The most effective resumes demonstrate one key principle: A good resume is more like a portrait than a passport photo.
The Department of State requires uniform passport photo formatting. One passport photo tends to look pretty much like another. Too many job seekers assume that resumes are like passport photos: For any given set of qualifications, there is only one way a resume can look.
A good resume is more like a stylish portrait photo. A top portrait photographer uses lenses, lighting, composition, props and other tools to bring out the subject’s best features in an original way. Your resume should do no less for your professional qualifications.
I drafted this article because after reviewing tens of thousands of resumes. I got tired of seeing the same mistakes and missed opportunities over and over. This article also provides advice on developing your career so that you have the right things to talk about on your resume. This article emphasizes what I know best, legal jobs in the federal government, but the most important advice is readily adaptable to non-legal jobs and the private sector.
Why Paper Resumes Still Matter
While some large organizations base hiring decisions on automated systems that don’t necessarily give decision makers a paper copy or even a conventionally formatted electronic copy, others continue to rely primarily on conventional resumes. By default, the federal government’s USA Jobs website give decision makers generically formatted electronic summaries. However, even in the federal government, conventional resumes are still more important than might be assumed. The application summaries that USA Jobs automatically provides to employers don’t allow the organization and formatting techniques that give a good resume much of its convincing force. Fortunately, USA Jobs gives applicants the opportunity to supplement their online forms with a conventional resume in word processor or PDF format. It’s best to take this option. This article emphasizes ways to make your conventional resume more effective.
This is particularly important for lawyers. Most lawyer jobs are what is known as Schedule A, “positions that are not of a confidential or policy-determining character for which it is not practicable to examine applicants,” as determined by the Office of Personnel Management. 5 C.F.R. Section 213.102. A Congressional Research Service report provides useful background on this and other federal civil service rules.
This exception to federal civil service rules gives managers enormous flexibility in hiring lawyers. They can ignore most civil service hiring procedures, including the USA Jobs system. Many hiring officials, especially older ones who came of age in a paper-centric world, will choose to rely on paper resumes. These senior lawyers disproportionately control hiring decisions for the best jobs.
Understanding the Competitive Environment
Surviving The First Cut. Government agencies routinely receive a thousand or more resumes for every lawyer vacancy. Since the press of regular work continues unabated, candidate evaluations are often a lower priority than regular job duties.
Since most lawyers are in the Schedule A category, I had a lot of discretion. I had the option of ignoring the USA Jobs system. I used this discretion to give each resume a numerical rating:
10 (Do Anything Possible to Recruit This Person) to
1 (Do Not Hire Under Any Circumstances)
Many other hiring officials use similar screening techniques. These initial reviews might take 30 to 60 seconds or even less. The top resumes would be set aside for more intense scrutiny. Unless a resume ranked highly on this cursory review, it would usually not be considered any further.
Moral: Don’t count on reviewers reading your whole resume, much less analyzing it and extracting your strong points. Your selection of items and presentation must cause your best selling points to jump off the page. You must make it obvious at a glance how you can help the organization where you want to work.
Resume as Test. A resume should be much more than a summary of an applicant’s career history. It is a practical test of an applicant’s judgment, writing ability and advocacy skills. A well-written resume makes me more likely to believe that the applicant will be able to write a persuasive memo or brief.
Moral: View your resume as an advocacy document. Approach it like a brief. Organize around:
- Selling points, reasons to hire you, things you can do for an employer, and
- Citations of evidence to back up each key selling point
Sink the Surplusage
Include on your resume things that will help you get hired and nothing else. If something is going to help you, include it. Unless it will help you get the job, leave it out. This sounds obvious, but a distressingly high percentage of the thousands of lawyer resumes I’ve seen falter in the execution.
Many have trouble following this rule because they view their resume as a sort of personal journal or autobiography. They seem to have a psychological need to claim credit on some cosmic ledger for every good thing they have done in their lives. Though understandable, this approach is not rational. The purpose of the resume is to help you get a job. Not every legal experience or accomplishment will help.
