How to Select the Right Practice Area and Position Your Resume for Success in Your Legal Job Search | BCGSearch.com

How to Select the Right Practice Area and Position Your Resume for Success in Your Legal Job Search

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Nothing hurts more legal careers than:
 
  1. Resumes not completely focused on one practice area,
  2. Attorneys trying to get jobs in multiple practice areas, and,
  3. Resumes that put the attorney on one side of divisive social, political and other issues.

When a law firm employer looks at your resume, your resume needs to have the “scent” and multiple clues that you would be a good fit for a specific practice area. This means you need to look like you are interested in one practice area.  If your resume does not do this, you will not get interviewed or hired – and if you are hired, the law firm is not a well-run business, and there is probably no future there.

You can also take an insane gamble and put stuff on your resume about:
 
  • Your position on social issues like abortion, capital punishment, and more.
  • Your political affiliation.
  • Things you believe are important but not everyone may like. Groups you belong to that may alienate some people, interests that make it look like you are not interested in working in a law firm, or would prefer to be doing something else.

Not everyone is a fan of Republicans or Democrats. If you insist on listing this on your resume, you will alienate employers. You will automatically disqualify yourself from a substantial percentage of jobs if your resume is not focused. Including these items on your resume may hurt you in your job search.


If you think you are helping yourself by talking about every type of work you have ever done, or your commitment to a social cause, you are wrong.

Employers do not care about what you are interested in, practice areas that you have minimal experience in, or anything else irrelevant to their needs. They care about your main experience, whether or not you can do their work and are interested in doing that sort of work, and if you will be committed to that practice area.

Most law firms that can afford to pay you have relatively sophisticated clients. They want someone working on their matters who understands a practice area, is committed to it, and is more interested in that practice areas then social causes, non-legal entrepreneurial efforts, or other interests. Clients do not want dabblers doing their work; law firms do not hire dabblers and focusing on a marketable specialty on your resume is crucial.
 
  1. An unfocused resume wastes the time of job seekers, employers, and everyone involved because these people have a very difficult time getting jobs.

For a group of 100 candidates, I estimate that approximately 95% of experienced attorneys select improper practice areas or position their resumes incorrectly for job searches. That 95% get jobs when law firms make mistakes (and many do)—but the 5% whose resumes are properly focused always get interviews and jobs. The 5% with focused resumes get more jobs and better jobs than the 95% that do not know what they want to do. Attorneys who know what they want to do are hired. I could care less where you went to law school or how prestigious your background is; the only thing that sells in the market is focus—and the more focus and longer the focus, the better.

An attorney focused on family law, immigration, trust and estates, worker's compensation, personal injury, plaintiff's employment attorney who graduated from a 4th tier law school will get more interviews than a Harvard Law School graduate from the top of their class whose resume shows a lack of commitment to whatever practice area and practice setting they are in. Focus matters more than anything. It is the most essential qualification you have in the legal market. It is the only thing that matters.

I can get an attorney with a focused resume interviews anywhere. If someone is not focused, most people are not interested in them if they know what they are doing. These attorneys never last long and are horrible investments for employers, clients and others.

The average attorney thinks the most important aspects of getting hired are:
 
  • The quality of their qualifications (law school, employers).
  • The variety of work they have done (different types of experience).
  • Some attorneys believe their commitment to social causes, politics and more is more important than their interest in practicing law.

This is 100% wrong.

Here is the truth about getting hired by 95% of law firms:
 
  • There are different prestige levels of law firms —you cannot walk into a major law firm without the right background. Still, you can get a position with a firm appropriate to your qualifications if your resume is focused.
  • Law firms care more about you're the focus of your experience than your qualification (law school or employers).
  • With limited exceptions, the more types of legal experience you have, the worse off you will be (experience doing other things almost always is a liability).
  • The less you look like you are interested in practicing law, and the more interested you are in social issues, the less interested law firms will be in you.

For over two decades, I have been going over this ad nauseum. If you care about getting a position, you can review webinars and other information I have done throughout the years here. Nothing messes people up more than demonstrating a lack of focus in their resumes and job searches. Nothing benefits an employer less than hiring someone who is unfocused, does not know what they want to do, or is more interested in social issues than practicing law. Nothing will hurt your career more either.
 
  1. Your resume must present you as a committed specialist if you want to get hired.

Unless it is a small law firm in a rural area or a very small law firm that hires whoever walks in the door, good law firms hire specialists, not generalists. If the law firm is willing to hire a generalist, they will not be in business long (or will usually have a difficult time paying you).

This is how the business world works. People hire people who know what they are doing—and not those who do not. Law firms also hire people who want to do the sort of work they are doing—not people who would rather be doing something else.

