This is Part II of II - if you missed Part I, you can read it here!
The Hard Work: Structuring the Experience Section of a Legal Resume
Now that you are firmly in the reader’s mind with your overall profile, the reviewer is ready to dive deeper into your experience. Let’s make it rewarding. Format and substance are both critical here – with substance taking on the most important role. First, consider two common format options from a pure readability standpoint: narrative text v. bullet points.
Using bullet points allows the reader to quickly scan for the exact qualifications. Although bullet points are great for brevity, you should not sacrifice substance. In the format examples above, you likely notice the substantive content is thin and lacks creativity. In the next example, the attorney adds additional detail with concrete examples. Thoroughly fleshing out your work experience is where you will set yourself apart from the crowd.
Drafting bullet points for each place of employment can be challenging, but it will help to illustrate the skills and accomplishments you earned at each place of employment. Keep them detailed but relatively brief. Review, edit, and edit again to ensure you are not saying the same thing in multiple ways. Also, be careful with your use of adjectives or, better yet, delete them 100% as they simply come across as puffery.
Last, you might also want to give thought as to how your bullet points highlight the progression of your legal career, especially if you have your eye on a more advanced position in contrast to a lateral move. A colleague of mine actually likes to review resumes from bottom to top (after performing a quick scan) to get a sense of the attorney’s career progression. (I do this now as well!) Junior lawyers who have practiced for only a few years can reflect their progression in work accomplished over a very short time. More experienced lawyers can showcase career growth from employer to employer with escalating responsibilities.
The Job in Particular: Tailoring Legal Resumes for the Position
Having succinct and illustrative bullet points makes it much easier to tailor your experience for specific employers and job opportunities. Let’s say the lawyer in our prior example is applying for a position that stresses corporate entity formation. She can easily cut and paste the last bullet point and shift it to the top, expand, edit, and refine. It does not require an entire resume re-do. This also ensures the person reading her resume can easily identify her most relevant experience. Last, it serves as an alert as to whether your resume lacks the specific detail listed in a job description.
When tailoring your resume to a specific position, review the employer’s job description carefully and ensure your first few bullet points reflect the language used in the description. For example, if the position calls for experience in “procurement contracts” (as opposed to “vendor contracts”), revise your bullet points to use the term “procurement contracts.”
If the description calls for “federal court trial litigation,” ensure your resume includes “federal court trial litigation.” Don’t assume your reader will infer you have federal court trial experience just because you have 10-15 years of litigation experience. Your resume reviewer may not have a legal background and may simply be scanning for the key words used in the job description. Be careful not to parrot the job description in an obvious way – work the buzz words in judiciously and with finesse.
Reflecting the employer’s language in your resume is especially important in light of the increased use of Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) by large companies as well as law firms. According to Jobscan, more than 98% of Fortune 500 companies now use an ATS. If your resume lacks critical keywords spelled out in the job description, there’s a chance it may not pass the ATS keyword search. Of course, you must have the necessary qualifications and experience – but utilizing the language used by the law firm or company will always make you the stronger applicant.
Bringing It All Together
When you think you’re finally “done,” set aside your resume for a day or two and review it again. Print it out and consider it as a whole. Are your dates accurate and do the descriptions flow well? Is it visually pleasing? Are there any clumsy bullet points? Are the page breaks clean? Are there any spelling errors? In sum, does it paint a picture that you can feel good about?
Once you have a solid resume, you can tweak it for minor visual interest. It will also be much easier to tailor and update as needed. Your resume reviewers will be grateful for your thoughtful work and detail, and it may just help you land that perfect next job. Good luck!