Applying for Jobs: The Resume

Most large employers receive hundreds of responses to advertised positions each year, and hundreds more unsolicited resumes. Catching an employer's attention requires a professional resume -- one that is easily read, well organized, visually attractive and most importantly, free of error. The more professional the resume, the more professional you will appear.

Getting Started

Think About the Purpose of a Resume and Gathering Information

Resume writing is a sure way to induce a case of writer's block. One way to jump-start the process is to make several lists: Education, Legal Employment, Other Employment, Professional Organizations, Community Service, Special Skills, and the like. List anything you feel might fit one of these categories.

Also be sure to list any military service, publications and special skills, particularly foreign language skills. Think about what you have done in the past and how it might translate to your legal career. Since you are just brainstorming at this point, don't worry about what will actually become part of your resume.

Resume Organization

Begin by including your name, address, phone number and e-mail address at the top of the page. Use your full name, including middle initial. If you go by your middle name, use your first initial. You may tell an interviewer to use your nickname, if you want to do so. Make your name stand out by using bold font and by increasing the font size somewhat (for example, 24-point font is probably too large; 18-point font is probably as large as you should use). Make certain that the e-mail address you use is professional (school address is appropriate, but not something like lawschoolisadrag@hotmail.com -- you get the idea). Make certain that you frequently check the address.

There are two main ways to organize a resume, either chronologically or functionally. Chronological resumes are arranged in reverse date order. Functional resumes are organized topically, using different headings for different types of jobs and skills. Although the organization of a functional resume is less clear to the reader, it can be an effective format if you have experience in a particular field and are searching for a job within that field. Most law firms will expect the chronological format, and since you do not want to stand out from the crowd "in a bad way" most students should use that format.

Your resume will include two major categories: Education (law school and undergraduate) and Employment History (legal and possibly non-legal). You may also want to use other categories, including, but not limited to Professional Organizations, Community Service, Special Skills, and Publications. As a student or new graduate, you will want Education to be your first category. After you have been working as an attorney, you will want to place the Employment History first on your resume.

Finally, do not try to stand out by using colored paper or unusual fonts. You want to appear professional and lawyer-like. Use white, off-white or light cream bond paper, and a conservative font (e.g., Times New Roman). Make your resume visually interesting by varying the size of the font for headings or by using small caps or italics. For the main text, you will not want to use a font size of around 12, but certainly no smaller than 10.

Writing Job Descriptions

This is another part of writing resumes that is as fun as having your teeth cleaned. In writing your job descriptions, focus on past work accomplishments in terms of skills used or learned (e.g., researched, drafted, counseled, interviewed, analyzed). Use action words to describe these skills. CLICK HERE for a list of suggested action words. Be sure to focus on your most important accomplishments, and be as specific as possible in doing so. Obviously you will not divulge confidential information, but you can describe the types of cases you have worked on (e.g., drafted complaint in personal injury suit involving L.P. gas explosion, or analyzed 5000 pages of discovery produced by plaintiff in breach of contract lawsuit). Do not write a job description in the first person (avoid using I, me or my).

Editing Your Resume

Next, start to trim the irrelevant items. Second and third year students and graduates will likely have more to cut out than first year students. Certainly all legal work experience should be included. Depending on how much information you have to put on your resume, you may want to consider abbreviating the descriptions of non-law jobs to include the type of job and dates of employment. Keep honors and positions of leadership, but include other undergraduate activities only if relevant to the job you are applying for. Most first year students will not have the luxury of omitting non-legal employment, as most don't have any to speak of yet. In that case, include undergraduate and law school activities, published or significant papers or projects, relevant course work related to the job you are applying for, and your past work experience merely to show work ethic and responsibility.

Proofreading Your Resume

Proofread, proofread, proofread. And then proofread again. This does NOT mean just using spellcheck on your word processing program (you should do that in addition to your own proofreading!) This step is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT (As you can see, it is so important that it deserves all capital letters in red, bold, underline and italics!), but unfortunately, is frequently not done or is done too quickly. After you have proofread your resume several times, have a friend go over it for you. Then bring it by our office (it's one of the many ways in which we can assist you). Hopefully you understand what we're trying to say -- that you do not want to send out a resume with a spelling or grammatical error.