If your resume looks like you have experience doing a lot of different things, that will be suspect.

I've made thousands of placements, and I cannot recall ever placing a generalist.

People that get hired do one thing—it does not matter what. It needs to be specific and the more specific the better. The more expertise you have the better off you are. Legal jobs belong to specialists. There are always people willing to hire them.

I've worked with tens of thousands of attorneys that insisted on calling themselves generalists and crafted their resumes this way, and I have told them what I am telling you now. I’ve told them this:
 
  1. Focus your resume on one practice area. Remove all references to work that have nothing to do with your focus.
  2. Choose a practice area in our database most closely related to the one thing you do. Do not try to apply to jobs where you do not have a lot of focused experience. Stick to your focus.

If you want to be a generalist, you are going to have a difficult time getting hired. You are probably short-changing yourself too. I know you are because most attorneys do.
 
  • If you are a trademark attorney, no one cares if you once worked on a corporate transaction—listing this on your resume makes you look uncommitted and like you are not a trademark attorney.
  • If you are a corporate attorney, no one cares if you did a trademark once—it makes your corporate experience look weak.
  • If you have done four different practice areas in the past three years and are currently doing family law, no one cares what you did in the past—they only want to speak to you about what you are doing now and will hold your past against you because you look like a flake.

You can do whatever you want—and will. But your resume needs to talk about one practice area and one only if you want to get a good job.

You can talk about as many practice areas as you like on your resume; however, each one you list will result in you AUTOMATICALLY GOING DOWN ONE LETTER GRADE—an "A" becomes a "B" the first time you do it, the "B" becomes a "C" the second time, and so forth.

Law firms hire people who are consistently interested and focused on a certain practice area. If you start doing a bunch of things or have experience with different firms and no sense of long-term commitment, law firms will avoid you. You would do the same.

Would you hire someone to operate on your brain who has worked as a brain surgeon for six months and formerly has been a foot doctor, eye doctor, and radiologist? Does that make any sense? It would be a train wreck if a hospital hired such a person to be a brain surgeon. Patients would not trust their brain to someone like that.

Yet lawyers do this on their legal resumes all the time. Will a law firm be interested in the fact that you did some pro bono work for people in a jungle in Brazil for the last year? Do you think this pro bono experience will make them more likely to hire you to document a merger between a few Fortune 100 companies? Are you out of your mind? Do you think law firms are impressed by this?

Often, attorneys are proud when they get experience doing different things. The litigator is proud they got experience working on a corporate-related contract; the corporate attorney is excited they got the experience to do a client pitch on intellectual property issues. None of this will help you get a job in another practice area you do not have prior experience doing. People chronicle their experience working on a bunch of disparate and unrelated matters as if it is going to help them when it does the opposite. It will mess you up—no one will pay attention to you after they figure out you have no idea what you are doing or want.

Let’s compare getting a law firm position to dating. You meet someone, and they tell you the following: “I like dating men. I also like women. I also like old people and young people. Sometimes I like to date men, women, and other couples simultaneously. I have dated lots of married people and single ones too. I like rich people and poor people. Drug use is fine, but if they do not use drugs, I'm fine with that as well."

This person would not be an ideal match for most because this person has no idea what they want. You have no way of knowing how you fit in with their plans. Like the attorney who cannot figure out what they stand for, this person will likely have a very tormented and difficult dating life. It’s not about their lifestyle choices, but about focus and clarity.

You cannot look like you are dabbling in different things and do not know what you want to do. No one is impressed with your variety—it is REPULSIVE to most law firms.
 
  • Very few law firms hire people to do plaintiff and defense work—you are one or the other. You cannot be both. If I send a plaintiff's attorney to a defense firm, most of them will be mad at me – they hate each other.
  • Law firms will not hire you if you are a corporate and litigation attorney—you are one or the other. You are either a transactional attorney or a litigator. You cannot be both.
  • Law firms will not hire you to be a patent attorney if you are a real estate attorney—you are a real estate attorney and not a patent attorney.
  • Law firms will not hire you to be an employment attorney if you are a general commercial litigator. You are an employment attorney. No one cares if you are interested in this—they care about your experience.
  • Law firms will not hire you to be a federal tax attorney if you are a tax controversy attorney—they are not the same.
  • You used to be a litigator with a big firm. You went in-house and now do litigation, corporate, and IP. No one in their right mind will hire you to be a litigator for a law firm. You've abandoned your craft and the practice setting. You are a generalist. The law firm can do better (and will).
  • You have been a litigator and tax attorney; now you are a corporate attorney in a law firm. They can do better and will do better. Unless they have lost their marbles, a law firm will not hire you. You are not committed to your practice area.

