The bad news for this spring’s law student graduates is that they’re entering the toughest labor market in at least 25 years. Take Jane Doe for example. She graduated cum laude last year from Emory University School of Law. She clerked with a Federal judge, was on Law Review, and had a brief stint as student lawyer with a non-profit organization. After completing her clerkship, Jane hoped to get a litigation position with a small firm. However, after sending hundreds of resumes, she’s still looking for full-time employment.
When searching for a legal job as a law student or recent law graduate, having a good resume is very important. Legal employers are flooded with resumes; so being able to make your own law student resume stand out and command attention is key. Every law student resume should pass what I call the “30 second test.” Can an employer determine from the resume what kind of skills and experience you offer in 30 seconds or less? If the answer is no, then you need to revisit your resume. Whether you are a law student or just graduated from law school, here are some important tips and ideas on how to make your legal resume standout:
Highlight Your Experience
The most important information should be available at the very top of your resume. You need to provide a 30-second pitch about who you are and what you do. This may take the form of a profile, an area of expertise section, or simply highlighting your experience at the very top. When scanning the resume in 30 seconds or less, a potential employer should know the law school you graduated from, when, and what kind of experience you have (i.e. litigation, contracts etc.).
This is usually the catch-22 of most law student resumes; you need to have had prior experience in order to land a job and acquire more experience. Most law students tend to have little to show in term of professional legal experience. However, most also tend to undersell their accomplishments. When gathering your experience, everything and anything you have done outside of the classroom can be translated into practical work-related experience, if you know how.
You have to focus on skills that are either directly applicable to a legal position, such as writing, research, and analysis; or skills that can be applicable in a legal context, such as managing, creating, and organizing. The key is to make the link between what you have done, and how those skills can translate into a legal context. Also, when listing prior work experience, be sure to focus on your accomplishments rather than a basic statement of your responsibilities. This will be a more effective way of catching the attention of potential employers.
Flaunt Your Academic Accomplishments
As a law student or recent graduate, your law school record is what will set you apart from other applicants. Therefore if you graduated from law school less than five years ago, your law school should be at the very top of your resume. This is where, if you have a strong academic record, you should flaunt it. While most law firms require a copy of your transcript at the application stage, most other legal employers do not require a transcript until they are ready to conduct their due diligence. Therefore, if you are a law student or recent graduate, be sure to list your law school G.P.A. directly on the resume. If your grades are good, show them off, as they can make a difference.
If your grades are not something you care to show off, offset a less than stellar academic record with activities. You have to show that if grades are not where you excelled, you were nevertheless committed to developing skills in other areas, such as oral advocacy (moot court or mock trial competition), writing (journals), or client representation (clinics or non-profit organizations). The key is to demonstrate a commitment to another area of your legal education, and how it benefitted your legal career.
Do Not Treat It Like a Biography
Your law student resume is not a biography. While you may not have ten years worth of professional experience to highlight, you should also be mindful of the type of information you include on the resume. A basic question you should be asking when deciding what to add to your resume is: “How is this relevant to my current job search?” If you cannot find a link between a work experience and your legal practice, you should consider omitting it from your law student resume. Some examples include experience that pre-dates law school, such as babysitting, modeling, or lifeguarding.
On the other side of the spectrum, there are students who’ve had lots of short-term professional jobs and want to include them all on the resume. After all, isn’t experience what legal employers are looking for? While that may be true, sometimes the old adage of “less is more,” is applicable to law student resumes as well. If you’ve held several short-term positions, you would be better served by only referring to those that best highlight your skills and experience.
Finally, you have to remember the purpose of a resume. This is a document that an employer is reviewing to select you for an interview. A potential employer is using this document to evaluate your skills and experience – not your personality. That’s something that the interview is used for. Therefore, because the modern resume is a marketing tool, it’s best to keep personal interests, hobbies, and other non-essential materials for the interview process as a way to “break the ice.” If you are keen on listing organizations, affiliations, volunteer work, or extracurricular activities on your law student resume, only list those that are relevant to your practice as a legal professional, or that are directly related to your targeted job. Again, if it’s not related to your practice or the position, do not include it.
Create a Polished and Professional Format
While the content of your law student resume is the most important, it only accounts for fifty percent of the resume. The other fifty percent is all about the appearance of your resume. When you consider that the average recruiter spends 6 minutes reading a resume, you can understand how important the appearance of the resume can be when making a selection.
If you are designing your own law student resume, you need to follow a few rules to make sure that its format will not leave anything to be desired. First, use a font size that is readable – with a few exceptions, fonts that are less than 11 points are simply too small. If a resume reader is straining to read your resume, your 6-minute review may quickly turn into 3 minutes or less. Also, choose fonts that are easy to read, such as Times New Roman, Arial, Verdana, Palatino, or other book print fonts. If you are using different styles (underline, bold, italics, CAPS, etc.) to call attention to different sections of your law student resume, use these highlights sparingly. It’s best to limit yourself to one or two styles for any one area of text; otherwise the highlighting effect will be lost.
Finally, unless you have a great deal of experience, as a law student or recent graduate, you should strive to keep your resume to one-page. While employers do not live by the one-page resume rule alone, the length of your resume should be reflective of your level of experience. Therefore, if you made the appropriate selection and formatting choices, should have enough space to include everything on one page. Last but not least, make sure to proofread it thoroughly so that there are no grammatical, punctuation, or style errors that may be distracting or cause problems.