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Resume Tips for Lawyers

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Resume preparation for lawyers is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Each person has a unique set of skills and talents. How you choose to present them depends on your target audience. This article shows you how to catalogue your skills and talents to p

For most lawyers in the job market, an adjustment of practice area, setting, size of firm or location, or shift to flex-time is all they need to find their “dream job.” For others a move in-house, to a bar association or education institution is sufficient. Still others want to parlay industry knowledge developed as a lawyer to pursue non-legal opportunities. Whichever avenue you choose to pursue, you will need a resume designed to meet your specific objective.

Think of your resume as a sales document. To design an effective sales document, you must not only have a clear idea of the job you are seeking, you must also have an understanding of your marketable skills and talents as they relate to your target audience. Then, you must consider which information to include in the document and the best way to format it to tell your story effectively.

STEP 1:  Compile your data

  • EDUCATION.    This section should contain all pertinent information from your law school experience, including the official name of the school, year of graduation, Journal/moot court experience and a list of any appropriate academic and/or extracurricular activities. This section should also contain similar information for other graduate schools attended as well as your undergraduate institution. If you had stellar grades in law school, you may want to put your education section first for your first year or two after graduation. Otherwise your education will go after experience on a legal resume. 
  • EXPERIENCE.  Include legal and non-legal, full-time and part-time positions. Compile the information chronologically listing organizations, title(s) dates of employment and job descriptions. Review time diaries to help you recall all of your experiences. You will decide later how to format the information on the resume.
  • ACCOMPLISHMENTS.  Include things like significant deals or matters you have worked on and the results achieved, awards received, etc. For now, list by employer. You may determine later that it is more effective to list by transactions, practice area or industry.
  • PROFESSIONAL AFFILITATIONS.  List Bar Association Committees, Board Memberships, industry groups, etc.
  • COMMUNITY ACTIVITIES.  List pro bono activities, community groups, volunteer work, PTA, etc.
  • BAR STATUS.  List all the states and courts where you are admitted to practice. It can be included on the resume as a separate category, under a Career Summary or even under Personal.
  • LANGUAGES.  Note if you are fluent, conversational, and proficient in or have a working knowledge of any foreign languages.
  • PERSONAL ACTIVITIES.  Consider the skills used to parent or run a household that might be transferable in the workplace, such as managing budgets, problem-solving, decision-making, supervision, event planning, etc This is especially important if you have been out of the workforce for some period of time.
  • PERSONAL or INTERESTS.  List unique skills or interests. Be descriptive—e.g., “travel to the Far East, Mexican cooking and nineteenth century literature” are much more effective than “travel, reading and cooking."
  • CONTINUING LEGAL EDUCATION.    Include any continuing legal education courses or symposia and the dates attended. This can be useful to include if you are trying to make a transition to a different practice area or are re-entering the workforce. You can demonstrate knowledge of and an interest in a particular field by listing this type of coursework on your resume.
  • CAREER SUMMARY.  Highlight your professional background as it relates to the position you are seeking. It should consist of several statements that demonstrate your skills and credentials. The focus is on your abilities. Describe what you can do, not what you want to do. A JOB OBJECTIVE is not necessary.
  • REFERENCES. Prepare a separate sheet of paper listing references (three is usually an adequate number). Don't forget to alert your references first so they are prepared for a potential employer's call. Phone references are usually preferred over written references.)

STEP 2: UNDERSTAND RESUME BASICS

Because your resume is a self-portrait, it is difficult to give generic advice. However, there are key concepts and general rules of thumb to follow concerning format and content.