Ideally, your resume should look like you have always done one thing and been interested in it. If it looks like you have changed interest in something at some point, the odds are you will do the same thing again. No law firm wants this.

Here’s a common situation with an attorney who might be applying for jobs.
 
  • Current Job: Litigation attorney doing commercial litigation.
  • Last Job: Family law attorney.
  • Job Before that: Tax attorney.

This is a bad situation. I would recommend fixing it like this.
 
  • Current Job: Litigation attorney doing commercial litigation.
  • Last Job: Attorney who drafted pleadings and other litigation documents.
  • Job Before that: Attorney with a law firm.

Shut up! Less is more. It will hurt you if you talk about doing a bunch of different things.

The best resumes show a commitment to doing one thing, which is all that stands out. The resumes do not show any interest in a bunch of different things. You look like you want to do something, have always done this, and that is it.
 
  1. You need to select a practice area that you have substantial (recent) experience in and stick to that area.

Suppose your resume does nothing but talk about how you practice worker's compensation law. In that case, no one is going to hire you to be a corporate attorney—unless law schools stop pumping out tens of thousands of new attorneys for a decade or more—or you are searching for a job in an area of the United States too remote and inhospitable to working that the employer has no choice. The experience you talk about on your resume should match the jobs you are applying for. When a law firm hires an attorney with experience, they could care less what you want to do. They care about what you can are trained in.

If you apply to jobs that have nothing to do with your experience, the law firm is not going to be interested in you for that opening.

Let’s say you are searching for a nanny to watch your child. If you post an advertisement for someone to do that and a professional roofer who looks like he eats nails for breakfast shows up, what are you going to think?

“I saw your household has a job opening for a babysitter. I’m a roofer and interested in babysitting!”

“I was thinking about someone different,” you might say.

What is different about someone with litigation experience applying for a corporate job? What is different about someone with trademark experience applying for a plaintiff’s litigation job? There is no difference. Both are equally insane to an employer with a job opening.

The cost of an inability to select a matching practice area and have a resume focused on your resume is simple: You will not get interviews or be hired. You would not hire an attorney without the correct experience either.
 
No one cares if you are interested in a practice area you are not doing. Law firms are only interested in hiring people who have experience doing the work (recent experience) and are committed to this work.

Sometimes people will litter their resume with more garbage and activities that make it look even more confusing.
 
  • Current Job: Litigation attorney doing commercial litigation. Did a corporate nondisclosure agreement and assisted with filing a trademark for an entertainment client.
  • Last Job: Family law attorney. Helped a small-time celebrity draft an adoption order.
  • Job Before that: Tax attorney. Helped an entertainer with tax issues and drafted a trust.

This person wants to be an entertainment attorney but is not. They cannot apply for entertainment jobs. It makes it look like they have always been doing exactly what they do not want to do. Clearly, they do not want to be a litigator, family law attorney, or tax attorney. What a waste of money and time. Whoever hires this person for one of these roles would have to be insane.

You should have ONE practice area—and commit to it. The more you put on your resume, the further away you get from a job.
 
  1. Making your resume a social piece that has nothing to do with being a law firm attorney.

The country is in a social-political war. Many Republicans and Democrats hate each other with a vengeance. People are fighting about statues, police, and other issues. There is rioting in the streets. People are losing their jobs and being ostracized from the job market and society for remarks they made decades ago. Statues are being taken down. Some people hate the Supreme Court. Television, movies, and every form of entertainment are now suspect. People get inflamed about things like abortion, guns, political parties, police, and related topics.

I look at resumes all day, and this is what I have started to see:

Education

Law School. Member group. Member group task force. Classes in member group affiliation.

College. Group member. Member of the affiliated group. Extensive course work in group affiliation.

Experience

Employer 1. Member of the group. Pro bono for group members. One line about the practice area.

Interests

Member of the group. Member of other group related to the same affiliated group.

Publications

Group papers


What the hell is going on? If you are a Republican, an environmentalist, or whatever, you do not need to tell me your sociopolitical opinion repeatedly throughout your resume. I care about the sort of work you do. That's it. I make money when attorneys get hired. I would tell you to list your social and political stances all over your resume if I thought this information would help you,–but it does not.

Regardless of your social/political affiliation, if you choose to advertise it, you do so with my advice that it will do more harm than good. If you want to try and get a job in a major city and list that you are a Republican, like to play polo, and are a member of the Mayflower Society, knock yourself out. No one will hire you. They will dislike you. This never works.

