As a legal recruiter, I review numerous resumes each week to assist my candidates with the substance and presentation of their one-page life summaries. Here are twelve tips to avoid common resume mistakes:
1. Make certain the most important information jumps off the page. Assume no one will read your resume word for word. Write your resume for the interviewer who pulls your resume off the printer and skims it on their way back to the office. Use bullet points, boldface, headings, and logical and consistent formatting to highlight and structure the important points.
2. Be concise. This is related to tip #1. You want the most important content to jump off the page, but every word on your resume should serve the purpose of showing that you are the best candidate for the specific Stick to one page.
3. Know your resume. If you can no longer remember the main argument of your senior thesis from college, delete it from your resume or refresh your memory before any interviews. You must be prepared to talk intelligently about anything and everything on your resume. You must be prepared to articulate a deep dive into your legal work experience, including any underlying legal issues your matters unearthed.
4. Tailor your resume to the specific job. Keep in the forefront of your mind that you are applying for a legal job. Do not just “update” your resume by adding to the same document you first created 20 years ago. Delete information that is no longer relevant to a specific job—remember, every wordshould serve the purpose of getting you this job. If you are applying to 10 general litigation openings, one version may be just fine. However, if you are applying to some general litigation spots and some patent litigation openings, you may want to have two versions of your resume.
5. Give concrete details when describing your legal experience. Instead of asserting that you are a capital markets lawyer, write that you have “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 sheet for representative matters, it may be helpful to include a few bullets points in your resume to showcase this experience. Remember from Tip #2, every word counts. Do not use neutral words, where a more positive word would convey more meaning. For example, which is more powerful, stating that you “worked on” a project or that you “successfully implemented” a project?
6. List only current and accurate information.If you are no longer on a committee, delete it from your resume or indicate the proper date range of your participation. 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. Show your human side. Include a few lines that show you are a human being, not a robot. Include interests so long as they are true passions and not aspirational hobbies. If nothing else, this “fluff” gives interviewers softball question material for breaking the ice. Space is a commodity, so consider lumping interests, language skills, bar admissions, volunteer work and (active) participation in professional, alumni or community organizations into one “Additional Information” section. Remember that this section is fair game for questioning. Do not list membership in a committee where your only participation is contributing to their e-newsletter click rate stats.
8. Make certain the most impressive information jumps off the page. I am often asked if you should list education or work experience first. A corollary to Tip #1, you also want the most impressive content to jump off the page. So, if you went to a top law school, list education first. If your law school was not as highly ranked, but you landed a job at Wachtell, list work experience first. In the case of a prestige tie, I would list work experience first.
9. Apply the squint test. Tape your resume to a wall about ten feet away or you hold it far out in front of you as though you’re taking a selfie. Then squint so the words are out of focus. Does the balance of black and white on the page make your eyes happy? Is there much too much dense text? Is there too much white space?
10. Proofread and proofread again. Read your resume carefully for inconsistent formatting and for typographical, spelling or grammatical errors. Then proofread again. And again. Then find a friend (or a legal recruiter) to review your resume. Nothing screams, “Do not hire me,” like an avoidable mistake on your resume.
11. Avoid unwanted social media integration. You know that photo of you in the Bahamas, wearing your bikini? Shirtless? Remember how you uploaded it to your Google profile and now you list your Gmail address on your resume? Did you know that I can see that photo of you in the right-hand sidebar of my screen as I’m emailing you? If I can see it, so can the recruiting coordinator, and so can the partner at the firm where you are interviewing. Some candidates’ Twitter feed also shows up on the right-hand sidebar of my inbox. You don’t have to stop using social media, but if you are indiscriminate or controversial with your tweets, consider setting up a separate e-mail account for the job search.
12. Use but don’t copy resume models. Look over as many model resumes as you can get your hands on. But don’t blindly copy another resume’s format if it doesn’t work for your experience. As a recruiter, I happily provide my candidates with example resumes, but I will not give them a fixed template. Every individual is different; every resume is different.
There is no one right way to design a resume, but there are wrong ways. This singular piece of paper is the key to getting your foot in the door to the next step in your career…or not. Dedicate a few hours to reworking your resume to be sure it’s the best possible representation of you. You owe that to yourself. And remember that a good recruiter is an expert on the legal industry and on the job search process. Perfecting your resume is one place where a trusted recruiter can add great value.