Harrison Barnes' Legal Career Advice Podcast - Episode 31
- I have personally reviewed over 500,000 resumes of attorneys and law students who have applied to work with BCG Attorney Search.
- I’ve gotten jobs for thousands of attorneys by fixing their resumes.
- There are specific patterns in people who get the most interviews and jobs, and those that do not.
- If you want to get a position, you can listen to my advice, or ignore it at your own peril.
I have probably reviewed more resumes than anyone in history. I started reviewing hundreds of resumes a week when people began submitting them online a few decades ago. When I started in legal placement, my fax machine was receiving resumes 24x7, and email (and then databases) were just getting started.
I have personally reviewed over 500,000 resumes of attorneys and law students who have applied to work with BCG Attorney Search. I’ve gotten jobs for thousands of attorneys by fixing their resumes. I know what to look for in a resume and, without tooting my own horn, I know how to make any resume shine. I estimate that I have reviewed the resumes of just about half of the practicing attorneys in the United States.
I am getting sick of seeing bad resumes. So many attorneys, law students, and others make the worst mistakes with resumes. Most take simplistic advice about their resumes from people who do not really care about getting them jobs. I care about getting attorneys and law students jobs—this is my life's work and something I eat, breathe, and sleep. I get charged emotionally from getting people jobs, but I also get paid a lot of money to get people jobs.
Daily I receive calls from law firms and others, rejecting some candidates and expressing interest in others. I want to be clear—there are specific patterns in people who get the most interviews and jobs, and those that do not. This all comes through on their resumes. If you want to get a position, you can listen to my advice, or ignore it at your own peril.
- Attorney Resume Secreats Revealed
- Top 6 Things Attorneys and Law Students Need to Remove from Their Resumes ASAP If They Want to Get Jobs with the Most Prestigious Law Firms
- General Legal Resume Housekeeping Matters
Your resume should not be longer than one page. If you are a corporate or transactional attorney, you can (and should) include a transaction sheet in your resume.
- You should use one font and color for your legal resume.
You should use a simple font like Verdana in 11-point font. You should not use multiple fonts in your legal resume.
You should not use too many different font sizes.
If you use colors, lots of fonts, and different font sizes, all you are showing is that you will be hard to control and unlikely to fit in.
- Your legal resume should be error-free—proof it once, then proof it again.
This shows whether you should be a lawyer. Your language should also be as concise and direct as possible.
I once almost had an offer withdrawn from a major law firm because a date was wrong on my resume (by one month). I put June instead of May for my law school graduation date. I forgot that while my classes and exams were done in May, formal graduation had come some ten days later. A very uptight fourth-year associate was given the role of checking my references and doing a light background check. He intimated to firm management that this incredible lack of attention to detail showed that I could not be a good attorney. This sleuth discovered the discrepancy. The firm went back and forth for days before they concluded this was an honest mistake and allowed me to start. People check this stuff.
Lawyers are hired to get facts and small details right. While this attorney went overboard with my resume, he was right. If you make mistakes on your resume, then you might make mistakes on legal documents. One of my first assignments as a federal law clerk was reviewing habeas corpus petitions—which are almost always denied. I spent an entire day reviewing these, and various prison petitions and, by mistake, wrote GRANTED on a petition once and sent it to the judge for his signature. That did not go over well, and I almost let loose someone who I am sure was in prison for a good reason!
- Your legal resume should use tight, direct language.
Lawyers are hired to write without the fluff—so be direct. If you write stuff in your resume that can be shortened, this will show that your writing needs a lot of work, and you may not be interviewed and hired. When you write a corporate document, it needs to be easily understood. When you are writing to a court, you typically have page limits. You need to edit your language and make it as short as it can be.
Whatever you do, do not use fancy academic words. No one cares about your vocabulary. Lawyers are paid to make complicated things understandable to laypeople and each other. Big words do not show you are smart. Your education and experience do.
- Your resume needs to give the "scent" that you are a good fit for the work you are seeking.
Your resume also needs to give the "scent" that you are suitable for the position you are seeking. If your resume is all over the place and discusses a bunch of interests that are irrelevant to the job you are seeking, you may not be interviewed and hired. A legal resume needs to give off the scent that you are interested in a particular type of work and likely to be a good fit. Everything you put on your resume needs to be viewed through this lens.
While this will be discussed in detail below, you need to understand each type of employer and job you are applying to and shape your resume accordingly. You need to look like you have the type of experience and are the sort of person the legal employer would hire.
The smart law student or attorney will often use different versions of a resume for different types of employers and jobs. If this sounds ridiculous to you, then maybe you should rethink what a lawyer does. A lawyer needs to be able to take sides and do what is necessary for different situations. This can mean downplaying and emphasizing aspects of your background, depending on the sort of position you are seeking.
- The Heading of a Legal Resume
The heading of the resume contains your name, address, phone number, and email address. It does not need to include your LinkedIn or Twitter profile. Employers can find that on their own—and will.
You should not use your school address. People who went to prestigious schools in the past, or who are currently attending prestigious schools, love to use these schools in their email address. Using a Stanford.edu email address when you are currently attending the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Law School will only highlight the fact that you most likely bombed your LSATs, partied for four years in college, and are in a spectacular flameout. Otherwise, it will show that you have bad judgment and do not understand how the legal profession works. If you have the fortune of having attended a series of outstanding schools, listing a school email address will just indicate you might be a snob. Instead, use a private email address like @gmail.com.
