This is my favorite article on resume writing of all time. Read it from start to finish, and do not cheat yourself of the critical exercise he recommends at the end. Bust mostly, enjoy! -Katie McMahan
Resume “Don’ts” for Lawyers, Law Students, And Everyone Else Too…
Your mom read it and thinks you come across “very professionally.” Your BFF emailed you with track-change edits, and you were miffed to see that you misspelled “judgment” (contrary to the inclusive leniency of the good people at Microsoft, there really is only one “e”). Perhaps you even had your C.V.’s proverbial loose ends tied up in a 45-minute session with your law school career counselor or job-coach/life-coach/nutritionist.
You’re golden, right?
I have had the pleasure (and endured the pain) of being on both sides of the interview table, having hired and managed attorneys, post-J.D.-pre-Esq.-soon-to-be-attorneys, and administrative staff. To that end, I have been charged with enforcing some order upon the pile of resumes that inevitably amass shortly after an advertisement hits the interweb, like so many barnacles on the hull of a sunken ship.
With that in mind, I would like to air my top 10 grievances with your resume. Think of these as reverse-principals. If your resume is free from these enumerated tragedies, I will be pleased to meet with you, or at least elevate your application to the decision-maker without the augmentation of my red pen having circled offending items.
I shall attempt to avoid personal pet peeves (“Garamond font — really?!”) and instead present universally frowned-upon faux pas. This list is generally ordered from “that was easy!” to “I need to crawl… before I can walk… before I can run… to my next interview.”
#1. You Have (In)Tense Issues
If you are presently engaged in the work/experience/volunteerism, use the present tense when describing your activities. If you are not, use the past tense.
As seemingly simple as this rubric is, plenty of people flout it by:
Using present tense everywhere (it’s time to “let it go”)
Using the present participle (less offensive, but unnecessary-ing)
Using the third person (unsurprisingly, just as awkward in writing as it is spoken)
#2. You Have Internal Style Disagreement
You are the master of your own domain. But with great style comes the great responsibility of consistency. If your position titles are in bold, along with the comma that follows them: wonderful. Do it every single time.
Common carriers of potential disagreement:
Use of bold (including punctuation that is bold-adjacent); ditto italics and underlining
Whether bullet-points terminate with (or without) periods/punctuation
Hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes. Watch your monitor closely here, because word processors are doing it for themselves…
Font, or, heaven help us, fonts
Spacing: both the up-and-down and side-to-side varieties
If it’s Jan. for January, and Mar. for March, it better not be December for December
You are using abbreviations that are not known to me. This demonstrates a lack of knowledge about your audience (which, do not forget, includes not only the decision-makers, but also those who assist them in winnowing the candidate pool, which may likely include non-lawyers). This in turn demonstrates that you do not understand the job you are seeking. Examples of abbreviations in resumes I’ve looked at in the past few months include: FINRA, VAWA, DACA, SBA, OFCCP. I am not going to Google your resume, and I promise you, neither will law firm partners.
#4. You Didn’t Pack a Punch
Strong action verbs persuade, anticipate and shape. See what I did there? Never use a weak one (“worked on….”), where a strong one will serve you better (“analyzed…”). Do not simply parrot the text of your sought-after job description, but do mirror the important language. If your more menial tasks sound menial by your own writing, enhance them with a better action verb or delete them — if you’re boring, the reader is bored. Do not use the same action verb more than once per job.
#5. Your Syntax Is Non-Parallel (Not “Nonpareils” — Because Those Are Swell!)
Most legal resumes use an active verb to lead off bullet-points or descriptive sentences, followed by a noun. This is a good thing. It engages the reader by showcasing what you do (or did), and the parallel syntax sets up a pattern of expectation in the reader (“Research and write briefs…,” “Interview potential clients…,” etc.). Don’t then state: “Particularized experience with…” Stay the course, people.
#6. Your Timing Is Off
Your resume should paint an accurate picture of the time-commitment of your experiences. If you give a job-time of “2014,” it is natural for the reader to assume that the job was full-time and lasted throughout the year. Do not omit pertinent timing information about experiences that were part-time, for one season only, or are no longer something in which you actively engage. Be mindful of what the reader will assume from your “times,” and be sure that you can back them up… with reality. When I see a resume which lists three “current” positions, I do not appreciate that it is left to my imagination to try piece together what your typical work-week looks like. This kind of confusion leads to a feeling that your resume is sloppy, and worse, untrustworthy.
