Building the Resume
An employer's first impression of you comes from your cover letter and resume. Your resume should convey your unique qualifications in a clear, succinct, and organized manner. Attempt to limit your resume to one to three pages—especially if you have fewer than five years of work experience. In the event of more extensive experience, you can include a second or third page if necessary to accurately summarize your relevant experience. Proofread your resume carefully, and then ask others to proofread it, to make sure it is error-free. Do not rely on spell-check; even a single typographical or grammatical mistake can cause an employer to reject your application.
Refrain from using resume templates from word processing programs, which typically do not reflect the proper format for a legal resume. The standard legal resume should include the following sections:
This section is your personal letterhead; it contains your name, home address, phone number (with area code), and e-mail address. Your voicemail message should be simple and professional. Similarly, select an e-mail address that is professional and that you check regularly.
If you are searching for employment in another city or state, and you have an address in that area (e.g., a family member or significant other’s address), you should include that address in addition to your home address. This will emphasize your ties to the area, and your ability and willingness to relocate.
The education section of a resume should include your college and/or law school institutions; degrees and awards received; and activities in which you held leadership positions. List any academic honors or distinctions you received, such as Dean's List, cum laude or Phi Beta Kappa. Because they are Latin phrases, magna, summa, and cum laude should always appear in italicized, lower case letters. Be sure to research the academic requirements of the positions to which you apply, and include degree and other information to demonstrate that you meet any such criteria.
At most, include three to five activities and awards; listing too many detracts from the most relevant entries.
It is not necessary to include your undergraduate grade point average unless it is specifically requested by an employer or not well-reflected in the academic distinctions you list. Law school grades, however, are an important consideration for some employers, especially when considering applicants with fewer years of work experience. While individual employers may vary, some trends exist across certain categories of employers:
- Large firms. Many of these employers have grade requirements, expect to see GPAs listed on an applicant's resume, and may assume your grades were low if you do not list your GPA or class rank.
- Smaller firms and government offices. Some smaller firms and competitive government positions will have grade requirements, while others may not. Those that do not have grade requirements will balance their consideration of grades against other factors, such as a demonstrated interest in a one of the office’s practice areas or relevant work experience.
- Public interest employers. These employers primarily look for sincere commitment to public service and dedication to the populations they serve and issues they address. You can display your public interest commitment by listing current and recent volunteer activities on your resume, even if they focus on different issues than those of potential employers.
If you graduated a number of years ago and feel your work experience is more impressive than your educational background, you can reverse the order of the educational background and work experience sections.
List your past employment in reverse chronological order, going back no more than five jobs or ten to fifteen years. Include the name of the organization for which you worked, your title or position, your dates of employment, your specific responsibilities, and any special accomplishments. Do not change or translate your military job titles to civilian equivalents. Instead, convey information about the nature of your position through the description of your responsibilities, always using clear, civilian terms, and consider adding a similar civilian title as a parenthetical after the military title. For example, if you served as Trial Counsel in the military, you could add "(Prosecutor)" after that title. If you include received a military award for an accomplishment relevant to the position you are seeking, include it, but provide an explanation in civilian terms.
Design your resume to highlight your most significant and relevant experiences for the position or firm to which you are applying. You need not list every job you have held. Be prepared, however, to explain any gaps in your resume.
Your goal in drafting summaries of your experiences is to provide substantive, but concise descriptions that highlight skills and the scope of your prior responsibilities that are relevant to the position you seek. Detailed descriptions are more interesting for the reader, and help to distinguish you from other applicants. Each description should begin with an action verb, but be cognizant of your audience. For instance, stating that you "led a team of 50 people in a high stress environment" may be received better by a civilian law firm considering you for hire than "commanded 50 soldiers in combat." Describe current responsibilities in present tense, and previous experience in past tense. Avoid using personal pronouns (e.g., "I" or "my") and passive voice.
Although most skills relevant to civilian legal practice will be the same across employers, consider changing which responsibilities you highlight to parallel the needs of particular employers.
If you are fluent or conversant in a foreign language, you may create a separate category entitled "Languages" that lists the languages you speak and with what proficiency. Do not overstate your skills, as you may be asked to demonstrate them.
To tell a prospective employer more about who you are, consider listing a few of your personal interests or hobbies, associations you are affiliated with, community involvement, or published works. These can help spark conversation during an interview.
Omit from your resume:
Any "objective" or "summary" section. This is information that can be included in your cover letter, if appropriate.
Computer skills. Generally, these should be omitted. If, however, you are applying for a paralegal position and a prospective employer specifies certain computer skill requirements, you should include them.
References. Prepare your list of references as a separate document. Do not include in your resume a statement that "references are available upon request." Legal employers no longer expect this verbiage.