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Resume and Cover Letter Tips for Your Law Students

By Jennifer H. Fried and Carole A. Tillotson

It’s late in the semester. A second-year student stops by your office with a “quick question.” Do you know anyone hiring for the summer? Somehow, they missed your career planning workshop, OCI, and all your emails about job postings. “I’ll take anything.” Sound familiar?

Wouldn’t it be nice if all students had stellar academics, leadership, and employment backgrounds? This article will give some pointers on where to begin for those more challenging students.

Craft your resume to make yourself stand out.

Craft your resume to make yourself stand out.

Jirapong Manustrong |

Where to Start

Each student made it into law school for a reason. Conversation is key to flesh out the reasons. Start with a chat about their interests and what they did last summer. Let’s say that you learn their grades were lower than they’d hoped so they decided not to work last summer. The student took evidence and worked for a friend’s lawn service. Long-term, there’s an interest in litigation but the student is not sure. It’s beginning to sink in for them that a second-year summer position is important.

Resist the urge to start every sentence with, “Didn’t you see my email?” Instead, engage with the student. You can use open-ended questions to solicit resume/cover letter gold, including:

  • Tell me more about your summer job. Did you supervise other crew members?
  • How did your employer entrust you with more responsibility over time?
  • Have you completed your writing credits? Tell me about your topic
  • Any As or “A-”s to highlight?
  • What do you like to do when you’re not studying?
  • Did your undergraduate jobs fund your school expenses? What percentage?
  • How many hours a week did you work?

Explaining the Nuts and Bolts

Not all students know how to draft resumes or cover letters or know how to do them well. Make sure to cover some of the basic nuts and bolts with them, including:

  • Heading/Salutation: A student’s full, legal name is still the norm. If a nickname is used, it’s acceptable to put it in quotes after their legal first name. Students can also add their pronouns next to or under their name. We are seeing more headings without any address.
  • Typically, employers want to see an address. If it’s an OCI firm, include the full mailing address since onlythe employer will see it. For privacy issues, if it’s a job posting on Indeed or LinkedIn, listing a city and state can be enough. If applying to an out-of-state position in a home state, list a current and permanent address to highlight the contact to the area. How did Mrs. enter the conversation again? That outdated title has made its way onto student cover letters recently. It’s not appropriate — tell students to always use Ms. or Mr. in their salutations. Using their full name also acceptable.
  • Objective/Professional Summary/Skills/Course and Company Descriptions: A standard legal resume will not have any of these sections. All four topics are more appropriately addressed in the cover letter. Skills can be woven into resume bullets. Eliminate the objective statement. Those few sentences at the top of a resume, summarizing skills and the type of role a person is seeking, only makes it easier for recruiters to disqualify anybody who is not an exact match—it’s a great excuse to be cut from the pack. Another common mistake is using valuable resume real estate to describe the employer instead of the work. While it is tempting for students who have worked for small businesses to detail what their prior employers have done, a resume should be all about the student, not the company, their courses, or their law school. If an employer wants to know more, they will research the company.
  • Interests: If needed, a section with  interests can fill space. But make sure the interests are interesting with details. Music and reading are nonstarters. What genre of music or reading? What specific sports team? Hopefully these will draw an interviewer’s attention and provide an opening for conversation.
Cover letters are even more important when the resume is lacking in experience.

What’s the Point of a Cover Letter?

With some resumes, a cover letter could be written on a wet napkin and the student would still get the interview. But cover letters are even more important when the resume is lacking in experience. This is the place wherethe student can show enthusiasm for the position. We know that employers are looking for experiences that show dedication, innovation, resilience, or just old-fashioned hard work. Analytical ability, leadership skills, or public speaking proficiency can all be highlighted. Cover letters should reflect those skills.

  • The cover letter should not regurgitate the resume; instead, it should tell the story of the resume. By helping the student answer the following questions in their cover letter you can ensure that they are telling that story: Why is the student interested in this position with this firm? When talking about prior positions, the student should use a phrase like, “I distinguished myself by…” What sets them apart?
  • Why is the student interested in this location (if not from the area)? Hopefully, it’s more than “I visited there when I was eight.”
  • Does the student have any experiences that would make them ideal for the position? They should expand and explain how their job or life experiences make them perfect for the role.
  • Does the student have any connections to the employer? Did they attend an event or speak with any current clerks or interns? Employers want to see that applicants have done their research. Something like “My classmate, X, enjoyed clerking at the firm this summer.” Or, “I enjoyed hearing Y speak at the Lawyer Lunchable event last month.” 

What does the employer highlight on their website? Can that be tied to the student’s interests or experiences?

The cover letter should be addressed to the recruiting contact listed in the job description. ALWAYS have a name — the student can call the office anonymously and ask to whom the letter should be addressed.

Ditch the fancy formats and fonts.

Pretty in Pink … and Teal and Sand

There is a trend in Generation Z’s resumes and cover letters to include pictures, text boxes, and bitmojis. Artistic flairs include multiple fonts and rainbows of color. TikTok video resumes are appearing. These flashy resumes are colliding with efforts by legal employers to strip the document down to its most basic elements to reduce bias in hiring. Ditch the fancy formats and fonts.

Advise the student that it is a better bet to focus on the information and keywords provided in a job description and incorporate them into the resume. Simple is better:

  • Stick to the classics — Times New Roman, Calibri, or Arial.
  •  Keep the cover letter and resume to a page. We mean it: one-page resumes are the norm with fairly rare exceptions. For a student with a past career, keep it brief. Too much focus on the past can make an employer think the student doesn’t really want to move into law. Expand on the experience in the cover letter.
  •  Format with 11 or 12-point font with 14-point headings in bold.
  • Keep the dates and city/state right justified.
  • Put employer in bold; put job title in italics.
  • A general rule of thumb on minimum GPAs is include it if it’s in the top half of the class.
  • Consider 1.15 line spacing between bullet points to stretch the information.
  • Get rid of the parentheses around the area code.
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Jennifer H. Fried

Legal Recruiting Manager, Reed Smith LLP

Jennifer H. Fried ([email protected]) is the Legal Recruiting Manager at Reed Smith LLP in New York, NY.

Carole A. Tillotson

Associate Director of Career Development, Drake University Law School

Carole A. Tillotson ([email protected]) is Associate Director of Career Development at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, IA.