There are some things you should know about lawyers. For the most part, we’re suspicious (both by nature and by training), detail-oriented, and risk-averse. That means law firms and legal departments tend to be conservative work environments. That’s the audience of your legal resume. Knowing your audience is important because resumes are essentially marketing documents designed to get an employer to call you in for an interview, so targeting your resume toward a specific type of employer and a specific type of job increases the chance your resume will be successful in its goal.
What makes an employer want to call you? Well, the employer has a specific need that he’s looking to fill. That need has a technical, “hard skill” component (for example, ability to speak fluent French), but also a “soft skill” component (for example, ability to work well in a team). Further, the employer is also looking to see that you understand his industry, business model, and corporate culture. Certainly you know that your resume needs to demonstrate both your hard and soft skills. But whether you’re aware of it or not, your resume is also demonstrating to the employer your understanding (or lack thereof) of his industry, business model, and corporate culture.
So, how do the differences between legal resumes and business resumes reflect the differences between lawyers and business people?
The Pitch. Business people are often selling themselves to potential employers as creative innovators who have delivered specific results in the past and who can therefore be counted on to achieve specific results in the future. On the other hand, lawyers can be creative problem-solvers also, but they are primarily selling their experience, expertise, and most of all their professional judgment. This difference affects the entire tone of the resume.
The Look. A talented resume writer can use smart layouts, different fonts, color, highlighting, and graphics to make a killer business resume that can really help to open doors in the business world. The problem is these strategies don’t work well in the legal world. Lawyers tend to be late-adopters and so the hiring attorneys I’ve talked to are nearly universal in their criticism of these looks. Unless you’re applying to work in a firm or company that prides itself on being cutting edge, hiring attorneys want to see what they’re accustomed to seeing: Times New Roman-like fonts, black text, simple bullets, and minimal graphics. Your resume is not the place to introduce them to new techniques (however meritorious).
The Structure. The best business resumes use some form of the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) or CAR (Challenge, Action, Result) formulas bolstered with quantifiable achievements. This structure doesn’t translate well into the legal world. Most legal activities have no readily quantifiable component, and many times the results aren’t just due to the attorneys’ skills. (How difficult is the case? Are the law and facts in your favor? Are your clients and adversaries reasonable?) Also, unlike a lot of professionals, lawyers have mandatory ethical rules enforced by their bar associations and the courts that prevent them from promising results, creating false expectations, implying they can achieve specific results, comparing their quality of services to other attorneys, etc.
The Language. Lawyers are trained to be advocates, and to use facts and language to their advantage. They have a limit, however, and that limit is lower than business people’s. They’re suspicious about language that seems “salesy,” exaggerated, or overly technical. Be wary of trying to impress them by using superlatives and unnecessary legalese. Junior attorneys in particular have to be very careful not to appear to take credit for successful team efforts. So while your resume is a marketing document, it needs to market you very carefully.
The Attention to Detail. Some lawyers boast about their near-OCD attention to detail. It’s part of what makes them good attorneys. When it comes to resumes, it means that they can be even more sensitive than other employers. Punctuation, formatting, typos, organization, parallel structure, flow, inconsistencies, and focus are important in any resume, but they’re critical in legal resumes. Remember that attention to detail in language isn’t just desirable for attorneys, it’s a minimal job qualification.