One example: Years ago I published articles advocating lawyer use of blogs in two ABA magazines, Law Practice (mainly for private law firms) and The Public Lawyer (government law offices). I immodestly note that both articles were considered innovative at the time, but neither appears on my basic resume. Although blogs are no longer as avant-garde as they were in 2005, the legal community tends to be conservative. Despite the best efforts of the estimable Kevin O’Keefe, founder of Lexblog, at least a few employers even today would consider an association with blogs a sign of frivolity or poor judgment.
As a result, the major publication credit featured on my basic resume is an article that I co-authored eight years previously, and for a less prominent magazine. The article explains how criminal investigators can best present cases to prosecutors. The potential employers most likely to hire someone with my experience would more readily see the utility of this topic.
The key point is that it is less important to get credit for every article you have ever published or other accomplishment than to highlight the specific things that makes you the right fit for the job. Narrow your focus to make yourself look as attractive as possible to your target market.
Some CLE (Continuing Legal Education) examples further illustrate the exercise of selectivity:
- The Army’s contract law and appropriations courses. These are widely recognized among private and government lawyers working in the area as the gold standard for this type of training. (Since government works can’t be copyrighted, many private sector CLE programs merely use unedited copies of the Army’s texts). Definitely include this training if you have taken any.
- Legal writing CLE. Probably best to omit, unless it is from a prestigious source, or you took it as a very junior lawyer. While most practicing lawyers could benefit from such training, skeptical hiring decision makers may assume your supervisors required you to take it because you are a poor writer.
- Negotiation training. Having the good judgment to take this type of training will help you with the many employers who understand negotiation is a critical skill. The Harvard Law School Program on Negotiations is expensive but excellent. “Harvard” is a nice resume ornament.
The Sink the Surplusage principle has an important corollary:
Things that don’t help you hurt you. Clutter prevents your key selling points from receiving the attention they deserve.
Some ideas deserve repetition, as well as bold type, so here goes: Unless it will help you get the job, leave it out.
Responsibilities vs. Accomplishment
One of the most common harmful resume drafting practices is excessive reliance on reciting the duties of the various jobs that the candidate has held. Some unsophisticated or lazy applicants simply transfer unedited job descriptions onto their resumes. This approach is a recipe for failure. If you cannot describe your duties in a more effective way than the typical job description, you are sending the message that you do not deserve a better job.
Even if you polish the descriptions of your job duties to a high sheen, it is a mistake to rely on them to sell yourself. Particularly in today’s lawyer market, you must give equal or greater weight to accomplishments. How did you stand out? How did you make a difference?
While few lament the passing of the federal form SF-171, “Application for Federal Employment,” it had the advantage of steering applicants in the right direction. For each job description, it had one block entitled “Duties and Responsibilities” and a larger block entitled “Accomplishments.” Even without this nudge, wise applicants will give their accomplishments as much or more weight than their job duties.
Present Your Evidence Effectively
Whenever possible, show readers instead of telling them. Rather than just saying “Two years contract law experience,” include more specific and credible evidence that proves you are well qualified to handle contract issues. For any area of law you would like to practice:
- Think in terms of “stories,” i.e., vignettes that show how you made a difference at the places you worked. For example, “Obtained dismissals of all Unfair Labor Practice complaints.”
- Use numbers when possible. They give your assertions credibility. For example, “Prosecuted more cases in six months than my predecessor had in two years.”
- Emphasize awards. I consider a candidate’s lack of award, by which I mean just about any type of recognition of good performance, a major red flag. Even letters of appreciation or certificates are good. If you are on good terms with a supervisor, colleague or client, consider asking them to express their satisfaction in a letter. If you get any type of pay supplement for good performance tied to your annual appraisal, include it as a “Performance Award.”
- Do other lawyers seek you out for advice on a specialty area like litigation or the Privacy Act? Work in a mention, because this distinguishes you from your peers.
- Consider including brief quotations of things others have said about you. Performance appraisals are an obvious source. I keep a log of the projects I complete at work, and include particularly nice feedback from clients, etc. This comes in handy for performance appraisals as well as resumes.