If you have a permanent address (for example, you are in school and have a home address), you can include this. If you have a foreign name that people may not be able to tell at first glance whether or not you're a male or female, you should include a "Mr. or Mrs." as well.
The biggest mistake that people make on the heading is they do not include an address (when appropriate), or, worse, they include a P.O. Box. I have some opinions about both.
Most people want to know where you live. If you do not include an address, this looks suspicious, and people will generally want to know where you live. If you do not include your address, the employer can get a "sense" of where you are living from where you are working, but that is often not enough. The employer will wonder what is so private about where you live that you are not including it on your resume.
Employers are most comfortable if you live close to their office. They want you to easily come into work, and they do not want you to quit because you found work closer to home. I work and live in the Los Angeles area. I am hiring people on an ongoing basis to work in my office. The commute to my office from different parts of Los Angeles can be as little as 15 to 20 minutes from Santa Monica, or as long as 90+ minutes from Pasadena, or an hour from downtown Los Angeles. No one is going to want to commute to my office on an ongoing basis from one of these places—I have tried hiring people from these places. They have always quit or been unable to get to the office consistently because of the distance and traffic.
Accordingly, I never hire people from these areas anymore. If I see an address from someone where it is going to be a long commute to my office, I will not even interview them.
Most employers are like this.
Most employers know that you have no desire to sit in traffic or travel an hour to work each day. They know that if something similar pops up closer to where you live, you are likely to work there instead.
Often, an excellent strategic move is not to include your address when the employer is far away from you. Those employers will usually be more likely to interview you if you do not have an address on your resume than if you do. You should put an address on your resume if you are within a reasonable commuting distance to the employer.
Concerning post office boxes, I have no idea why people do that. It is a real turn-off for most employers because it shows you are so private you do not even want potential employers to know where you live.
In the first law firm I worked in, the firm had a directory of all its attorneys. There was only one attorney who I noticed had a post office box. A few years later, he was arrested in a sting to meet underage girls online and lure them to hotel rooms.
I've seen post office boxes on resumes throughout the years. In several instances, the attorneys who used these had some unusual things in their background that came to light later. I recently came across a Silicon Valley attorney who had a post office box. He was an engineer for Intel while also working full time as an IP litigator for a major New York law firm. He told both employers he needed to take his sick wife to the doctor two days a week and that he was working at home the other day. I only started looking at his background a bit more closely when I saw he had a post office box and found the story about his wife suspicious. He was pulling down over $450,000 a year, working both jobs!
I once knew a girl that had a P.O. Box for her mail. She was convinced she needed this because the father of her daughter's father was a well-known television actor. She thought people would be stalking her. She was wrong.
Post office boxes raise red flags, and you generally should not have these on there. In some cases, I am sure there are perfectly legitimate reasons for having a post office box. In one example, a guy I knew was on the road all the time as an attorney and needed someone to hold his mail.
In another case, a woman who worked for me had been harassed by an ex-boyfriend and needed privacy. When that man found out I was her employer (she was 20 years older than me), he assumed I must be having an affair with her and called my office and started making death threats. In particular, he threatened to blow up my house from his home in Nigeria. I called the police, and they got the FBI involved. When my housekeeper found out about this, she rounded up a group of her friends from her church. She held a candlelight vigil in front of my house with several other women, all praying in Spanish for my safety. I enjoyed this, but it reminded me that things get weird when post office boxes get involved.
You need to be careful about how you use your address when applying to a position in major metropolitan areas, or places far from your home.
- Do Not Put an Opening Paragraph or Bullet Points in Your Resume
These sorts of descriptions tend to go on and on and often take up half a page. I have no idea why people do this. There must be some peyote-smoking resume coach who sits around a campfire with the attorneys and comes up with these flashes of brilliance.
"I know. You are a 'Problem solver able to penetrate the most complex of problems with 'mutually beneficial' …deep inhale … 'solutions.'"
I do not think I have ever seen a prestigious firm hire someone with this sort of stuff on their resume. I may have, but I do not remember. Bullet points do not work either.
- Seasoned graduate of top 40 law school.
- Large law firm trained corporate attorney experienced with multifaceted organizational problems.
- Proven team player and collaborator
- Tenacious attorney not afraid to confront problems to get results.
You do not need to write a paragraph about yourself, either. This just communicates that you think there is no way they possibly can interpret what your experience means.
I have no idea why attorneys put all this on their resumes; however, this is a widespread product of executive resume services. These long descriptions serve no purpose other than to say:
- I am so desperate for a job and unemployable I had to spend thousands of dollars on my resume.
- I am really old and doing all of this work tired me out.
- I know everything and will tell you what to do.
- I think very highly of myself.
- I am putting all this fluff there because there is nothing there. Feel free, attorney, to poke holes in this.
This might work for a select type of lobotomized corporations that have no idea what an attorney’s experience means—I don’t know. This does not work with law firms.
Attorneys are instinctively trained to poke holes in arguments. They are suspicious of excessive verbiage and others posturing with their strengths like this (when there is not much to back it up) and instinctively pounce and attack.
This does not work. Stop it. Please.
If you are in school or less than five years out of school, your degrees should be listed first. If you are more than five degrees out of school, your degrees should be listed after your experience. Your degrees should be listed in reverse chronological order.
- Which Degrees and Other Educational Activities to List on Your Legal Resume
You should always list all of your degrees on your resume.