  • A resume should be brief. Conventional wisdom suggests resumes should be one page long. However, if you have had an extensive career, you do yourself a disservice by eliminating relevant information or cramming your content into one page. Expand to a second page. Make sure the second page is at least half full, with your name, address, telephone number and e-mail at the top.
  • Name, address, phone number and e-mail should appear at the top of the resume—Phone numbers are essential; invest in an answering machine to avoid missed opportunities. Your message should be clear, professional and preferably in your voice. Also, be sure to have a professional e-mail address.
  • Legal resumes should generally be CONSERVATIVE IN APPEARANCE. As much as you may be tempted to stand out from the pack, the legal profession is conservative, and flashy "ploys" are not usually well-received. White, off-white or cream colored heavy stock paper should be used. No photos or other graphics are necessary. Ten, eleven or twelve point type size is appropriate. Good fonts include TIMES NEW ROMAN and ARIAL. Once you have created your resume, you need to ensure it translates properly via e-mail. Send it to a few friends to make sure it opens properly and that there are no formatting issues. (For example, you may need to eliminate headers/footers.) You could also use the Save As function on your computer to create a second version of your resume in ASCII text or Rich Text Format. These are easier to use when posting resumes in on-line databases. Be sure to proofread the new document to be sure information translated properly during the reformatting process. 
  • No Personal Information (height, weight, age, marital status, health) need appear on your resume.
  • Use CAPITALIZATION, bold print, italics, underlining, indentation and outline format to present information. Make it easy for the reader to scan. Make sure the overall look is neat and clean.
  • Use generous margins (but not so generous as to look skimpy.). Balance the text on the page.
  • Put dates on the right hand margin instead of the left so they do not stand out to the point that the employer will be distracted from the more important aspects of your resume.
  • Use "bullets" if your descriptions are longer than 5 lines.
  • Use strong action verbs to describe experience and accomplishments. Be specific.
  • Proofread to eliminate errors and typos.

STEP 3: DESIGN A COMPELLING, READER-FRIENDLY FORMAT TO TELL YOUR STORY

With these general rules in mind, you are now ready to determine which format will serve you best depending on your objectives and personal circumstances. The most important decision to make is how to present your EXPERIENCE. It can be formatted either Chronologically or Functionally.

Chronological resumes are oriented by date, with the most recent position first and proceeding backward. This is the most popularly used and accepted format because it is logical and easy to follow. This is the format to use if you have a steady work history with no gaps and if your most recent job is related to your job target. If you have a substantial work history, consider adding Accomplishments under each entry to focus the reader on your successes.

Functional resumes are best if you are switching directions or have been out of the workplace for a period of time. Here accomplishments and experience are organized under broad practice area or skills headings with the most important category (to the potential employer) at the top, followed by two or three other functions. This format allows you to organize your experience according to your talents. It also allows you to de-emphasize employment dates, company names and titles. (Those would be included in a separate category under the heading “Employment History.”)

Use the following guidelines and sample resume to help you determine which format will work best for your particular circumstances.

I am seeking a similar position to the one I currently hold at a comparable organization.

The simple, straightforward STANDARD CHRONOLOGICAL FORMAT will serve you best in this instance, especially if you are a junior attorney with a short work history.  For more seasoned attorneys, use the ACCOMPLISHMENT/CHRONOLGOICAL FORMAT. This is a more detailed version of the simple, straightforward format and it allows you to showcase achievements.

I have significant legal and non-legal experience and want to incorporate both in my next position.

You could use either the DUAL CAREER CHRONOLOGICAL FORMAT or the AREAS OF EXPERTISE FUNCTIONAL FORMAT to highlight your experiences.

I want to switch practice areas or specialize.

The PRACTICE AREAS FUNCTIONAL or AREAS OF EXPERTISE FORMATS are the best options. They allow you to highlight the experience you have in your area of interest, even if it is not the most current or most in-depth experience you possess. Be sure to include continuing legal education courses attended on this type of resume.

I want to pursue a non-legal career.

The SKILLS FUNCTIONAL FORMAT or AREAS OF EXPERTISE FORMAT are the best ways to present your experience. To translate your legal experience in a way that is of interest to the reader, focus on the process of what you did instead of the technical subject matter. When you think in “verbs” you begin to realize that the things lawyers do are very similar to the things non-lawyers do; it is only the technical knowledge that is different. Be sure to use the verbs that your target audience is likely to use.

I have been home raising children for a number of years. How do I account for that time to re-enter the workplace?

Depending on your job objective, any of the FUNCTIONAL FORMATS will serve you well because the emphasis is not on employment history and dates, it is on what you can do and what you know. Don’t discount your time raising children as irrelevant. If you do, employers will too. Think in terms of the skills you used running the household (budgeting, supervising, delegating, etc.) and be prepared to showcase how that experience will enable you to perform the job more effectively. Also, consider easing back into the marketplace in incremental steps. Take CLE courses to gain the latest information, consider temping or volunteering to build current experience to add to the resume.

SUMMARYResume preparation is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Each person has a unique set of skills and talents. How you choose to present them depends on your target audience. It is important to do your homework to catalogue your skills and talents and to research the job market in order to determine the most effective way to present your information and tell your story.

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Kathleen Brady
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Posted on Mar 29, 2011
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Posted on Mar 29, 2011
UmiNoor Leman
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Kathleen Brady

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