As a legal recruiter, I review numerous résumés each week in an effort to assist my candidates with the substance and presentation of their one-page life summaries. Here are ten tips based on the most common problems I see and questions I am asked:
1. Assume no one will read your résumé word-for-word. Picture your interviewer pulling your résumé off the printer and reading only what he can in the time it takes to walk back to his office. You need to make the most important stuff jump off the page. Use bold. Use bullet points. Use headings. Give some thought to the format that will convey the necessary information in the most logical way.
2. Be concise and make every word count. This is related to Tip #1. You want the most important stuff to jump off the page, but every word on your résumé should serve the purpose of showing that you are the best candidate for the specific job. It’s just one page.
3. Tailor your résumé to the specific job. Keep in the forefront of your mind that you are applying for a legal job. Do not view “updating” your résumé as merely adding to the same document you first created 20 years ago. Delete information that is no longer relevant — remember, every last word should serve the purpose of getting you this job. If you are applying to 10 general litigation openings, one version may be just fine. But if you are applying to some general litigation spots and some patent litigation spots, you may want to have two versions of your résumé, with each tailored to the specific opening or category of opening.
4. Be sure you can talk intelligently about every last thing you include on your résumé. If you can no longer remember the main argument of your senior thesis from college, delete it from your résumé or refresh your memory before any interviews. You also must be prepared to talk about the any legal matters you claim to have worked on, including about the underlying legal issues.
5. When describing your legal experience, give concrete examples. Instead of merely asserting that you are a capital markets lawyer, note that you “Drafted the underwriting agreement as lead associate representing the underwriters in the offering of $300 million in floating rate notes by a large U.S. manufacturing company.” Even if you have a separate representative matters sheet, it may be helpful to include a few bullets points showing this experience in your actual résumé as well. And remember from Tip #2, every word counts. Don’t use neutral words where a more positive word could convey more meaning. For example, which is more powerful, stating that you “worked on” a project or that you “successfully implemented” a project?
6. Be sure all information is up-to-date. If you are no longer on a committee, delete it from your résumé or indicate the proper dates. Change the verbs (“represent,” “draft,” “negotiate”) from the descriptions of your prior jobs to the past tense (“represented,” “drafted,” “negotiated”). No longer fluent in French? Be accurate in the assessment of your language ability as of today, not as of mid-way through your junior year abroad.
7. Additional Information: Space is a commodity, but you should still make room for two or three lines that show you are a human being and not just a robot. Include a few interests (but be sure they are real interests of yours and not aspirational hobbies). Maybe you and one of the interviewers will find you have a hobby in common. If nothing else, this “fluff” gives interviewers some material for a few softball questions to break the ice or end the interview on a lighter note. Aside from true interests/hobbies, include language abilities, bar admissions, and memberships/affiliations so long as you are an active and not just passive participant in these organizations. Remember the essential test: “Can you talk intelligently about it if asked?” If someone asks about your membership in an alumni network, will you state proudly that you assisted in raising $500,000 in alumni contributions for a scholarship fund or will you cower in your chair and confess that you are on the e-mail list for the committee but have yet to attend a meeting?
8. Education first or work experience first? This is a common question. Remember Tip #1 — you want the most important stuff to jump off the page. So if you went to a top law school, you may want to list education first. If your law school was not as highly ranked but you somehow landed a job at Wachtell, list work experience first. In the case of a tie, I’d go with work experience first.
9. The squint test: It seems a bit unsophisticated but it works. Tape your résumé to a wall about 10 feet away or just hold it far out in front of you and squint. Does the balance of black and white on the page make your eyes happy? Is there much too much dense text? Or way too much white space? If you’ve ever strung lights on a Christmas tree, it’s the same principle. Squint and then follow your instincts.
10. Proofread your résumé carefully. Then proofread it again. Then ask a friend to proofread it. And another friend. And your legal recruiter. Then proofread it again. Nothing screams “Don’t hire me!” like a glaring typo or spelling mistake.
10½. Here’s a freebie. It’s not the most important tip unless… well if it is, you know who you are. You know that photo of you in the Bahamas in your bikini? Shirtless? You remember how you uploaded it to your Google profile? And now you list your Gmail address on your résumé? Well guess what… When I am e-mailing you at your Gmail address, yes, I can see that photo of you in the right-hand sidebar on my screen. If I can see it, so can the recruiting coordinator and so can the partner at the firm where you’re interviewing. Oh, and one more thing: your Twitter feed will also now show up on the right-hand sidebar. I’m not asking you to stop using social media. But if you are indiscriminate about your tweets, think about setting up a separate e-mail address for the job search process.
There is not just one right way of designing a résumé. But there are wrong ways. Look at models but don’t just copy someone else’s. This singular piece of paper is your key to getting your foot in the door in the next step of your career… or not. It’s worth spending a few extra hours getting it right.