You should list your school after your experience section (and list your experience first) if you have been out of school for more than five years. If you went to a great school, law firms start to care less about this and more about your experience and stability the longer you have been out of school. Your school is meaningless if you do not have the experience, if you look like you will leave the job, or if you might be a bad fit for the employer or their opening.
- You should generally not list your high school on your legal resume.
Many attorneys who attended prestigious East Coast boarding schools like Andover, St. Pauls, Exeter, or well-known public schools like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, Boston Latin, and similar schools and list these on their resume. Many students from these schools do have a history of being around very competitive people, an interest in long-term achievement, and more. I tend to think leaving these sorts of schools on your resume works well in some markets (New York City) but is a risk in other circumstances. Leaving a competitive public high school on your resume in the city you are applying to is probably fine. This shows you test well and rose to the top.
However, I am less enthusiastic about prestigious prep schools that cost more than most colleges to attend. I went to one of these schools. The only people from my school who still have our school on their resume and LinkedIn profile are ones that have not made much of themselves. I think it is a sign of insecurity and pisses people off who did not grow up with the same advantages you did. Some people who did not grow up with your benefits were resentful of you when they were younger. If you allow them to prove that your excellent prep school does not matter, they will—by rejecting you.
Most people at the most prestigious law firms like Sullivan & Cromwell, Cravath, Wachtel, and similar firms did not go to these sorts of schools. Instead, they made the best of public education and fought hard to get ahead. Emphasizing private schools, in particular, can alienate some people who do not have the same advantages.
- You should list your college on your legal resume.
You should list your major but do not need to go into too much detail if your major does not have a lot to do with practicing law. In general, you do not want to list your senior thesis or individual grades on your college section. You should not list your minor unless it is closely related to what you are seeking. For example, if you are interested in being a patent attorney, you can list that you majored in electrical engineering and minored in physics. These are related to what you are doing. Similarly, if you were seeking to be a patent attorney and majored in electrical engineering and minored in art history, this would not help you.
Everything about your resume—to the extent possible—needs to show that you are a natural fit for the job you are applying for.
Many attorneys list under their education section any advanced degrees they may have. For example, many attorneys went to graduate school or even got doctorates in various things. These advanced degrees may be in something like English, anthropology, geology, and more. While science-related degrees can be useful for being a patent lawyer, irrelevant advanced degrees are turn-offs for law firms. Lawyers are taught to cut through "BS" and get to facts. They are not academic— they are interested in facts, and generally want very little to do with academics. They view academics as "soft" and do not understand why people are interested in this sort of thing.
If you have advanced degrees, you need to tone this down. As a general matter, law firms are not a place for reflection and introspection. You are expected to cut through facts, get to the heart of the case, take sides, and push forward. Academics are often not valued. Being too intellectual (or being perceived that way) can hurt you, and you want to avoid looking this way on paper. To tone down your outside degrees, you should just not go into very much detail. You can list the degree and move on. Showing too much detail will give the impression that this is where your interests lie, and law firms will exclude you.
I regularly see attorneys list that they have done something like:
- Take a Dale Carnegie Course
- Take an Anthony Robbins Course
- Get a Certificate in Something from a Business School
These are not degrees.
You only want to list actual degrees you have gotten. That is it. This does not belong in the educational section. Moreover, self-improvement courses, or certifications from business schools and so forth, show a lack of commitment to practicing law. Attorneys are expected to primarily sit down at desks and be billing machines—that's it. If you indicate that you may be interested in spending a lot of time on self-improvement once you start practicing law in a law firm, that will scare many law firms off.
Many older attorneys also do not list their college and law school graduation dates on their resumes. This simply shows you are trying to hide your age—and highlights that you are older. If you are trying to hide certain information on your resume, you will draw attention to it by trying to obscure it. Do not hide your age.
Something I am also increasingly seeing is attorneys who go to various law schools, putting things like the following under their law school:
- Ranked #4 in US for trial advocacy
- Ranked #24 in US by Princeton Review
- Top 50 US law school ranking in US News and World Report
No one cares! If what makes you special and unique is that your school was ranked highly for trial advocacy by some publication I have never heard of, we have an issue. No one cares what your school was ranked by Princeton Review, and if your school is ranked highly by US News, the employer does not need you to tell them that.
STOP IT. It is ridiculous. The fact that you went to a school ranked highly for trial advocacy says zero about you. Being a good trial advocate has zero to do with where you went to school—most the richest and best litigators went to lousy schools. No one cares. People hire people from the schools they went to, or like, or think highly of.
- Why All Types of Lawyers (Even Litigators) Should Send Representative Matters and Deal Sheets with Their Resumes
- Should at Attorney Have a Representative Transaction or Representative Matters Sheet When Making a Lateral Move?
- Grades (College, Graduate School, and Law School)
You should only list your grade point average if it shows you excelled. Most law firms and legal employers can hire people with the top grades. There are lots of candidates for most positions, and highlighting average grades impresses no one. The only benefit to highlighting average grades is that if you want to show a low-paying, or unprestigious, employer that they will not be wasting their time interviewing you, you cannot do better than them.
I see attorneys list that they got a 3.0 average in law school, or equally non-mesmerizing grades on their resumes all the time. Law firms do not want to hire ordinary people (unless you are willing to work for cheap). You want to show that you are outstanding and the best. You need to emphasize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.
A law firm could not care less if you list your individual class grades that were good. I see resumes all the time that say things like;
Top Grades: A- Civil Procedure. B+ in Torts
What? Attorneys who went to good law schools never pull this crap. A law firm does not need to hire someone who got an A- in Civil Procedure. They can hire someone who got all A’s if they really want to.