FAQ About What to Include (or Not Include) on a Resume

Q: Should I include references on my resume?
A: If you have room to include references on your first page, include them, particularly if you are a first year student without enough substantive material to fill a one-page resume. Otherwise, the recommended way to deal with references is prepare a page of names, addresses and phone numbers of three or four professional and academic references, you can either present during an interview or send with your resume. All of your identifying information (name, address, phone number, e-mail, fax, etc.) should be included at the top of the page. Obviously, if an employer requests references as a part of the application process, attach this page to your resume and send along with all other materials requested by the employer. Do not hesitate to ask your law school professors for references. They understand the job search process and expect to assist you in this way. Having a notation "References Available Upon Request" is not nearly as effective as providing them and most employers expect references, particularly with unsolicited resumes.

Q: Should I include my GPA and/or class rank on my resume?
A: No question causes more angst for most law students. There are different views on the issue. Certainly, if you are in the top half of the class, by all means, put your grades and rank on your resume. If you are below that percentage, however, the answer is maybe. Some employers may believe that your grades are lower than they actually are if they are not included on your resume. Some resume experts advise that you should always include your grades, and be ready to boost them with experience and possibly with an explanation of why they aren't up to your expectations. If you decide not to include your grades, be ready to divulge them frankly during the interview, and again, explain and boost them with experience. Another approach is to include low grades only if you can show consistent improvement in later semesters or provide strong grades in certain classes. Ultimately, the decision is yours to make. Here are some additional tips:

  1. Be consistent -- if you include your high undergraduate GPA (you got into law school -- didn't you) but not your law school GPA, it may draw attention to the fact that you have omitted your law school grades.
  2. Your transcript may look better than your overall GPA (for example, you had one really low grade that brought you down). If so, attach a copy of your transcript rather than list your GPA or rank.
  3. Some employers (usually larger firms and judges) have ranking requirements. If you choose to submit your resume to one of these employers, be prepared to divulge your grades.

Q: What kind of personal information should I include?
A: Many non-legal resumes include an "Objective" at the top of your resume. This is not necessary, as you will be stating your objective in your cover letter. Include hobbies or interests only if they are uncommon or particularly interesting. Employers will not be impressed if you list "watching television," but will probably be impressed if you list that you played semi-professional baseball or have several published short stories (as long as it's not through one of those publish-it-yourself companies, that is). Although some applicants may include information relating to age, marital status, number of children, religion or include a picture, these are not advisable in most instances. A professional resume is a factual summary of your education and experience, and should convey your interests related to the job.

Q: Where should I include volunteer work?
A: All law experience, whether paid, unpaid, or for school credit should be listed under Work Experience. Obviously, if you have a section separately entitled "Legal Experience" it will go there. Other volunteer experience can either be included with Work Experience or in a Community Service section. Use headings to best showcase your experience.

Q: Can my resume be longer than one page?
A: The question to ask yourself is "Is the information worthwhile?" A good rule of thumb is "If in doubt, leave it out." The main thing to keep in mind is that the information should be relevant to the job you are applying for. If there are only a few lines spilling over, you may be able to adjust the margins (but not down to 1/4 inch!) and font (no smaller than 10 point) to fit the information on one page. If you have too much to fit on a single page, but feel that the information is too compelling to delete, you will likely have room to include it with your references on the second page.

Q: What about periods of time where you were unemployed or not in school?
A: How to deal with this issues depends on how large the gap is. If the gap is of sufficient length that it should be addressed in your cover letter, do so as frankly and honestly as possible. If you decide to omit reference to the gap, be sure to have your answer prepared in the event that an employer brings it up in an interview.

Q: Can I e-mail my resume and cover letter to employers?
A: The qualified ( lawyerly) answer is yes, but only if you are requested to do so by an employer. If you do send your resume by e-mail attachment, make certain that you use a professional address (nothing like partyguy@AOL.com) and that you test your abilities to send the attachment by sending to yourself or a friend before you send to the employer. You should also include your cover letter in the same e-mail as the first attachment. Reference the name of the job you are applying for in the subject line of your e-mail. Finally, do not send your cover letter and resume to multiple employers in a mass form.

Additional Resources

Basics for Building a Legal Career: Initial Steps: Resumes and Cover Letters (PDF)