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Building a Top-notch Legal Resume for Today's Market: Part I

Barbara Higgins 01 / 05 / 21

Resume writing continues to be one of the greater challenges in job seeking. Perhaps you are just starting your legal career; or you are thinking about a new opportunity after multiple years of practice. You’re going to need a new resume that looks professional and will give you a leg up on the competition.

A quick Google search of “how to write a legal resume” yields more than 142 million hits. Filtering for 2020 alone narrows results to 95 million. Having personally reviewed thousands of resumes during my career as a lawyer, partner at a large law firm, and talent manager at Legility – I’ve seen the best and the worst. I will go out of my way to find virtue in everyone’s experience and give serious consideration to each candidate. Yet in a competitive legal market, the strongest resumes will always stand out and ultimately land the job.

Surviving the Legal Resume "Quick Scan"

Consider your resume as an opportunity to create a positive first impression – similar to meeting someone in person. In person, studies show it takes only 5-15 seconds to create a first impression. Conversely, it can take eight subsequent positive encounters to change a negative first impression. Most professionals reviewing your resume for the first time will scan it quickly and make an initial assessment of your qualifications within the first 15-30 seconds. Sometimes less.

Recruiters and resume readers typically see hundreds of resumes each year. An unfamiliar, non-traditional, overly graphic, or confusing resume is likely to frustrate your reader. Unusual resume formats are difficult to scan and require the reader to hunt for critical information. This is especially true with the recent resume trend of separating and condensing experience into a highlighted “text box” at the side of a resume or separating out professional experience and lumping all employers into one list at the end. Readers performing a quick scan are looking for the following:

  • What is your overall employment history, and with whom?
  • How many years have you practiced?
  • How long did you stay with each employer?
  • Where/when did you go to school?
  • Where are you located?
  • Overall, does this person look like a good potential fit for the position?
A predictable and easy to follow resume format will allow your reader to find this information quickly and assess your qualifications. Your goal is to make the quick scan simple and satisfying. If you meet the basic qualifications, your reader is more likely to take a deeper dive into your substantive experience. Resume formatting is one of the easiest ways to fulfill the initial expectations of a potential employer and create a good first impression. You will look professional and careful about your work.

Draft Your Basic Legal Resume Structure

Start with the following basic structure:

  • Name, contact information, location
  • Professional experience
  • Education
  • State Bar licensure
  • Additional information (relevant technical experience, publications, awards, volunteer work, professional certifications, etc.)

Decide on a well-known font and stick with it – whether its serif or sans serif (Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, Calibri, etc.). Essentially this is your aesthetic choice and doesn’t really matter as long as you are consistent, and the font is not obscure. Substantive text should be at least 10-11 point, with slightly larger headers of 12 point. Vary the style and create visual interest by using bold, underline, italics, and small caps. Just be consistent.

Center and highlight your name at the top of the page and use a larger font (18-20 point) to stand out. Include your contact information and location directly below in a smaller font size. Believe it or not, some candidates omit location thinking they might not be considered if not near the employer. With increased remote working opportunities, this is becoming less important and omitting it will only highlight an issue and puzzle the reader. After all, the potential employer is bound to find out at some point. If privacy is a concern, you can omit your street address and just include your town and state. If you are willing to relocate, you can indicate that on your resume.

Your email address should be professional and somewhat generic (e.g., Jane.Doe@gmail.com). It is generally inappropriate to use a current employer-issued email address, as that indicates you are searching while on the job.

A nice additional touch is to include a professional media link (like LinkedIn) if your profile is complete and current. If you don’t have a LinkedIn or other professional networking account, this is a good time to create one as long as you ensure it is ready to be viewed by a potential employer, includes a professional looking photo, and is consistent with your resume.

For Professional Experience, chronological order (most recent employer first) is a standard but important tool. It orients the reader as to where you are now and where you’ve been – developing your overall professional snapshot. Some recruiters recommend listing your title first, followed by employer, location and dates. However, title is generally less important on the quick scan. Where you’ve worked and when is the information your reader wants to know. For example:

resume

This rule of thumb is especially true if your present or prior employer has a strong marketplace presence. If the firm or company is not widely known – that’s perfectly fine. The important point is to enable your reader to easily scan where you’ve worked and when, thereby getting a quick overview of your career to date.

 I estimate that 99% of resumes list Education before Professional Experience. This makes sense if you recently graduated and only have a year or two of work experience – especially if you attended a Tier 1 law school. For more experienced professionals, your law school and undergrad should take a backseat. Follow the same format as your Professional Experience listings, with any pertinent information below the school name (degree earned and noteworthy accomplishments).

On page length, I honestly never care about multiple pages as long as your experience warrants. I challenge a lawyer with 10+ years of experience and multiple employers to limit themselves to one page. If you can, then you’re not giving me enough information. On the other hand, I’ve also received curricula vitae (“CV”) in excess of three pages. A CV is not a resume. I recommend using a CV in academic settings only.

Additional relevant information can follow naturally and have their own headers. These might include state bar licensure, publications or professional activities. Make sure your information remains professional and adds to your resume. Contrary to popular advice, and possibly a personal preference, sections such as hobbies or interests (like “skiing” or “volleyball”) often seem gratuitous. This holds true for “Objectives” and “Professional Summary” – they are rarely read and can detract from the strength of your experience. However, professional add-ons such as chairing a local law organization or pro bono involvement can show you are community conscious, active, and willing to go the extra mile. You can also omit the standard, “References Available Upon Request.” Of course, you have them!

With the basics complete, it's time for the hard work: the experience section. 

Check back in next week for more best practices on getting your legal resume in top shape and a deeper dive in properly structuring the experience section of your resume. 

About the author

Barbara Higgins
Barbara Higgins

Talent Manager at Legility

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