Practice Pointers – Drafting an Effective Resume

Let’s get right to it. For most, resume writing isn’t the sexiest of drafting tasks. But it’s a necessary one. And in what’s become a rapidly tighter job market, you know it’s better to go ahead and tackle that dreaded task now.

As Eminem wisely wrote:


If you had

One shot

Or one opportunity

To seize everything you ever wanted

Would you capture it

Or just let it slip?

Pretty sure he wasn’t talking about resume writing, but he might as well have been.

Your resume is your first impression, your one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted (out of your legal career). And you want to capture it.

So let’s talk about how to do that.

As a legal recruiter, I regularly review resumes, and I’ve noticed a pattern: Most early career attorneys add on to the template they used when putting together their resume for OCI. Maybe they switch up the Education and Experience sections if they’re far enough out of law school. Otherwise, their resumes tend to be formulaic and read as more of a job description than a marketing document. And that’s exactly what your resume is – a marketing document.

That means most lawyers are letting that one shot, one opportunity, slip.

To correct course, here’s a list of suggestions I’ve put together from my perspective as a recruiter. I’ve also enlisted the help of lawyer turned expert legal resume writer Judy Monaco of Monaco Writing, who kindly provided additional suggestions. Her thoughts appear in the bolded italics below.

  • SHOW IMPACT – Listing your various job tasks won’t cut it. Remember that your resume is a marketing document. Employers want to know why they should hire you instead of someone else so show them. Start with the accomplishments most relevant to the position you’re applying for. List the number of motions you’ve written and/or depositions you’ve taken. Note successful case outcomes.

Judy added that you could also include the size and complexity of the cases you worked on, any leadership role you held (e.g., lead associate on the case), and any commendations you received (e.g., consistently commended for providing timely work product; praised for significantly contributing to win).

  • GET SPECIFIC – Add details to provide context and show impact. Check out the difference between these two resume entries:
  1. “Drafted various motions and briefs.”
  2. “Drafted dispositive motions, including successful motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, as well as discovery and substantive motions in matters involving complex contractual disputes.”

The second is more effective because it tells us the types of motions written and provides helpful context. It comes off more confident and capable, and therefore, interview worthy.

A related tip – Consider describing a couple of representative matters within the body of your resume. I know transactional attorneys generally include a deal sheet with their resumes, but up your chance of someone checking out your deal sheet by previewing it directly in your resume.

Likewise, for litigators, highlight your representative matters in your resume. You might also want to consider putting together a supplemental representative matters list if your practice spans several industries and/or you’ve been practicing for a few years.

  • TAILOR YOUR RESUME TO THE JOB – Remember, this is your one shot. Focus on what you've done that would resonate the most with the employer. Let’s say you're a bankruptcy associate and want to move into a general commercial litigation position. Your resume should highlight the litigation skills you've gained as bankruptcy associate – e.g., drafting pleadings, managing discovery, etc. Ask yourself what transferrable skills you’ve gained that would help you excel at the job you’re going for. Leave out irrelevant information and use job-specific keywords where appropriate.

Judy noted that most resumes read as “hi, I went to law school and now a need a job.” She suggested that lawyers speak to their strengths and be sure they’re targeting the job they want. The most problematic resumes are those in which nothing stands out as making the candidate special and where there’s no clear target. 

  • EMBRACE BREVITY – Your resume should be scannable. It should also reflect your ability to distill information and get to the salient points. Be specific but brief. Make white space and bullet points your friends. Eliminate unnecessary articles (i.e., “a,” “an,” “the”). Stick to one or two pages.

Judy advised that lawyers include a Career Profile section to summarize their best qualifications (hard and soft skills) and list core competencies to help their resume get through Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) and capture the eye of the reader. Check out her website for well-executed sample Career Profile sections.

  • PROOFREAD – Yes, we all know that typos are a no-go, especially in resumes. That said, you wouldn’t believe how many typos I’ve caught in candidate resumes. Take the time to proofread carefully (try to do so a couple of days apart so you’re looking at your resume with a literal fresh pair of eyes) and ask someone you trust to do the same. And make sure your formatting is effective. Check that you’ve used headers and bolded/italicized words purposefully.
  • REMEMBER THE GOAL – Recruiters and hiring managers want to know if you can do the job and do so effectively. Do you have the requisite experience to come in and hit the ground running or at least get up to speed quickly? Show them you do. As you write and edit, ask yourself what questions you’d have if hiring someone for the role. Answer those initial questions to increase your chance of securing an interview.

Judy’s advice on this point was gold: Know your strengths and play them up. Maybe you didn’t graduate in the top 10% of an Ivy League law school, but what are you most proud of? Did you put yourself through law school at night while working full time? Play up your strengths in a proud, confident manner.

Now go on and lose yourself in your resume, this opportunity… yeah, that doesn’t work. But the tips above do.

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