Law firms hire people to be advocates for clients. The larger the law firm, the more likely the clients will be powerful, wealthy groups and people. As people and businesses become wealthier and more powerful, they want employees and attorneys whose politics will not interfere with the service they are getting—they can afford to act this way. They want things like efficiency, meritocracy, and more. They want loyalty. They do not want attorneys who undermine them to serve their causes. They want to run businesses that make money. Businesses will get behind social causes if it benefits them—but to the extent it does not benefit them, they will not. Most businesses and the people who own them want fewer taxes, easier business climates, fewer lawsuits (against employers), and more.

If you want to make your resume about social issues—knock yourself out. People will avoid you. I am not sure how many different ways to say this. You need to get this information off of your resume immediately.

I look at resumes all day and don't understand what is happening. It’s just getting worse over time.

I looked at the one-page resume of a candidate the other day that talked about the same social/group affiliation no fewer than 27 times on his one-page resume. He was a graduate at the top of his class at Columbia Law School and could not get an interview in New York City. He had been to resume coaches, career counselors, and more, and everyone was afraid to tell him what was wrong with his resume.

What was wrong is that he used a one word descriptive of his social/political affiliation 27 times on his resume. He spent more time discussing that than his ten years of legal experience. He was a member of the social/affinity student association in college and law school, wrote for a social/affinity journal, did social/affinity work while practicing law (it was the first thing he listed), worked for a judge who was a member of the social/affinity group, wrote several law review articles for the social/affinity group, and led a social/affinity group at his two law firms.

I do not care about your affiliations—I care if you get a job.
 
  • If I list that I am a Christian 27 times on my resume, will this help me?
  • If I list that I am a member of Mensa 27 times on my resume, will this help me?
  • If I list that I like guns 27 times on my resume, will this help me?
  • If I list pro-life 27 times on my resume, will this help me?

This is more common than you think. When people do this nonsense on their resumes, it does not benefit them.

If you make your resume a social/political document, you will immediately alienate many people and have no one to blame but yourself.

When you make your resume for a law firm job a social-political statement, here is what happens. People have the following thoughts:
 
  • I hate pro-life people.
  • I hate pro-choice people.
  • I hate Democrats.
  • I hate Republicans.
  • This looks like the sort of person who will discriminate against me.
  • Is this person going to expect me to call them by all these pronouns? What is going on?
  • This person must be very liberal if they like the New York Times.
  • This person must be conservative if they like the Wall Street Journal.
  • I hope this person does not sue us—the last person from this group did.
  • This person seems more interested in their group than this job.

Listen, you can do whatever you want on your resume—I will not stop you. What I will tell you is this:

People who make their resumes social-political documents get fewer interviews—and often do not get hired. I do not make the rules. This is what it is. They call it discrimination, and it is. It does not matter if you are a Democrat, Republican, gay, straight, or whatever.
 
  • I once worked with a guy who was white as they came in the federalist society and was at the top of his class from a top-10 law school. He could not get a single interview in San Francisco. He made people uncomfortable there.
  • I worked with a woman who was raped and listed this several times on her resume. She was in San Francisco and had gone to Stanford Law School. She was not getting interviews either.

This social stuff is a landmine. Avoid it.

Let me tell you what happens when you do not put this stuff there. People interview you, and you are in control. You are in control because you can be choose what information to reveal about yourself and the right time to reveal it. You do not alienate certain people unless you want to. You show up for interviews and might be of a certain background, but people will respect you for not trying to get in with this. If you advertise on your resume that your father is a big-time businessman with a lot of money, people will not like this—they will resent you trying to use these connections to get ahead. There is not much difference between doing this and trying to get in by identifying all over your resume with some group that you think will be favored.

When you lead with socio-political statements, you are asking for special treatment right in your resume. It seems like you expect your application to be approved based on your leanings rather than your accomplishments. Hiring managers would rather make it their own decision to give you special treatment. When you do not make an issue out of your social or political view, you allow them to feel empowered and more likely to offer you the job.

To succeed in your job search, focus your resume on one practice area, do not list competing areas of the law, and stay away from sweeping social and political statements. You will be hired based on merit and the relevant experience you highlighted in your resume.

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.

Harrison Barnes does a weekly free webinar with live Q&A for attorneys and law students each Wednesday at 10:00 am PST. You can attend anonymously and ask questions about your career, this article, or any other legal career-related topics. You can sign up for the weekly webinar here: Register on Zoom

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

You can browse a list of past webinars here: Webinar Replays

You can also listen to Harrison Barnes Podcasts here: Attorney Career Advice Podcasts

You can also read Harrison Barnes' articles and books here: Harrison's Perspectives


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.


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