Top 10 Questions about Legal Resumes from Junior Attorneys and Law Students
Here are my answers to the 10 most common questions from new attorneys and law school students that I’ve received over the years I’ve been a career strategist and resume writer for lawyers.
1. Why is my resume important?
Your resume isn’t just important. It’s critical.
In our social media age, there has been a lot of talk about resumes being old fashioned and unnecessary. But it’s simply not true.
Social media as a job search platform replacing the resume is still cutting edge. It’s happening in some cutting edge industries or industries like social media marketing, where demonstrated social media skills are a technical job requirement.
But law is a conservative industry. Lawyers and law firms tend to be late adopters of technology and trends. And many legal employers are small organizations—like sole practitioners, small firms, local government, and smaller nonprofits—that are also late adopters of technology and trends. They don’t have electronic applicant tracking systems (ATS) or online applications for you to fill out on their websites. Those employers will need you to email—or snail mail—a formal resume. And lawyers aren’t generally hired for social skills; they’re hired for technical legal skills, solid judgment, and experience—all of which are better demonstrated through a formal, legal resume than other means.
All of this means that resumes are going to remain a critical part of the hiring process for attorneys for a long time.
The process of creating your resume is just as critical as the document itself. The process forces you to think about your candidacy from the perspective of an employer. What are your strengths? Weak spots? What do you offer? How do you present these hard and soft skills in a way that’s attractive to employers?
That process helps you identify your value, what you bring to the table, what you learned from experiences, and why those experiences help your next employer. And that process will not only yield a strong resume, but also make you better at interviewing, self-marketing, networking, or otherwise communicating about yourself, as well as help you decide what types of employers and positions you should consider pursuing.
2. How should I format my legal resume?
Because of the technical nature and conservative esthetic of the legal industry, legal resumes can look different from resumes in other industries.
You want to aim for a modern, clean look that’s reader-friendly, ATS-friendly, and consistent with aesthetic sensibilities in legal world. Generally, use a simple font like Times New Roman, Palatino, or Garamond, at a readable size like 11 or 12 points. Stick to simple bullets, headers, and borders, with selective use of effects and emphasis. Use margins between 0.7 and 1- inch. When possible, keep plenty of white space.
Don’t forget to proofread all your content, including your contact information! That’s where many people forget to proofread; they never think they’d have a typo in their phone number or email address, so they don’t check it carefully. You’d be amazed how many people have typos in their contact information, or even misspell their own names!
3. How long should my legal resume be?
I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage that a resume “must” be only one page.
That’s just not true.
When hiring professionals talk about a resume being “too long,” they often aren’t talking about the absolute length of the resume. For many hiring attorneys, what’s bothersome isn’t so much the absolute length of the resume; what’s bothersome is that the resume is longer than it should be. It looks unfocused, contains irrelevant information, or otherwise doesn’t meet their needs. The resume is “too long” because it contains information that shouldn’t be there, forcing the reader to either slog through, or put the document down.
A better rule is that your legal resume needs to be focused, concise, and targets toward your particular audience—employers—and the needs of that audience. Within those limitations, the resume should be as long as it needs to be to tell your story and strengths. No shorter, no longer. If you resume is compelling and contains properly organized, relevant information, then most hiring professionals will read it—well past the first page.
So a general counsel or other high-level lawyer might have a two or three page resume, plus resume addenda for task forces, representative litigation or deals, publications, presentations, awards, and so on. Attorneys involved in policy, politics, legislative advocacy, government relations, or academia also tend to have longer resumes. Attorneys with multiple degrees, lots of professional and community leadership, special skills, second careers or other worthwhile inclusions might also find themselves at two pages. And some employers, like some federal government agencies, prefer or require a longer format resume that can easily reach three to seven pages!
That said, for most law school students, a one-page legal resume is the appropriate length.
The bottom line is if the information supports and strengths your candidacy, then leave it on. If it doesn’t, then take off.