Early in my legal recruiting career, I represented a woman coming out of a federal circuit court clerkship. She had also written on to law review at a top 25 law school. However, she also did horribly in law school—she graduated with a 2.7 average. She was near the bottom of her class. Her grades were not on her resume. She ended up getting a position at one of the top 10 best litigation law firms in the United States. They never requested her grades (most likely they forgot to). They simply assumed, based on her clerkship and the fact that she was on law review, that she had good grades. This law firm would most likely have expected her to be in the top 5% of her class from this law firm if they were going to hire her, but they never asked.
I thought about this woman recently. I am representing an attorney from a top 15 law school and finishing up a prestigious clerkship who has highlighted on her resume that she is in the "top 50%" of her class.
University of California Los Angeles Law School
JD Top 50%
While this attorney may be proud of this honor, the most prestigious law firms (where she wants to work) will not be impressed. They can hire people in the top 10% of their class all day. You never want to highlight your weaknesses to law firms when applying to work there. You need to show you are the best.
Law firms (especially the best ones) do not hire mediocre people. They hire people who are the best. Telling someone that you were in the top half of the class is a turn-off and not something that law firms are likely to be excited about.
Telling a law firm about a good grade is also unnecessary. If you did very well, highlight that. If you did not do all that well, forget about it. You can still get a job.
Law firms love hiring high achievers who do well in college, graduate school, law school, and so forth. The presumption is that the people who do the best academically are the most focused, achievement-oriented, and will get the best results for employers. Hard work is something law firms value.
If you did extremely well in college, you should list this on your resume. Law firms love this information. The same goes for law school. Displaying the ability to get good grades over an extended period shows commitment. When I hire people to work in our company who are attorneys, I am always the most concerned with their college academic performance. Getting a good LSAT score shows a natural inclination to do well in the practice of law. People who do well on this test can typically understand and figure out legal issues quickly. A good test performance does not show motivation, interest in subject matter, or other things that indicate someone has drive. Some of the biggest stoners I knew in college, got incredible scores on the LSAT but ended up with C averages.
- Do Not List Your SAT, LSAT, GRE, or GMAT Scores on Your Resume.
You should not be listing your SAT, LSAT, GRE, GMAT, and other scores on your resume. Most attorneys that list this information on their resumes do not have incredible grades to back them up either. While I hate to say this, I have never seen a graduate of a school like Harvard, Yale or Stanford list their LSAT scores on their resume. I have seen this from many lesser schools—including many students from Michigan, UCLA, Berkeley, and other great schools. Listing this information on your resume shows a degree of insecurity that simply does not belong on your resume, so your test scores need to be removed.
- Earned Academic Awards (College, Graduate School, and Law School)
When you are a law student, you can certainly highlight the fact that you got an award for being the best student in a class related to the sort of job you are seeking. For example, if you are looking for a job as a corporate attorney, you can highlight the fact you got the highest grade in a corporate law class, or something related to this. Emphasizing that you got the best grade in an environmental law class on your resume would not help you get a position as a corporate attorney. Still, it would help you get one as an environmental attorney. You should list this information only to the extent that it advances whatever you are seeking to do.
- How Much Does the Law School You Went to Matter?
- Where To Place Your Law School In Your Attorney Resume
If you received other awards from your law school (or college) for particular academic or other accomplishments, you should list these as well. Law firms like people who get awards because it shows you are motivated and can channel this motivation into something. If the school's faculty gives you an award for something, it is always a good idea to list this.
Attorneys in graduate school typically receive almost all A's. If you are going to list your grades for graduate school, be careful unless you did exceptionally well. If your graduate school degree is in something like anthropology, philosophy, or English, law firms may worry you will be too academic. Most law firms hate academics.
Doctors that have successful medical practices regularly go to law school because they want to do things like becoming litigators. I have seen doctors who performed incredibly well in medical school and who are making $500,000 a year suddenly go to law school. They start applying to law firms with resumes that list all of their medical school grades and so forth. Law firms reject them like viruses. They are doctors and not lawyers. Law firms and the attorneys in them do not feel like abusing prestigious doctors with document reviews and mind-numbing due diligence in all night projects in cold warehouses in suburban Omaha. They just reject them rather than abuse their potential future caregivers.
Certain firms love to hire Sears Prize winners from Harvard Law School (top first-year grade point average students) or Harlan Fiske Stone Scholars from Columbia Law School (top third of the graduating class).
Being elected to Phi Beta Kappa in college is also something that law firms take seriously.
For years I listed on my resume that I was nominated, interviewed, and advanced in the national competition to be a Rhodes Scholar. That is not an easy thing to do, but I did not win. I ultimately took it off my resume because it highlighted that I did not ultimately get the honor.
When you list awards, be careful about the ones you list, however. You want to make sure that your awards show that you are likely to stick around at the law firm and be a contributor and not the opposite.
- You Should List Law Review and Journal Membership on Your Legal Resume
Your resume is also the place to highlight if you were on law review, or wrote on to various journals. While law review should always be listed, I have become a little bit more suspect of listing some journals if they are unrelated to the sort of job you are seeking. There are journals about gender and the law, about the environment and other similar topics. These journals will be of interest and relevant to some employers and will be irrelevant and may detract from the sort of law firm you are applying to.
