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After the Bar

Career Resources

How to Draft an Effective Resume and Cover Letter

Nicholas Daniel Seger


  • Keep resumes and cover letters concise, aiming for one page each to quickly highlight relevant qualifications.
  • Exceptions to the one-page rule may include extensive experience or significant achievements, but avoid padding with irrelevant details.
  • Ensure resumes are visually pleasing with proper formatting and organization, and always proofread carefully for errors and clarity.
How to Draft an Effective Resume and Cover Letter

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Are you among the many lawyers who struggle to write effective and concise resumes and cover letters?

In our legally trained minds, we can justify providing diverse experiences for any position because we are trained to think critically and craft analogies between seemingly distinct situations.

However, in drafting your legal resume, you should strive to create a straightforward document that includes only past experiences and commendations that either directly and obviously relate to the position you are applying for, or that generally exhibit academic excellence or demonstrable competence in the practice of law.

The One-Page Rule Applies to Resumes and Cover Letters, with Rare Exceptions

Typically, when applying for entry or mid-level positions, you should limit your cover letter and resume to one page each. A single-page resume allows you to present your qualifications clearly and effectively. It ensures the hiring manager will quickly recognize your skills, experience, and achievements without having to sift through unnecessary details.

Limiting yourself to a one-page resume ensures you will think deeply about what to include, provide only the most relevant information without overwhelming the reader, and force you to prioritize your most impactful contributions and experiences. This clarity helps make a stronger case for your suitability for the position.

Consider the perspective of the senior attorney or human resources personnel who will review your resume. Legal employers will receive numerous applications for a single position, and you must stand out quickly without bogging down the reviewer with irrelevant or less relevant information. Hiring managers typically spend only a few seconds initially scanning each resume to determine who merits a deeper look. A one-page format increases the likelihood that they will read through your entire resume, increasing your chances of making a favorable impression.

Additionally, by focusing on the most relevant information, you demonstrate your ability to prioritize and communicate effectively, which is an essential skill in the legal profession. The legal field highly values conciseness and the ability to convey complex information in a straightforward manner. A succinct resume reflects your ability to communicate effectively and the way the employer expects you to write on the job.

The Exceptions to the One-Page Rule

If you have extensive experience, significant achievements, or relevant publications, extending your resume to two pages may be appropriate, but proceed with caution. Your decision may be justified, but you should still carefully curate the information to ensure that every detail included adds significant value to your candidacy.

Avoid padding your resume with irrelevant details or excessive descriptions that could dilute its impact, and only include the information you are certain is relevant based on your research into the position you are applying for—the employer will quickly understand and appreciate it as relevant to the position it offers. Do not feel that you must fill the second page.

When in doubt, reach out to your network for advice. Your law school’s career services office will likely provide helpful insight into what information is relevant to your application. Also, contact colleagues and former classmates with experiences similar to yours. Ask to review their resumes, cover letters, and writing samples, and evaluate yours against theirs. Request that your peers and mentors evaluate your application and provide you with feedback.

What Your Resume Should Look Like

Ensure that your resume appears visually pleasing as soon as the reader opens it. Consider not only substantive content but also the general feeling a reader will experience upon first seeing your resume.

If your resume contains small type, block text, lacks proper spacing, or omits organizational headers, the reader will immediately feel as if your resume presents a difficult task. That feeling can lead the reader, consciously or subconsciously, to believe your application warrants less merit than others.

To avoid formatting issues that may occur if the viewer opens the document with an application different from the one you used to draft it, always provide your resume and other application materials in a PDF format. As you write, remember that your cover letter and resume provide the employer with their first impression as a legal writer.

Always Draft, Set It Aside, and Review It Again

As with all legal writing, make sure you draft early and revise frequently. Draft your resume and cover letter as soon as you learn of an opportunity in which you are interested. Then, set it aside for a short period and come back to revise it with fresh eyes. This will help you spot weaknesses in your drafting and notice typos you missed on your first editing pass.

Remember that your resume provides the first, and potentially only, impression you will make on employers. Make sure it quickly and effectively conveys your value, experience, and legal writing skills. Know that this will take time and significant effort, even if you have successfully applied for similar positions in the past.

After you decide to apply for a position, be sure to put in the requisite time and effort to make a positive and lasting impression on your potential new employer. Your future self will thank you.