Create More Evidence
Some people who had an appointment with a top portrait photographer would work on their tans in advance. Others might get help with makeup, or bring props to the appointment. Lawyers can strengthen their resumes by creating additional evidence of how they can help potential employers. Use your imagination. Here are a few thoughts to get you started:
- Draft a reference guide to a legal issue that recurs in your office and distribute it to other lawyers in your office (and to interagency working groups or other places if appropriate).
- Look for opportunities to volunteer for bar association, intra-agency or inter-agency working groups. This shows that you have initiative and are not a 9 to 5 clock-watcher.
- Draft one or more macros or spreadsheets to automate recurring tasks in your office and distribute to the other lawyers. If you are not a technical wizard, recruit a word processing or spreadsheet maven to help realize your concepts. Share with colleagues inside and outside your office as appropriate.
- Create a hypertext index of useful items on your office shared network drive(s) and/or on the Internet. This can be accomplished with Microsoft Word (select menu choices Insert | Hyperlink to create a link and Save as Web Page/HTML when done). A quick Google search will find a variety of free dedicated HTML editors which are better suited to this type of job. Indices like this used to be called “Home Pages” in the earlier days of the Internet. They can be giant time-savers and could cause your colleagues to consider you a hero.
- Volunteer to give presentations. For example, offer to do a 10-15 minute talk on a high profile or recurring issue. Lots of employers want good speaking skills. You could say on your resume “Good Oral Communication Skills,” but it’s much more effective to strongly and credibly imply this by including examples. Presenting for a bar association or interagency group will look even better than doing it inside your agency.
- Draft one or more articles for professional publication. Even a book review or very short simple article makes a nice resume adornment that convincingly sends the message: I have initiative and insight, and can write.
With luck, any of these projects could lead to a bonus: A pay raise or award in your current job..
The Power of Implied Third Party Endorsements
When a bar association magazine publishes an article you have written, that bar association is endorsing you, vouching for your expertise and writing skill. Being invited to speak to the same group is an endorsement of your expertise and speaking skill. Third party endorsements like these can turbo-charge your resume. It’s not just you claiming you are good, or a former employer (who might be your buddy from way back) claiming you are good. A respected third party endorsement adds a whole new level of credibility.
Many, probably most editors of legal magazines complain about a chronic dearth of well-written, high quality articles. Many, probably most legal organizations experience difficulty recruiting high quality presenters. Their needs could become your opportunities.
Like many of my colleagues, I once had no great confidence in my presentation or writing skills. Giving scores of presentations, some for national organizations, and drafting scores of magazine articles over the past 20 years have taught me something important: You don’t need to be a world-class expert to give a successful presentation or write a successful article. Only two things are necessary:
- You must know something that would benefit other lawyers.
- You must be able to explain it clearly.
To me a lack of publications and/or presentations on a resume is a red flag, a sign that the person lacks confidence or expertise or simply doesn’t understand the value of contributing to their communities. I’m far from being the only person who feels this way.
Structuring Your Resume
“Objective” statements that describe your career aspirations are popular in some circles. These are tricky. I do not remember seeing any that I thought made the candidate more attractive. Some are harmful because they limit the reviewer’s impression of the candidate. Some have comic relief value.
Chronological resumes seem to be the default for many. Functional resumes let you connect your skills more directly to those the job requires, but beware of one potential problem: functional resumes may make some reviewers suspicious. I often find myself trying to figure out whether the candidate is trying to hide an ugly gap in employment or other problem. I usually succeed.
A hybrid resume probably makes the best impression for most candidates. Balance your experience and functional strengths.
A distressing number of experienced lawyers list their education before their experience. Whatever resume format you choose, this is a dubious strategy, even if you were Editor of the Stanford Law Review.
Look What I Can Do
Functional or hybrid formatting allows you to include a section listing skills or qualifications that could be useful to an employer. For example:
- Do you (or did you) have a security clearance?
- Do you speak or read any foreign languages? How well?
- Do you participate in endurance sports? Some employers consider physical stamina as a marker for ability to tolerate stress.
- Are you a touch typist? If so, how many words per minute?
Young lawyers, especially women, once had reason to fear that mentioning typing skills could lead to being ghettoized as a quasi-secretary. This is probably no longer as big a risk, and since many offices today employ few if any dedicated typists, being able to rapidly revise a brief before a filing deadline is a desirable skill.