In general, being a member of a competitive journal, or law review, is likely to be valued by most law firms. Having leadership roles in these journals is also something likely to help your case as well. If a law firm sees a consistent path of leadership in the things you do, they will assume that your peers respect you and that you will be respected in your law firm.
- Five Class-Based Rules That Determine Attorney Success or Failure
- The "Systematic Reason" Why Most Attorneys Fail in Large, Prestigious Law Firms
- Scholastic Activities (College, Law School and More)
You should only list academic activities that are likely to "signal" to the employer that you are likely to be a good fit for what they are seeking.
There are countless activities that attorneys take part in when they are in law school and college. For the most part, most employers have very little interest in these activities. They are only interested in them to the extent they "signal" something the employer is looking for or an untapped need the employer has for a certain type of person.
If you did a lot of "mock trial" or debate in college and did well at this, and want to be a litigator, by all means, list this stuff. It is relevant and can help you. Anything that shows you have an interest in practicing law and have had this interest in the past will help you.
You should not list sports on your resume unless you were very good at something. Playing a varsity sport in college should be listed. This shows that you are competitive, hardworking, and talented. Intramural-type sports should not be listed. You should also not list things like playing softball in law school. No one cares. It is a waste of space and detracts from showing you are likely to be a hardworking and committed attorney.
Listing things like being a member of a fraternity in college is not likely to help you. This shows you may be able to get along with a group of men. It is also likely to be alienating to various people who were not members of fraternities, or others who may feel threatened by them.
The largest, most prestigious, and most difficult-to-get-into employers are most likely to only be concerned with your law school grades when hiring you. You are not going to move the needle very much by showing that you have participated in a lot of outside activities. This is especially so if you want to work in a major law firm.
If you want to practice corporate law, you can "signal" your interest in this sort of work by being a member of a group related to corporate law.
Many law students and even longtime practicing attorneys will list membership in OutLaw (the gay law students association), the Muslim Law Students Association, the Black Law Students Association, the Federalist Society, the Christian Law Students Association, and more. Any time you make your race, political affiliation, or sexuality an issue, this will impress some and alienate others. Everyone has preconceptions of people with different interests and affiliations, and that is just a fact. These perceptions may be harmful, or they may be positive.
I do not like it any more than you do.
If you are a member of a particular type of group, you absolutely should leave this on but only for the sorts of employers where this is likely to help you. It will hurt you with many employers. Regardless of how law firms talk about diversity, this is not always something individual attorneys will welcome.
I grew up Christian and in an environment where there were no Jews. People I knew would sputter off all sorts of antisemitic comments. When I started my legal career, I noticed that there were a few law firms that were predominately Jewish, black, Christian, and so forth. Things were arranged along racial lines. I wanted to work in a Jewish firm and could not get a job in the one I wanted to work in—but the Christian firms were far more welcoming.
When I was clerking for a federal judge in Detroit, some Mormon missionaries spent weeks trying to convert me. They even showed up one day and asked me if I needed any work done, and they spent a day cleaning a bunch of my asphalt equipment I was storing at a gas station with members of their church. While this ultimately did not go anywhere, I respected them for their hard work, earnestness, and how nice they were to me.
When a nice Mormon guy from Brigham Young Law School in Utah applied to work for my judge as a new clerk, I went out of my way to lobby for him. I wanted to give back to this group of nice people. Later, I even opened an office in Utah for my company, and it is still there almost twenty years later. I am not a Mormon; however, I wanted to support people that were nice to me.
Later, I married a Jewish woman and started associating with many Jews. I started seeing firsthand how Jews helped other Jews. A Jewish lawyer in charge of hiring in a major law firm told me that non-Jews would be uncomfortable in his firm and only sent him Jewish "guys."
Most Christians, Jews, and others are not racist. However, these groups of people prefer to be around people with similar experiences, friends, and backgrounds because they feel safe around these sorts of people. Thus, if you are trying to work with a particular group of people, highlighting relevant information on your resume is likely helpful.
Years ago, I represented a diehard Republican conservative who was looking for a position in San Francisco. I knew this person well and had known him for years. He really did not like liberals or San Francisco, and only ended up there working for a large law firm by a fluke. He was proud of his political activism, and his resume was littered with the Federalist Society and other conservative organizations he was involved in. He was an excellent attorney. He had gone to a top 10 law school, done well there, clerked for a federal judge, and then worked in a top law firm in San Francisco.
He got one interview in San Francisco with a law firm composed almost entirely of conservative republicans (probably the only law firm in San Francisco). This firm not only made him an offer, but they also wanted him badly. There was no one like him in the market in San Francisco who shared his political leanings.
I have no idea why most of the law firms in very liberal San Francisco were not interviewing him. However, my distinct suspicion is that this was exactly the sort of person they did not want.
What this attorney should have done was remove all of his political activities from his resume for the majority of the law firms he was applying to (after understanding the makeup of the firm) and kept his political activities on his resume for the conservative law firms he was applying to.
I see resumes all the time that highlight all sorts of social justice-related activities, or that someone is interested in matters related to changing society. If you are interested in changing society, the place to do this is most likely not going to be a private law firm representing large corporations. You need to be careful about highlighting that your viewpoint about specific issues could lead to trouble in a law firm. If you are going to work for a nonprofit, public interest, or government department that does this sort of work, then that is fine. However, you need to understand that your views about society are likely to be polarizing to some and will prevent you from getting jobs.
