlights appear on the first page.

Don’t use a childish email address. Although hunnybunny007 may have enormous significance to you and your loved ones, do not under any circumstances use such an appellation as your calling card. Similarly, avoid using baby Jake’s cooing and gurgling as a backdrop on your answering machine message or else provide a different phone number for callbacks.

Don’t use the same résumé for different career tracks. Suppose, for instance, you are a highly-skilled paralegal with training in both general corporate housekeeping matters and commercial real estate. Along comes an ad seeking a paralegal with substantial experience in commercial real estate matters. Your current résumé speaks to both your experience in corporate and in real estate transactions. Should you use your current résumé? No. Revise it to relate solely to the experience you’ve gained in the employer’s area of interest. Chances are, you’ve left out some of your qualifications in each area of expertise to squeeze both sets of skills into one document. Now is your opportunity to dig deep into your experiences in commercial real estate and make those qualifications shine all the way through.

Don’t put extraneous information on your résumé. Of course, you’ll provide references if requested to do so. So don’t state it on your résumé. And observe the same rule for personal information such as hobbies, religion, political affiliation or vital statistics.

Don’t put salary history or requirements on your résumé.  One notable exception relates to applications for government employment (e.g., Form OF 612), in which event this information is required. Of course, at times employers will request salary requirements or histories on a résumé. If that is the case, you can choose to comply or else mention a ballpark salary range for the desired position in your cover letter (or an average history over the past three years) with a suggestion that your requirements are negotiable.

Don’t copy an employer’s job description into your résumé without support. Sure, it may seem like a no-brainer to copy your prospective employer’s keyword-rich advertisement (more on keywords later) into your résumé to show what a perfect fit you are for the job. However, if you can’t back up those five or six sentences (or bullet points) of superb qualifications with representative experience, your résumé will be heading for the trash bin. You must be able to match your own personal qualifications and experiences, point by point, with the requirements in the advertisement.

Don’t write in the passive voice. Remember what your 9th grade English teacher taught you about the passive voice in exposition? You guessed it—don’t use it. Your résumé is your marketing tool, your branding statement. Therefore, pack it with powerful, action-packed verbs that define your superior skills.  Using our commercial real estate example given above, consider the difference between “responsible for title review” and “analyze title and surveys and report thereon in large dollar, complex commercial real estate transactions.” Which statement better relays the value you bring to the table?

Don’t lie. Increasingly, employers are retaining background investigation companies to check the data provided by applicants. Any misstep, however insignificant you think it to be, can cost you an interview or could be grounds for termination should you secure the job. In some cases, lying on a résumé or an application could result in criminal prosecution. Consider Washington State, for instance, where embellishment of academic credentials for job-seeking purposes is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and up to $5,000 in fines.

Do take stock of your experiences and accomplishments and understand how they relate to the position being advertised. To succeed in getting an interview, you must be able to “connect the dots” and show the prospective employer how your unique promise of value relates to the qualifications being advertised. Get into the habit of journaling your accomplishments on a weekly (or even daily) basis so that you don’t overlook any milestones in recapping your career history.

Do give your electronic résumé an extension that includes something to identify you. More and more résumés are transmitted electronically. Don’t let anonymity impair your ability to stand out. How many résumés have you named “résumé.doc (O1, 02)”? Let your identity shine in your transmission. Get into the habit of naming your résumés more clearly, like “Larry Jones résumé corp atty Dewey firm.doc.” Add the calendar year for even more organization and clarity. You'll be more visible to your prospective employer by displaying your organizational skills—a desirable trait for any job.

Do use keyword-rich text. With the advent of electronic transmission of résumés comes scanning software that helps recruiters screen résumés for keywords used in their advertisements. Optimize your résumé for those scanners, human or otherwise, by saturating your document with as many of the keywords in the ad as possible, supported by your achievements. The increasing use of keyword scanning is one reason why generic résumés don’t work in getting you in the door.

Do use sections that are clearly labeled. You have about 20 seconds to make a good impression. Make sure that your education is clearly separable from your work experience and that each work experience is distinguishable from another. Use bold typeface to signal a change in employers, for instance. Another option is to center each section heading (work experience, education, professional affiliations) for easy reading.

Do quantify achievements with numbers or percentages where appropriate. Which sounds more impressive: “experience working in fast-paced environments” or “conducted 360+ real estate closings in previous 12-month period”?

Do choose the correct résumé format. For most candidates, a chronological format (listing the most recent employer first) is the appropriate choice. In the event of a long absence from the workforce, a functional (skill-based) résumé might be more appropriate although recruiters tend to view them warily. Another alternative is a combination of the two formats, leading with career highlights or a skills summary followed by a traditional work history. This alternative may be particularly effective for those changing practice areas or making other leaps such as from practice to administration.

Do email your résumé to yourself or to a friend to check for formatting issues. Have you ever wondered what your document looks like when the recipient clicks on it? Make sure your documentation doesn’t offer any unwelcome surprises that are easily fixed beforehand.

Do use bullets to emphasize key points. Don’t let major accomplishments or high-volume deals go unnoticed in a sea of prose. Highlight your representative experience with bullet points or other symbols, ideally tying each experience to a qualification in the employer’s advertisement. However, be sure not to overuse this feature.

Do list relevant professional affiliations, activities and publication credits. The key here is relevancy. Your leadership position in the International Guild of Knot Tyers is not all that likely to impress an employer (unless, of course, your résumé gets in the hands of someone sharing your affinity!). Obviously, any professional affiliations (especially leadership positions), speaking activities and publishing within your area of expertise or relevant to the area in which you’re applying should be noted. You can elaborate on these activities further in your cover letter.

Do proofread your résumé. Proofreading a résumé is essential in any occupation and especially so in a detail-oriented profession such as law. Don’t let careless errors torpedo your job opportunities. Pay special attention to verb tense and the interplay between dates and activities. For instance, if you speak in public frequently and list your speaking engagements in terms of “speaker” for past engagements and “engaged to speak” for future engagements, be sure to adjust the terms accordingly once the event has taken place.  Again, attention to detail is paramount, a practice you should illustrate painstakingly from the first contact with an employer.

Keep this list of dos and don’ts in mind the next time choice or circumstance has you updating your résumé.

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