Your resume is your advertisement, so it must make an impact. It usually is the first impression you make on a potential employer. Its job is to sell you, and get you that interview. Your resume must be written with the intended audience and its purpose in mind. The cardinal rule in resume writing is to tell the truth and not exaggerate. That said, you must strive to present the evidence in the best possible light. The following are some frequently asked questions regarding how to write a resume that sells.
HOW LONG SHOULD MY RESUME BE?
Ideally, it should be no longer than one page. If, after judicious pruning, it extends to two pages, that is acceptable. In attempting to conform to this space requirement, do not shrink the font to the point that it is difficult to read, (we recommend at least 11, preferably 12 points) nor fill every available space with print. Make it easy to read, with plenty of white space that is easy on the eyes (especially those of forty-something-plus hiring partners!). Use bullets and bolding to highlight important information. It is OK to use sentence fragments. Resumes generally get an initial glance of less than 30 seconds. Therefore, your most important information must be easily found and read within that time.
If there is further information that you believe would be crucial to the decision-maker in determining whether to grant you an interview, you may want to include it in your cover letter, or you might consider an addendum. This addendum might be a deal sheet listing representative matters handled, published decisions, or speeches and publications which are absolutely relevant to the position you are seeking.
WHAT BELONGS ON MY RESUME?
At minimum, your resume should contain your education (schools attended and dates, degrees earned and undergraduate and graduate major(s), your GPA or class standing, and any relevant honors and activities), your work history (firm or company names and city, dates of employment, title, duties and/or accomplishments), your Bar admissions with dates, and, of course, your name, address, phone numbers, and e-mail address, if you have one. Relevant skills, such as computer expertise and language ability should be included. Finally, every word on your resume must be perfect. Have two persons, other than yourself, proofread it for any errors Spell Check may have missed. Interviews have been denied because of a single typo.
WHAT DOESN’T BELONG ON MY RESUME?
Your photograph, age, height, weight, marital status, number of children, sexual orientation, condition of your health, race, or religion absolutely do not belong on your resume. It is illegal for a prospective employer to inquire about these matters, and they are irrelevant to your ability to do the job. On the other hand, if you have received honors or been involved in groups or organizations that have titles which reveal this information, (e.g., Black Women Lawyers, United Jewish Fund, etc.) and you believe those activities are relevant to the job or demonstrates your leadership ability or other skill that would increase your chances of landing an interview, go ahead and list that activity. A list of hobbies or interests can provide an icebreaker to get an interview started, but should be omitted if the space could be better utilized. Do not waste precious space on the statement, “References available upon request”. That should go without saying; if not, you have a problem!
DO I REALLY HAVE TO INCLUDE MY GRADES?
Yes, include grade information for your JD and LL.M. program (if any) especially for candidates five or fewer years out of law school. The absence of a GPA or class standing often leads the potential employer to conclude that you did poorly. If you did, indeed, earn poor grades, you may omit them. But know that you are not fooling anyone, merely not stating the obvious. Do not list your LSAT score; that is past history and only indicates that you are a good standardized test-taker. Furthermore, it is unnecessary to list specific courses taken in law school, unless you are targeting a specialized area such as tax or IP and excelled in directly relevant courses. Actually, most employers want to see transcripts. Therefore, you may want to save precious resume space for other information.
WHICH HONORS AND ACTIVITIES SHOULD I LIST?
The simple answer is to list those that are relevant to the job and/or the potential employer’s decision to grant you an interview. Absolutely list academic honors such as summa cum laude, magna cum laude, cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Order of the Coif, and similar distinctions. Remember to italicize or underline Latin phrases. Also list any law journal memberships, editorial positions, and publications, as well as any honors earned in Moot Court. Mere participation in Moot Court should not take up precious resume space if it was a requirement for all students at your law school. Do not put Dean’s List on your resume. If that is your only academic distinction, it is not sufficiently impressive by itself. If it is not your only academic achievement, it is redundant. If you list honors or activities that are not self-explanatory, also include a description consisting of just a few words.
A long list of activities and memberships does not enhance a resume. Rather, it may give the impression that you are a joiner but not a doer. It is much better to select activities that bear directly on your desired career goal or would provide a fertile source of potential clients. Holding office or committee positions in organizations demonstrates leadership and “can-do” skills, as well as providing you with visibility in the community for business development purposes. Therefore, choose to spend both your limited time and resume space wisely.
HOW DO I DESCRIBE MY SUMMER ASSOCIATE AND INTERN/EXTERNSHIP POSITIONS?
While you are an associate, these positions should be included on your resume, but should come off your resume as you gain more experience in practice. Employers understand what most of these positions entail, so do not waste space in detailed descriptions. If you did something extraordinary, by all means mention it succinctly. Otherwise, just state the practice areas or department to which you were assigned. It is very important, however, to note whether an offer of permanent employment was extended at the end of your summer.
WHAT INFORMATION SHOULD BE INCLUDED ABOUT MY PAST EMPLOYERS?
If your work experience has been for well-known national law firms or corporations, very little additional information, beyond the name of the firm, the city where you worked, and the department to which you were assigned, is necessary. If, however, you worked for a lesser-known employer, an additional short tag-line would be helpful to potential employers, e.g., “20-attorney labor and employment firm”, or “second-largest manufacturer of widgets in the Western United States”. Job descriptions should be pithy but complete.
SHOULD I LIST NON-LEGAL EMPLOYMENT?
If you have had a meaningful career before entering the legal profession, or have taken significant time off from the practice to pursue other work, or have non-legal experience in a field related to your chosen area of practice such as intellectual property, by all means list that along with a brief description of your duties and accomplishments. On the other hand, employers are not interested in all the odd jobs you did in order to put yourself through school or while deciding what to do when you grew up. Keep in mind the position you are seeking, and provide information that would relate to your ability to perform in that capacity.
IN WHAT ORDER DO I LIST INFORMATION?
This depends on your strongest selling point. Put the most attractive or relevant information first. For junior attorneys, education, with relevant honors and activities, is listed at the top, followed by work experience, then admissions and bar, professional, and community activities. The reverse is true for more experienced attorneys who should have stronger expertise to sell. The general rule is that, within each of these categories, jobs or degrees should be listed in reverse chronological order starting with the most recent. In cases where you have held a number of positions, you might want to lead off with a summary of your expertise, then simply list the specific positions held. Or, if you have moved back and forth within different disciplines, such as between private practice, teaching, and government service, it might be clearer to list the specifics under separate subheadings.
MUST I LIST DATES?
Yes, for each of your degrees, jobs, and bar admissions, include dates, and make them clearly visible. You cannot completely hide your seniority, or lack of it, from an experienced resume reader. Omitting dates merely serves to frustrate the reader while they guess your level of experience. A missing college graduation date may lead a prospective employer to conclude that you are near retirement. If you have a break in your work history, explain it in your cover letter or with a brief statement on your resume (e.g., 1990-1995: Full time parent); do not try to disguise it by leaving out dates. You want your strengths, not an unexplained gap, to be the focus of a prospective employer’s attention.
Many books and articles have been written about the art of effective resume writing. The above FAQ’s are just a quick overview of some of the most crucial points. The specifics depend upon your background and the position you are seeking. As long as you keep your target audience and purpose in mind, and stick to these basic rules, you will produce a resume that has the potential sell you well.