I work primarily for law firms. Law firms are businesses. They rely on their attorneys sitting down at a desk, billing lots of hours, hopefully bringing in business, and not stirring things up. The more the attorney shows they are likely to have a chip on their shoulder about something or be angry about something, the more the law firm is likely to shy away from them. Law firms want to hire people who are going to do work, not make trouble, and then go home.
There are all sorts of issues in society that need fixing. It is difficult for many people from diverse backgrounds to get ahead in law firms and integrate. Women are often harassed sexually. There is a multitude of issues that need fixing. But a private law firm that represents major corporations needs people who are more interested in fixing these corporations' issues than they are interested in fixing perceived problems inside the law firm. This is just the cold hard reality of this. You need to pick the sort of team you are interested in being on, and your resume should reflect this.
After September 11, 2001, I had an attorney that had a bunch of Muslim stuff on his resume and was exceptionally well-qualified in terms of his resume. Law firms would not even interview him in the region of the country I was trying to get him in despite the interviewing candidates with lesser qualifications.
Law firms are "mini-tribes" and hire people like them. Some people fit in, and others do not.
When I came to Los Angeles to interview with law firms when I was finishing a clerkship, I talked with a variety of law firms. One small law firm that was a branch office of a San Francisco law firm I interviewed with was, to my surprise at the time, populated seemingly with all gay men. It was a surprise to me because I was coming from the Midwest, where people would have been very uncomfortable to have been so out at the time. I thought the guys were great, but my enthusiasm was not shared. I was not as cool as the guys I was interviewing with.
The recruiting coordinator who called me and told me the firm was not hiring me was very direct: "You would not 'fit in' here," she told me.
Law firms hire people like them who match who they are culturally and even politically.
Few attorneys get jobs with top law firms by having anything on their resumes that signals anything to do with diversity, or their political or social affiliations. I think it is smart to keep this out of the calculus and try and be hired for who you are and not the groups you are coming from and represent.
When a legal employer is reviewing your resume, they are always asking themselves the following questions: (1) can you do the job, (2) can you be managed, and (3) will you do the job long term. While your education and other areas can signal this, your experience is the area where this is most likely to come through.
- Your Experience Section Needs to Show You Can Do the Job.
Your resume needs to sell to the employer that you are likely to be a good fit for the position they have open. This means the information you put on there should "signal" that you are interested in the work the employer is hiring for. The more the resume signals this, the better.
When a law firm is hiring law students, they are not really that concerned with whether or not you have a lot of work experience. If you are going to law school and look like you are smart enough, they assume you will be able to do the job. I hate to say this, but the job is yours to lose based on what you put on your resume. The more experience you put on your resume that shows you cannot do the job, the less likely you will be to get the job.
You could list that you worked as a waitress, landscaper in college, or as a financial analyst after college. That is fine. Experiences that gave you "grit" and showed you the value of hard work and perseverance are valued. You could also list that you worked for a professor in law school or as a paralegal after college. You do not need to go into a lot of detail about your work experiences if you are a law student. The main thing you need to do is "signal" to the employer that you have an interest in practicing law, preferably in a practice area you are interested in, and that is that.
Anything that shows you will not have any issues with representing the sorts of clients the law firm works for is also something that will show you can do the job.
In my first summer of law school, I worked in the Department of Justice in a division that (without me being aware of it, or seeking it out) represented the government when the government spilled toxic chemicals and did other damage to the environment (and was actually filled with conservative republicans). In the latter half of the summer, I almost went to work for the United Auto Workers' legal department. Both of these jobs were the sorts of positions that made it look like I might not ultimately be interested in working for a private law firm. Working for unions and then representing the environment are two things that make you appear against and not for corporate interests. You need to be careful about what your resume communicates and how it looks.
The worst mistake resumes make is they show a massive failure to understand their target audience. Failing to understand your target audience is the single largest reason your resume is likely to get bounced. If you fail to understand your target audience, you are in trouble.
This means your resume needs to show you are likely to be the sort of person that is going to fit in with the legal employer. You need to look appropriate for the job. You simply cannot do the job if your experience looks philosophically misaligned from the sort of job you are applying for.
Early in my career, I worked with a graduate of an Ivy League Law School who wanted to make the switch from doing plaintiffs' employment work to doing defense work. Some defense firms were far more upset about this than I could have imagined they would have been. I realized right then and there that both sides (defense and plaintiff) in this bar did not want attorneys crossing over to the other side.
When you are applying to particular firms or certain jobs, you must understand the sort of law firm you are applying to. Your background should show you are a potentially good fit for each type of employer.
As a general rule:
- The larger the law firm you are applying to, the more they will want you to be a specialist.
- The larger the market you are applying to law firms in, the more they will want you to be a specialist.
- The more prestigious the law firm you are applying to, the more they will want you to be a specialist.
- If a law firm has an opening for a specialist, they will almost always expect you to be a specialist.
- Choosing A Generalist/Specialist Program As A Paralegal
- How Much Do Practice Areas Vary from State to State? A Guide for Attorneys Looking for the Best Markets for their Practice Area
Large law firms represent large clients. These clients pay high rates for specialists with experience doing specialist-type work. Small law firms, and law firms in smaller markets, typically do not have as large clients and are more likely to be generalists. Generalists do a lot of different types of work.
One of the most significant mistakes that attorneys make is listing many different types of legal work on their resume when applying for specialized positions.