As a side note, I’ll add that you should try to round down your page length. If your resume is just over one page, then try to round it down. Try not to submit a resume where the last page is mostly blank. It ends up looking a bit odd, and the reader will naturally wonder why you didn’t edit the document down to fit. It might not seem fair, but “one page and a dribble onto a second page” can set up perceptual issues.
4. How do I write an effective experience section for my legal resume?
There are tons of things to consider!
Here are the basics. Start by thinking about the position you’re applying for, the employer, and the employer’s industry and clientele. Think about what the employer values and wants to see in you or other job candidates. This will give you some guidance as you decide what to include on your resume and how to include it. Then consider these five principles:
Have a theme and a narrative. Your legal resume should read like a cohesive, intentional narrative, with everything on it supporting your theme/branding. To the reader, it should demonstrate logical progression, with each experience flowing smoothly and rationally into the next. Too many resumes read disjointedly, making the candidate appear to go through life haphazardly. Your resume should show you’ve progressed through your schooling and career with clear intention toward your goal—to be a great candidate to meet your target employer’s needs.
Account for lapses of time. Hiring attorneys don’t like to see gaps in time on your resume. There’s nothing “wrong” with periods of unemployment, whether due to the economy, taking care of family members, or whatever. But if you have extended gaps in employment, then employers will want to know what you did that was productive and edifying during that time.
Give a sense of scale. Working on a $50,000 real estate deal is very different from a $500 million real estate deal. A high volume litigation practice is very different a high stakes / high value litigation practice. Working for a solo practitioner is very different from working in Big Law. Giving readers a sense of scale tells them a lot about your experience.
Indicate the industries or clientele you’ve represented. The legal concerns of defense contractors are different from the legal concerns of immigrants. The compliance issues of a healthcare provider are different from the compliance issues of a financial services institution. Many employers look for experience in specific industries or with specific types of clients, so show them that you have it.
Think about what you learned. Every experience you have shapes you in some way. When you can, use language that shows how your experience makes you a better lawyer and a better fit for that employer.
5. Should I Include hobbies on my legal resume?
If your hobbies say something relevant about you, then yes. For example, if you’re applying to be in-house counsel at a sports-related employer, and you’re an athlete, then your hobby may be consistent with the employer’s mission as well as supports your claim of understanding of the employer’s core products and customers. Here’s another example: if you’re worried about ageism, but are very physically active, then including high level or competitive physical activities (like running, rock climbing, tennis, or martial arts) can help show you’re still in the game.
Hobbies taken to a very high level—international, national, statewide competitions, for example, or honors, awards, or just many years of dedication—can also prove to an employer that you’re competitive, determined, dedicated, mature, hard-working, a team player or independent, and able to take criticism and coaching. Hobbies can also just show a sense of humor, playfulness, or uniqueness. These are all character traits and “soft” qualities that employers consider.
Just be sure your hobby is office-appropriate! It should enhance your professional image or demonstrate positive personality traits, not have the reader question your judgment.
If your hobby doesn’t do any of this, then it may read as just filler to those reviewing your resume. In that case, just leave it off and use the space for something more important.
6. Should I include my GPA and/or class rank?
If you’re a current student or very recent graduate, then in most cases employers will expect to see some hard numbers about your law school performance. But not everyone has a 4.0, and not everyone can be the top student.
To start, consider why employers want to see a GPA. Most law students don’t have much hands-on experience, so GPA is one of the few objective measures they can use to compare you to other students. GPA can also be used as a proxy for how you will perform on the job.
You might soften your overall GPA or class rank by adding also the GPA for your highest semester (be very careful that you aren’t inadvertently misleading). Or by listing out the courses you did well in, which should also be the courses most relevant to that employer. Or you might include some explanation, whether explicit or implicit, in the resume. Employers will understand that someone who worked full-time or was engaged in lots of practical skills training, activities, or other leadership will likely not have has high grades as a student who “only” went to class.