Technology skills are worth special emphasis. For example:
- Are you skilled at using spreadsheets to analyze information?
- Can you credibly show superior proficiency with Westlaw, Lexis or other online databases?
- Can you format complex word processing documents using styles and other sophisticated features?
- Can you write word processor or spreadsheet macros?
- Have you ever designed a web page or set up an intranet?
- Are you skilled at using common office software like databases, case management software, etc. Even desktop publishing or graphics software like Photoshop could be an asset in some jobs.
Many applicants are satisfied merely to list the different software that they can use. This provides some benefit, but describing useful things you can do or have done is a stronger way of boosting your candidacy.
A Round Peg for a Round Hole
Understanding the work of the typical government legal office can give you an edge over less sophisticated competitors. Many government legal shops have unique specialties, but nearly all agencies of any size have a continuing need for lawyers with expertise in cross-cutting areas. Emphasizing your experience in these areas can make you more attractive:
- Ethics (aka “Standards of Conduct”)
- Information Disclosure (aka FOIA and Privacy Act)
- Contract Law
- Appropriations Law (aka “Fiscal Law”)
- Personnel and EEO Litigation.
- Public Relations/Congressional Liaison
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do study as many other resumes, especially lawyer resumes, as you can find in search of ideas to help you present your credentials more effectively.
- Do exercise discretion when listing potentially controversial affiliations. There are employers who might otherwise find you a strong candidate, but consider the ACLU a bunch of terrorist lovers. The Federalist Society may be considered a mainstream organization at your law school, but older lawyers may remember it best as a nexus of anti-Clinton conspirators during the 90s.
- Do not fall into “Pep Club Syndrome.” Listing membership in too many groups may give the impression you are a dilettante. It’s more effective to show how you made a difference in a few activities rather than show you collected a lot of membership cards.
- Do ask people from many backgrounds to review your resume and provide suggestions.
- Do not abide typos, grammatical errors or punctuation mistakes. Errors are all too easy: After I had circulated scores of copies of one resume, a secretary of one potential employer contacted me to advise that there was a typo in my telephone number. In a competitive market, even a trivial typo or verbal infelicity can cost you a job.
- Do customize when appropriate. Create different resumes for different types of jobs. Customizing a resume for even one particular job can pay off, especially for a job that matches your talents.
- Do be careful about using the title “Consultant” to cover gaps in your resume. It often provokes skepticism among jaded reviewers. If the job title is merited, provide details to make it credible (like identifying clients and/or how much money you made).
Many years in one job? Employers may be skeptical of your ability to adapt to new challenges. Switching to a functional resume (emphasizing skills, like litigation, FOIA, administrative law, etc.) or a hybrid might help.
Transitioning from military or other bureaucracy? Avoid or explain jargon. Parenthetical translations can help. For example:
- Trial Counsel (Prosecutor).
- Staff Judge Advocate (comparable to General Counsel).
- TRADOC (High level command responsible for training and development of doctrine for use Army-wide).
Transitioning from the private sector? You can help yourself by understanding the typical types of work done in federal agencies and showing how your background qualifies you. See the categories discussed in the section “A Round Peg for a Round Hole.”
- Use high quality paper for your resume and cover letter. If you’re submitting digital copies, make sure you send them as PDFs so your formatting is preserved.
- Avoid odd fonts or colors.
- Use the right font in the right place. Publishing professionals often use sans serif fonts (like Arial or Verdana) for headings. They tend to use serif fonts, which have tiny curved sections at the end of each character (like Georgia or Bookman Old Style) for text body. Emulating their approach may give your resume a subtly more professional look. Serif fonts are best for masses of text, as the serifs aid word recognition. Sans serif fonts are used for traffic signs and headings because they are best for instant recognition–which is exactly what you need in a highly competitive job market.
While not without a certain charm, the melody Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is not terribly sophisticated. Mozart transformed it into something with a different quality level in his composition K. 265. Many lawyer resumes could undergo comparable transformations. Lawyers who understand the basics of effective resumes do not need to be Mozart-level geniuses to make themselves significantly more competitive.