If a law firm has an opening for an attorney to do mergers and acquisitions, they will not like your experience in litigation, or anything else unrelated to mergers and acquisitions. If you are applying to this sort of position, your resume needs to lead with your mergers and acquisitions experience and minimize everything else that you do. If you are discussing your other experience on your resume, you need to deemphasize it. Law firms have the opportunity (especially the largest, most prestigious ones) to hire lots of people. If they have an opening for a person to do a specific type of work, discussing anything on your resume that is different from this sort of work is not going to help you.
You need to tailor your experience to the sort of position you are seeking.
One thing that happens to many attorneys is that they may have had several positions over the years where they did a variety of different types of work. You should do your best to only highlight the relevant work for a position and deemphasize the other work. If you are a litigation attorney applying to litigation openings but worked as a labor and employment law firm ten years ago, do not highlight this. You can just say you were an associate. Do not allow the law firm to be distracted based on your prior experience and eliminate you based on this.
- Your Experience Needs to Show You Can You be Managed
Your experience section will often show whether you can be managed—regardless of whether you realize it.
Law firms want to hire people who sit down at desks, work hard, do not complain, are relatively satisfied with what they are paid, and are not always interested in something else. Working for someone else requires an ability to fall in line, take orders, and not question authority. Nothing should show a lack of commitment to a specific practice area, or even the profession at all. Being managed—regardless of whether you are a partner or associate—means you will be part of the machinery and happy doing so.
Unfortunately, for many law firms, some people have other ideas. People become solo practitioners, quit jobs with nothing new lined up and take long trips, take jobs in different practice settings (or outside the law completely), switch law firms frequently, switch practice areas, do judicial clerkships in the middle of their careers, decide to quit law firms and go get MBAs, or MFAs in creative writing, take a year or more off to write books, and more. Other attorneys take months or years off to run for congress, support others' political campaigns, and more. Still other attorneys have "hidden" issues with authority, "hidden" serious substance abuse problems, and other problems that cause them to switch jobs often. Other attorneys despise the management of the firms wherever they go. Some partners leave firms every couple of years and take associates with them when they do not believe they are being paid enough.
Law firms (and most employers) are looking for people they can manage. You would too if you were running a law firm. The best law firms will pick up on this and not hire you if you show signs you may not be able to be managed. Your resume needs to show you can be managed. Ideally, it needs to show you left your last firms (or positions) for reasons unrelated to your ability to be managed.
A few weeks ago, I saw the resume of an attorney who had been at four different firms in six years. I looked at the resume and thought, "this attorney has issues." However, when I probed, it turned out that the attorney had been at so many firms because she had been hired by her first firm to work with one partner. This partner kept moving firms, and she went with him because she was not working with anyone else. What at first looked like someone who could not be managed ultimately turned out to be someone who could, in fact, be managed very well and was following the person she worked for. We changed her resume, and she found a position quickly.
I am currently working with a woman from New York City who worked for a very prestigious law firm for four years and graduated from a very prestigious law school. She then moved to another city, had children, and for the past three years has been volunteering for a fringe left-wing organization suing all sorts of people for perceived societal injustices. There is nothing wrong with this interest; however, she is probably not going to get hired by the kind of law firm she can get a job with if she removes this from her resume. Her resume signals she is going to be looking for trouble in a law firm if she is hired, may not trust the firm's clients, and, more importantly, has other interests.
A resume mistake is emphasizing your independent nature. If you look too independent, overly ambitious, impatient for success, and unmanageable, the smart law firm will not hire you. Law firms want people (at all levels) that they can control.
- Your Experience Needs to Show You Will Do the Job Long Term
A resume needs to reflect that the attorney seeking the position has evolved and is a natural fit for the job the law firm has. This means that there is some sort of upward, downward, or sideways movement that makes the attorney look like someone that is arriving at the employer's door and is likely to remain there for the rest of their career.
One of the best hires is the attorney who has been growing in the direction of the opening a law firm currently has. An attorney may have been getting experience doing something more general, to more specific, for some time. For example, an attorney may have been doing a mix of ERISA and employee benefits and only want to do employee benefits and work at a firm specializing in this. An attorney may have been doing mergers and acquisitions at a midsized firm and wants to work at a major firm doing this. The best resumes signal a natural evolution towards a specific type of position.
Law firms love seeing movement from smaller firms to progressively more prestigious and better firms. Law firms love it when attorneys want to bring in more clients and get more trial experience when trying to move to smaller law firms. To the best of your ability, you need to tell a story that shows you are going to be a good fit.
Law firms do not like to see too much movement on a resume. If there has been a lot of movement, you should do your best to explain it on the resume itself. If you have worked at 10+ law firms, you should simply have a section that gives dates for when you worked at these law firms and list them.
Anything you put on your resume that shows you do not have an interest in working in that sort of employer hurts you. You may not have an interest in working for the employer long-term. I see resumes of attorneys all day long who have taken jobs outside of law firms (in-house and other things) after years of working inside of law firms. This communicates their lack of interest in a law firm and hurts them when seeking jobs in law firms. A law firm, in particular, wants to see you have a commitment to working for them.
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- Additional Sections
- Your legal resume can list outside interests.
What is nice about the interest section of a resume is that it gives you time to connect with the employer and talk about personal topics, and it paints you as a person.
I love talking to attorneys about their interest section. When I review the experience section, the conversations are always formal, and there is no connection. When I talk about interests, it is always fun.
I interviewed an attorney to work in our firm the other day with some fitness interests on her resume. I love fitness as well, and we spoke about fitness-related stuff for twenty minutes. After this conversation, I decided I really wanted to hire her and sent her resume on to other people to meet with her with an enthusiastic endorsement.
