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Resumes – Creating the Best First Impression

A law student's resume.

Résumés have two stand-out moments in the application process. The document’s first job is to generate an interview. The second is to serve as a springboard for questions and conversations during the interview. Approach résumé creation with an eye toward both. All formatting and content decisions should be filtered with a focus on audience and purpose.

Cater to your audience. A one-size-fits-all document isn’t to your advantage. This is particularly true if you’ve amassed experiences prior to and during law school. More experiences don’t mean better experiences—they sometimes just mean more. The kitchen-sink approach to constructing a résumé is largely ineffective. Bogging reviewers down with information that is off-point can overwhelm a reader and make him miss the good stuff. You need to sell the value of your experiences to each reader, which requires thoughtful choices. It’s up to you to push to center stage the information that showcases your requisite qualifications.

To the degree that it’s possible and appropriate, résumés should be tailored to individual recipients. I don’t mean to suggest you overhaul your entire document for every employer; however, the job market requires that students and graduates cast a wider net when searching for law clerk and attorney positions. For maximum impact, your résumé should be manipulated to reflect the varied locations, employer types, and positions for which it’s being used.

Simple changes can impact how a reader’s eyes travel the page. Whether you write out a state or abbreviate it, place it in bold or leave it in plain text, directs attention away from or toward the information. Be attentive to all the details of your document as you control what the reader sees first. Do you really benefit from having the dates as a focal point in bold text, justified prominently in a margin, or did you mindlessly follow a template design? For most students, emphasizing dates simply highlights part-time, short-term work that isn’t on-point to the employer.

Build an infrastructure that accentuates the right information. Résumés are a quintessential vehicle for establishing fit. When a lawyer or recruiter quickly scans your document to determine whether to extend an interview, she’s looking for a particular set of experiences and skills. This requires an easy-to-digest format. An effective means to spotlighting fit is through use of headings.

Don’t give short shrift to headings and subheadings. Résumé templates and examples provide options, but they are generic by design. Your experiences and credentials are unique and should be treated as such. I’m not suggesting you go rogue and get cute and creative. Rather, be deliberate in determining what professional headings will resonate best with your reader. Education, Legal Experience, Additional Professional Experience, Community Service, and Language Skills may be exactly right for you, but don’t default to these standard headings without consideration.

The goal is to create focal points showcasing that you have a lot of what the recruiting employer wants. Headings allow you to maneuver information on the résumé to create points of emphasis. Strategic phrasing of headings permits you to skirt the impediments created by chronological order. Legal Experience, Litigation and Family Law Experience, and Legal and Public Interest Experience are all headings that were used by a single student on different versions of his résumé contingent on his audience. His goal was to group and highlight upfront those experiences that best matched his targeted employers’ work.

The need for varied résumé “skeletons” becomes more common as you accumulate legal education and experiences. As a third-year student who is poised to graduate, it’s more likely you can manipulate your résumé for diverse audiences than a first-year student who is just adding foundational building blocks. Careful consideration of the format of your résumé is also important when applying for positions beyond those offered through traditional legal employers.

Control content with a willingness to discard. Content decisions need to be deliberate. Generally you have a single page to promote your candidacy, so it’s important to draft power-packed, dynamic statements of skills and achievements. Your descriptions shouldn’t simply rehash your past work. The description, “Assisted with general office duties,” offers no benefit. What do you mean by assisted? Did you plan, organize, edit, create, manage? Is the new employer hiring you as an office assistant? Descriptions needn’t include everything you did, but rather the skills gained and accomplishments reached that make you stand out in the context of the reader’s filter.

Editing content can be challenging for people who have accumulated quality experiences and credentials prior to law school through professional positions, community involvement, and leadership. This is where a willingness to don the editor’s hat becomes critical. Even though you did something—and maybe did it really well—doesn’t mean it’s résumé worthy in every situation. And when the experience does make the cut, it may need to be in an abridged version.

Just as you sliced and diced your high school accomplishments when developing your undergraduate and/or professional résumé, it may be time to let go of some of your prior experiences. When determining what to retain, consider the transferability of skills to the receiving employers and on what level the entries make you more attractive.

Does an entry make you more interesting? Does it invite conversation? Does the nature of the work or uniqueness of the experience make it notable? Are you ready to share a story about the experience that will make you memorable during an interview? Punctuate on-point experiences by listing them first in your descriptions and accentuate them through use of strong action verbs. When possible, use previous experiences to denote tangible successes and soft skills that include interpersonal skills, organization, productivity, follow-through, and initiative, among others.

Design a document that is polished and welcomes review. Strive for professional and pristine. Bold colors, graphics, unconventional fonts, funky bullet points, and personal photos have no place on a traditional legal résumé. Let the content be the standout factor. Stick to classic fonts in a basic black color. Create emphasis through judicious use of upper- and lowercase type, bold, underline, and italics.

Use space on the page prudently, which means don’t use all of it. White space is important for readers. It gives their eyes the capacity to roam and focus on the content that sells your candidacy. The ratio of text to open space can encourage a reader to stay with the document longer. Cramming every accomplishment and job you’ve ever had onto a single page in an eight-point text from teeny-tiny margin to teeny-tiny margin hurts rather than helps you. During initial résumé reviews, employers are looking to discard applicants. Don’t make it an easy decision for the reviewer by creating a document that requires too much work to decipher! Font sizes on résumés should range between 10 and 12 points. Side margins should stay at one inch, while top and bottom margins may be smaller.

Résumés often carry the incredible responsibility of creating a first impression of you as a candidate. Make certain it’s promoting you to your greatest potential. Content and formatting decisions need to be intentional, and information must be relevant to your target audience.

Erin Binns is director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.

Vol. 41 No. 3