#7. You Are Un-Dead to Me
It is true that some hirers abhor the dreaded flora and fauna that sink to the literal bottom of the resume. Watch them shiver at “Activities,” downright cower at “Interests.” Personally, I do not mind seeing a wee bit of “life” in the candidate reflected in their resume. After all, I am trying to select an employee with whom I, or a respected colleague, will work closely for many hours of the week. Moreover, during the interview, if there’s a gap in our dialogue, and I am momentarily unsure what to ask next, I do find that my eyes tend to wander to a C.V.’s nether regions, and I may just ask you about your professed love of comedy podcasts. Bonus: I can gauge your reaction to my raising a non-corporate topic.
Having said that, be thoughtful about the inclusion of activities/interests. Cast these items not only to attract the similarly-minded, but also to demonstrate something about who you are and how you are. For example, I personally have no interest (read: active non-interest) in “running.” However, sharing that you finished the previous three New York Marathons speaks volumes about your dedication and tenacity. Consider the humble-brag.
#8. You Tripped Over the First Hurdle
While you should absolutely micro-craft your resume word by word, bullet by bullet, don’t forget that frequently your first hurdle is jumping over the 30-second scan/skim/smell test. True, it’s much easier to leapfrog this hurdle altogether by having a contact at your potential employer directly forward your resume to the decision-maker or human resources. But where that’s not a viable option, remember that some lovely soul is opening 20 PDFs every day and eyeing them for easy reasons to put them into Pile Yes or Pile No.
So, while you’re pruning the twigs and branches, don’t forget to step back and see the forest. Examine your resume globally in order to make sure its overall form is intuitive and well-designed. The simpler the better; let the text speak for you, not the format. Be sure that within 30 seconds, a novel viewer will come away with a positive feeling about you through your resume.
Hint: Remember the law schools that wouldn’t deign to look at your LSAT score? Those very same schools have rich online career development resources open to the public, with many fine examples of resume formats that you can implement.
#9. Your Resume is Too Long
There’s no cutesy turn of phrase here: your resume is just too long.
Your resume is a story — a story about how exquisitely you will shine in this position at this company.
Biopics are more or less similar in length regardless of how old their subject lived to be, or how many life experiences their subject had. Why? Because audiences have certain appetites and capacities when enjoying a story. So, too, your resume has an audience with limitations, expectations, and biases for what constitutes a good story.
Think of your resume-story as a device which is one page (star-in-the-making) or two (leading lady) in length. This device should not simply grow larger the more jobs you have held. Instead, edit the story to fit the form.
Revise, refine, reread, repeat.
#10. You Listed What You’ve Done, Without Illustrating What You Can Do
This is the most crucial and high-level concern with your resume. [Not a spoiler: It is the hardest thing to do, and in turn, the most pervasive issue for many otherwise well-written resumes].
Indeed, even if your resume is free from all of the critiques discussed here, do not lose sight of what makes your resume tick. It is, after all, a fluid and transitional document. It must aspire. It must look toward the future. It must beckon the next big thing.
Remember the perspective of your audience. Hiring managers are less concerned with what you have done at your last job, and more interested in being enticed by what you could do at your next job.
“Research” the job you want by poring over the job description or advertisement. Think about what qualities, experiences, and skills a person would need to do the job well. Talk to someone who has had that job or who manages that job and ask them about it.
An exercise: for your current job (and all of your important experiences), make a list of “what you did” in Column A. Then, in Column B, make a list of what you need to be able to do to succeed in the job you seek. Where are the connections? Where are the holes? You may be able to pair items together from Column A to demonstrate an ability in Column B, even if you do not normally think of those Column A items as the same part of your current job. What else can you add to Column A that you may not have considered a “core responsibility” of your current job, which are needed to cross the bridge to Column B? What items have you listed in Column A that were indeed tasks you performed, but are useless or redundant with respect to Column B?
The art is synthesizing what you did into what you can do. The ulterior benefits of this exercise are twofold. First, you now have a sense of how to answer key interview questions, because you have made connections across your history of “what I’ve dones” to be able to talk prudently about why you can do the next job. The second is that if you’re serious about getting to the next job, you now have a roadmap of what areas you need to beef up and improve in order to close the gap.
Gregory Binstock is an attorney at the New York City Bar Association whose work concentrates on the continuing legal education and professional development of lawyers. The views expressed herein are purely personal opinions.