I once saw an attorney get hired on the spot when he engaged in a thirty-minute discussion with the hiring partner at a major law firm in Colorado about snowboarding.
I used to fly airplanes and always love speaking with people who put this on their resume. I like talking to people about yoga, self-improvement when they put this on their resume.
I like talking to people about meditation. I love talking to people about television shows when this is on their resume. I like talking to people about puzzles they like doing.
An interest section should not be upsetting to people, however. Indicating an interest in hunting and fishing will upset animal lovers. Still, it may be appropriate in certain areas of the country where applicable.
Most outside interests are fine. Just remember that if you paint yourself as being one type of person, it may eliminate you from consideration by some firms, but be attractive to others.
- Your legal resume should list the languages you speak, write, and understand.
Languages are always good to include and make you seem well-rounded and interesting. You can list whether or not you speak the language, write it, and proficiency.
- Bar admissions should be listed on your legal resume.
State bar admissions are useful. If you have been working and living in Indiana for the past ten years and took the California Bar two years ago, only put that on your resume when applying to firms in California. Law firms in Indiana are going to view this as a flight risk. If you have never worked or practiced law in an area and are admitted to the bar there, you should be prepared to discuss why.
Admission to the patent bar should always be listed.
Admission to various federal district courts should not. Anyone can get admitted to a federal district court on motion.
- Relevant certifications you have should be listed on a legal resume.
Some attorneys are CPAs. Others have privacy certifications. Some are certified specialists, according to a state bar. If you have a certain certification that required considerable work to get, you should, of course, list this. Law firms like having people who have gone through rigorous testing to get various sorts of certifications.
At the same time, listing that you are a notary public on a legal resume is not too helpful. Lawyers see notary publics as more administrative roles. It will affect how the law firm views your application and it may hold you back.
- Legal-related publications and presentations should be listed on a legal resume if relevant.
You are welcome to list publications; however, you do not want to appear too academic (especially if you are younger and in law school). If you have done a lot of writing in your practice area, keep this on your resume. It will help you and make you look like you are taking a leadership role in your practice area.
It is also a good idea to list presentations you have made for groups of clients, state bar groups, and others.
- Continuing education should not be listed on a legal resume if mandatory and listed if it is voluntary. It shows interest and commitment to your practice area.
You do not need to list continuing education courses you have taken. Most bars require some sort of continuing legal education, and listing mandatory activities is not necessary.
If, however, you have done activities with a better attorney in your practice area—such as attending a four-week trial advocacy school, list this.
- Volunteer activities and memberships should be listed on a legal resume.
This should almost always be listed. Doing charitable work, participating in clubs that are not snobby and exclusionary, and other sorts of activities that suggest an interest in business development are all helpful to list.
- Representative clients should be listed on a legal resume.
If you are comfortable doing this and have a book of business, you should include this. Law firms need attorneys with business to function, and you should always have this information on there if possible.
- References should generally not be listed on a legal resume.
Many attorneys are still putting "references available on request" on their resumes. You do not need this. Listing this is stupid. You sure as hell better have references. What? They are not going to be available on request? You need references, and in an interview, you need to be prepared to produce them immediately.
Some attorneys have worked with well-known judges, famous attorneys, celebrities, and the like in the past. I've seen entertainment attorneys in Los Angeles list stars as references. It sounds ludicrous, but this can actually help you with some firms. If you have worked with someone very well known who is willing to go to bat for you, by all means, list them.
- How Attorneys Should Handle Reference Requests When Interviewing With Law Firms: A Guide for Law Firm Attorneys
A fundamental skill of attorneys that is expected of them is to never highlight their weaknesses. You are expected to know how to do this instinctively. It is what is expected of you when you represent clients: You need to highlight your clients' strengths and minimize their weaknesses. If you highlight your own shortcomings, this makes you look bad. Your resume is the perfect place to highlight your strengths and not your weaknesses. You also need to focus your arguments on what your audience wants to hear. Your audience should like you and not the other way around. You need to show why you are a natural fit for the position and not the other way around. Lawyers reviewing your resume are looking to poke holes in it and find the reasons you will not work—the fewer reasons you give, the better.
Most career counselors, recruiters, and others who review your resume never suggest changes. They do not recommend changes because they figure that things generally work out—and they are right. However, things work out far more often when you have a resume focused on the employer and the sort of position you are seeking specifically. You need to focus and tailor your resume. Do not make mistakes that get you disqualified from positions that you can rightfully get. I've reviewed the resumes of close to half the attorneys in America. I can tell you very few attorneys focus their resumes on the employers and jobs they are seeking. Most, unfortunately, leave everything to chance.
About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. He is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.
About BCG Attorney Search
BCG Attorney Search matches attorneys and law firms with unparalleled expertise and drive, while achieving results. Known globally for its success in locating and placing attorneys in law firms of all sizes, BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys in law firms in thousands of different law firms around the country. Unlike other legal placement firms, BCG Attorney Search brings massive resources of over 150 employees to its placement efforts locating positions and opportunities its competitors simply cannot. Every legal recruiter at BCG Attorney Search is a former successful attorney who attended a top law school, worked in top law firms and brought massive drive and commitment to their work. BCG Attorney Search legal recruiters take your legal career seriously and understand attorneys. For more information, please visit www.BCGSearch.com.
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Harrison also does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for law firms, companies, and others who hire attorneys each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom
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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.
Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.
To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.