Remember your first resumé? Think back to when you applied for yourfirst summer job out of high school and you learned your toughest lifelesson since the one about sharing: how can I get experience if I don’thave any?
How am I going to get that coveted job as a floor manager at Beaver Canoe if I’ve never worked a day in my life? So we scrambled to find “legitimate” fillers. Soon, favours from family members became arm's-length employment, babysitting became early childhood education, the little business that you and your buddy concocted became a wildly successful start-up, and that one week you spent collecting money for a charity walk filled up a whole section on volunteering experience.
But now that you’re big-time, your resumé needs to graduate from its post-secondary beginnings to the professional world as well. Not only do your stints in retail and summers as a camp counsellor have to go, but the “look” of your resumé has to grow up too. Because, just like that top that used to look cute hovering above your belly or your first paisley tie from Tip Top Tailors, you just can’t get away with what you used to.
1. Do you ‘get it’?
In recruiting, I often hear the term “she/he gets it” used, not in reference to a person’s understanding of anything in particular, but rather to everything in general. It is common sense, and your resumé will be the first indication of whether you “get it” or not.
You may laugh, but consider this: an excessively long resumé means you don’t get the importance of being concise; spelling errors suggest that you don’t get the importance of an attention to detail; and including excessive employment experience means you don’t get the importance of distinguishing between what’s material and immaterial.
It may seem like small potatoes but it really is the first glance your reader gets into your aptitude for lawyering. The overall negative effect of these slights is twofold: the oversights themselves may be bad, but the fact that you underestimate their importance in making an impressions means, well, you just don’t get it.
2. Another bad cover
Don’t waste paper, but more importantly don’t waste you reader’s patience. In the great debate over whether to include a cover letter, I tend to subscribe to the less-is-more school and think that your resumé should speak for itself. But if you must include a cover, use this opportunity wisely. Keep it short and do not use it as an opportunity to show how well you can summarize the experience you’ve already summarized on your resumé. Rather, this can be your opportunity for the following:
Explain any special circumstances to your application — I’m thinking along the lines of . . . hmm . . . explaining why you left a particular job after only six months or, say, that the only Cs on your transcript are a result of having battled pneumonia during finals. Not why, for instance, the fact that you really want the job would make you an asset.
Elaborate on a bullet point in your resumé that is especially relevant to the position.
Provide some context as to what it is you are looking for in your next position.
Do not use the opportunity to demonstrate the breadth of your “buzz word" vocabulary. You will never convince someone in writing that you are “dynamic,” “motivated,” and a “team player.” The words are almost screaming for an exclamation mark finish, which is always a bad sign. Don’t be your own cheerleader — you’re better than that!
3. Your legitimate ‘cheat sheet’
This is the ultimate loophole for those whose life achievements just do not fit onto two pages. For those overachievers, give a lean work description under your main employer headings and reserve any embellishments for the very optional and handy read of a “deal sheet” or “list of representative work.” Give your reader the choice of how much they want to know about you. If you make them sort through dense text littered with deal names just to figure out whether you have done any drafting, you’ll end up leaving a shallow impression of your work experience.
A good formula for describing experience requires the use of just a few bullet points. One should set out the subject matter of your experience. For a corporate lawyer it might include M&A, corporate finance, lending etc. For the litigator it might include general commercial, securities, tax, etc. Another bullet should set out your specific involvement with respect to these areas. For a corporate lawyer, this will include listing the types of documents drafted, any negotiating experience, managing due diligence, etc. For the litigator, it will similarly include the different types of documents or pleadings drafted, any settlement experience, as well as court appearances. A clean and concise “work experience” section will leave your reader wanting to know more. Save detailed descriptions of your work — deal or case names, etc. — for a separate page.
And if you’re still having trouble keeping it all on three pages, well, then get over yourself. You may want to be more judicious as to whether listing membership to every open-call club in school really makes you look good.
4. Intros that lead to quick conclusions
I’m referring to the preamble, included by some at the top of their resumés, that provides a further synopsis of their life’s work. At best, these paragraphs can be a helpful quick study of key accomplishments (note: the good ones are rarely longer than one sentence). But relying on an intro paragraph to stand out can sometimes make you stand out for the wrong reasons. The impression can be damaging on a few levels. For those in the know, it can be the tattoo of passing through an employment agency — you know, the kind law firms are kind enough to refer you to after you get sacked. For everyone else, the result is too often just a collection of hollow adjectives which can seem like a desperate attempt to stand out, undoubtedly after much rejection. It can also send a clear message that you don’t “get it” (see point 1) as too often these paragraphs don’t add anything to your application and become an ineffective use of precious space.
5. Don’t get creative
The obvious point in “don’t get creative” is not to lie on your resumé. But what I’m referring to is the more severe transgression of trying to distinguish yourself with your mastery of fonts and borders. Setting out your credentials in Century Gothic 16-point font with a shadow border will never get you the job. Stick to the old faithful: Times New Roman. Keep it simple with clean headings and just submit to a future of being dull with no frills.
Please — don’t underestimate the importance of putting together an impressive resumé. Although a mediocre applicant will rarely join the call-back pile with a great resumé, the reverse can easily be true for those that get sloppy.
Danya Cohen is a legal consultant with Rainmaker Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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