But not every employer is so grades-oriented either. You might promote yourself as an on-your-feet learner who’s ready to work, with good people and time management skills—while your thinking about what you offer, also consider what sorts of employers value what you offer. Then you can focus your resume and job search primarily on those employers, rather than chasing after employers who care only about GPA.
Over time, GPA becomes less and less important. By five years after graduation, most employers won’t care much about your GPA because by then you should have substantive experience they can use to judge you. So your GPA—like other irrelevant information—will drop off to be replaced by more recent information that’s more representative of who you are now rather than who you were as a student. Though you’ll pretty much forever include if you graduated with honors or were valedictorian.
7. How do I make the “education” section stand out? Aren’t are law students and new attorneys all putting the same thing?
Yes, many law students’ education sections look alike. But they don’t have to.
Again, consider listing out the courses you performed best in (B+ or higher), especially if they’re particularly difficult (like federal tax) or relevant to your target job. Listing out coursework or areas of study can also help you build keyword or search terms into your resume.
Also consider putting your clinical experience, internships, externships, research assistantships, and other experiences under your education section. Most law students put this as a separate “Experience” section, but most employers think of these opportunities as part of a law student’s education, not as a “proper job.” In large part, this is because employers are well aware that your work and office experience as a summer clerk or intern is usually significantly different than it would be if it had been a regular, full-time job—after all, they supervise clerks or were interns themselves!
Provide explanations for any honors or awards that are particular to your school; don’t assume the person reviewing your resume knows what they are, how selective they are, or the criteria by which you were chosen.
If your major was unusual or not obviously related to your career path, you might take a line or two of your resume to explain why you chose it and how it applies to your target employer. If your school is lesser known, you might give some information about that school, its philosophy, or what it’s known for—as is authentic to your experience as well as relevant to employers, of course.
As the years go by, your school activities and classwork will usually become less relevant. You’ll drop some of that information off in order to free up valuable resume real estate for more current and important information.
8. How much work experience should I put?
Convention is to go focus on the last 20 years, or until college. You’ll almost never go back to high school days.
But like so many things in resume writing, the real answer is: it depends.
As long as the information is relevant—meaning it strengthens your candidacy—then you’ll want to think seriously about including it, even if its 25 years old. Sometimes it can be helpful to demonstrate a long-term interest, commitment to a mission, or practice area. Sometimes old information can help establish a geographic tie. And sometimes you can add information into the resume without tying it to a specific time frame, a tactic that if well executed can help you “freshen” older qualifications or experiences. (Again, be sure you’re not inadvertently misleading.)
In general, though, it’s likely your resume will have more detail about more recent positions and events, with less and less detail as you go back in time.
9. What resources can you recommend to help me maximize my legal resume?
Unfortunately, there still aren’t many resources geared toward resumes for lawyers or law students, although the situation’s improved a lot in the last five years! Major news providers like Bloomberg Law, LexisNexis, and Law.com have career information, as do many bar association websites. Law school career centers can also be very helpful—although their ability to help seems to vary widely from school to school. And of course we're building resources—including some free resources!—right here on BryceLegal.com.
Use information that’s aimed at the legal profession, and be careful when using information that’s aimed toward a general audience. Legal resumes aren’t like resumes for IT professionals or pharmaceutical sales reps, and resume advice (like achievement-based resumes) that would work great for them doesn’t always translate well into the legal world. Lawyers aren’t usually hired for their results (indeed, experience attorneys know there are times the results have little to do with the legal advice or legal work provided by the attorney). Further, lawyers have ethical rules they have to worry about that prevent them from promising or seeming to promise specific results.
As I mentioned earlier, lawyers are hired for a few things: technical expertise, solid judgment, and experience—not sales figures, or other easily quantifiable results. Legal resumes reflect this difference.
10. What do you recommend I do to make my legal resume stand out from the rest?
Know your audience. Understand what they want to see and why. Then put together a resume that is clear, compelling, and concise.