Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts on lateral associate and partner moves from Lateral Link’s team of expert contributors. Abby Gordon is a Senior Director with Lateral Link’s New York office. Abby works with attorney candidates on law firm and in-house searches, primarily in New York, Boston, and Europe. Prior to joining Lateral Link, Abby spent seven years as a corporate associate with Cleary Gottlieb, focusing on capital markets transactions for Latin American clients in New York and for the last five years for European clients in Paris. A native of Boston, Abby holds a J.D., cum laude, from Georgetown University Law Center and a B.A. in government and romance languages, magna cum laude, from Dartmouth College. Abby also worked with the International Rescue Committee as a Fulbright Scholar in Madrid, Spain. She is a member of the New York Bar and is fluent in French and Spanish (and dabbles in Portuguese and Italian).
As a legal recruiter, I review numerous résumés each week to assist my candidates with the substance and presentation of their one-page life summaries. Here are 12 tips to avoid common résumé mistakes:
1. Make certain the most important information jumps off the page. Assume no one will read your résumé word for word. Write your résumé for the interviewer who pulls your résumé off the printer and skims it on their way back to the office. Use bullet points, boldface, headings, and logical and consistent formatting to highlight and structure the important points.
2. Be concise. This is related to tip #1. You want the most important content to jump off the page, but every word on your résumé should serve the purpose of showing that you are the best candidate for the specific job. Stick to one page.
3. Know your résumé. If you can no longer remember the main argument of your senior thesis from college, delete it from your résumé or refresh your memory before any interviews. You must be prepared to talk intelligently about anything and everything on your résumé. You must be prepared to articulate a deep dive into your legal work experience, including any underlying legal issues your matters unearthed.
4. Tailor your résumé to the specific job. Keep in the forefront of your mind that you are applying for a legal job. Do not just “update” your résumé by adding to the same document you first created 20 years ago. Delete information that is no longer relevant to a specific job — remember, every word should serve the purpose of getting you this job. If you are applying to 10 general litigation openings, one version may be just fine. However, if you are applying to some general litigation spots and some patent litigation openings, you may want to have two versions of your résumé.
5. Give concrete details when describing your legal experience. Instead of asserting that you are a capital markets lawyer, write that you have “drafted the underwriting agreement as lead associate, representing the underwriters in the offering of $300 million in floating rate notes by a large U.S. manufacturing company.” Even if you have a separate sheet for representative matters, it may be helpful to include a few bullets points in your résumé to showcase this experience. Remember from Tip #2, every word counts. Do not use neutral words, where a more positive word would convey more meaning. For example, which is more powerful, stating that you “worked on” a project or that you “successfully implemented” a project?
6. List only current and accurate information. If you are no longer on a committee, delete it from your resume or indicate the proper date range of your participation. Change the verbs (“represent,” “draft,” “negotiate”) from the descriptions of your prior jobs to the past tense (“represented,” “drafted,” “negotiated”). No longer fluent in French? Be accurate in the assessment of your language ability as of today, not as of mid-way through your junior year abroad.
7. Show your human side. Include a few lines that show you are a human being, not a robot. Include interests so long as they are true passions and not aspirational hobbies. If nothing else, this “fluff” gives interviewers softball question material for breaking the ice. Space is a commodity, so consider lumping interests, language skills, bar admissions, volunteer work, and (active) participation in professional, alumni, or community organizations into one “Additional Information” section. Remember that this section is fair game for questioning. Do not list membership in a committee where your only participation is contributing to their e-newsletter click rate stats.
8. Make certain the most impressive information jumps off the page. I am often asked if you should list education or work experience first. A corollary to Tip #1, you also want the most impressive content to jump off the page. So, if you went to a top law school, list education first. If your law school was not as highly ranked, but you landed a job at Wachtell, list work experience first. In the case of a prestige tie, I would list work experience first.
9. Apply the squint test. Tape your résumé to a wall about 10 feet away or you hold it far out in front of you as though you’re taking a selfie. Then squint so the words are out of focus. Does the balance of black and white on the page make your eyes happy? Is there much too much dense text? Is there too much white space?
10. Proofread and proofread again. Read your résumé carefully for inconsistent formatting and for typographical, spelling, or grammatical errors. Then proofread again. And again. Then find a friend (or a legal recruiter) to review your résumé. Nothing screams, “Do not hire me,” like an avoidable mistake on your résumé.
11. Avoid unwanted social media integration. You know that photo of you in the Bahamas, wearing your bikini? Shirtless? Remember how you uploaded it to your Google profile and now you list your Gmail address on your résumé? Did you know that I can see that photo of you in the right-hand sidebar of my screen as I’m emailing you? If I can see it, so can the recruiting coordinator, and so can the partner at the firm where you are interviewing. Some candidates’ Twitter feeds also shows up on the right-hand sidebar of my inbox. You don’t have to stop using social media, but if you are indiscriminate or controversial with your tweets, consider setting up a separate email account for the job search.
12. Use but don’t copy résumé models. Look over as many model résumés as you can get your hands on. But don’t blindly copy another résumé’s format if it doesn’t work for your experience. As a recruiter, I happily provide my candidates with example résumés, but I will not give them a fixed template. Every individual is different; every résumé is different.
There is no one right way to design a résumé, but there are wrong ways. This singular piece of paper is the key to getting your foot in the door to the next step in your career… or not. Dedicate a few hours to reworking your résumé to be sure it’s the best possible representation of you. You owe that to yourself. And remember that a good recruiter is an expert on the legal industry and on the job search process. Perfecting your résumé is one place where a trusted recruiter can add great value.