Alternative Legal Careers: Utilize Excellent Resume Strategies

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Writing a resume for a non-traditional legal job is like writing a resume for any other targeted position. You should make sure that you are writing in a language, style, substance, and format that will be appealing to the reader. For the law student, this may involve changing part or most of the resume that you may have written for the more traditional legal market.

It is important to realize that there is no single best way of writing this resume when you seek positions outside of the traditional legal field. In addition, as with any job search, the resume is one of the final tools of the job search to be completed—not the first. If you are unsure about the type of job that you are looking for, you will be unable to write an effective resume. Resumes should present the skills that are necessary for the position in the order that will best tell the employer that you understand the needs of the job. If you have not assessed your interests and abilities, conducted informational interviews, learned about appropriate professional associations within the fields that interest you, and narrowed to positions within certain target areas, do this now, before you consider writing your cover letter and resume.

Remember that a resume is a brief, organized statement of your skills, abilities, and previous experiences as they relate to the position that you are currently seeking. A resume allows you to choose, organize and emphasize your professional background to your best advantage. It is not necessarily a listing of all of the work and educational experiences that you have had.

There is no such thing as a "perfect" resume, only a series of guidelines. Individual choices are still up to you. The two people who must ultimately be pleased with your resume are you and the person who uses it as a tool for pursuing your candidacy for a job.

When employers read resumes they initially sort through to identify those that are generally appropriate or inappropriate for the position at hand. Many people are hired for jobs by people who have never read their resume. If your job search is consumed by your concern over the perfect resume, you will waste valuable time in looking for a suitable position. Your resume is simply one "ticket" to an interview.

As you think about writing a resume for a non-traditional employer, you should consider the information that this particular employer is looking for. As you go through the job search, you should always try and think like the potential employer. What is he or she looking for? What needs in the organization is this person trying to fill, and how will your qualifications meet this need?
As with any resume:
  1. Be brief and to the point.
  2. Arrange your resume in a way that is logical and easy to read.
  3. Write your resume with "action" phrases.
  4. Be absolutely certain that your resume is neat and free of errors.
  5. Make sure you have included all of the relevant information on your resume that will support your candidacy for the job.
  6. Do not put anything on your resume that will automatically eliminate you from consideration.

Personal information is usually not necessary. You should only be evaluated on your professional capabilities.

Personal Data

Name, address, and telephone number should be near the top of the page. Never make someone look for anything important on your resume. Be sure to have a phone number where you can be reached or where a message can be left for you.

There is no reason to include any other personal data such as age, height, weight, marital status, or health or to include a photograph. Most corporations are more sensitive than law firms to the questionability of asking this information and do not expect to see it on a resume. If you are willing to travel or relocate, you may wish to include this at the end of the resume.

Employment Objective

If you have done your "homework" you should have some idea of the type of position that you are seeking. Large human resource departments may find an objective useful in determining the department or individual to whom your resume should be forwarded if you have answered a position vacancy notice. Objectives should be brief and to the point—if possible, no longer than one sentence. Objectives should also state what you want to do and where (the type of work environment) you want to do it. They should speak to the type of position and to the skills and experience you have that will help qualify you for such a position. "Seeking risk management position utilizing legal education and health care experience" would be an example.

Never send a resume which states an objective that does not match the position that you are applying for. You may wish to write several resumes if you are seeking different types of positions. If you are unclear as to how to write an objective, ask for help from your counselor or refer to a resume book. If you cannot decide on a specific objective, it is important that your cover letter make clear the type of position you are seeking. The prospective employer should not be expected to "sort" through the range of positions on your behalf. As a candidate, you need to do the sorting prior to the time that you send a letter and a resume. It is up to you to determine the "fit" between your skills and the positions within an organization.


Give the names, locations, degrees, majors, and years your degrees were received. You may wish to place your education in a different position on your P1 resume for a non-traditional job than you would for a traditional legal career. If your experience is more fitting to the position than your legal education, you may wish to put your education near the end of your resume. If you are seeking a business position, and you have an undergraduate degree in business, you may wish to put more emphasis on this than on your law degree. It is still important to list degrees in reverse chronological order! If you have taken business or other specialized courses related to your target job as electives during law school, you may wish to list them as part of the description of your law school education. Remember at all times that you are trying to emphasize the fit between your experience and skills and the position that you are seeking.


Grading and rank may not carry the same emphasis for a non-traditional employer as they do for a law firm. Depending upon where you went to school, the law school grading system may be more stringent than in an equivalent M.B.A. program. If your class rank would be an asset, you will want to include it. It is not necessarily the case that a non-traditional employer will assume the worst if you do not list class rank. Listing grades in specific business-related or other relevant courses may be to your advantage if they show this as an academic strength. As with any other part of your resume, if you have questions concerning grades and how to utilize this section to your advantage, you may wish to discuss it with people on your informational interview list, or with someone from the career planning and placement office.

Employment or Experience

This section will include employment or other experience that relates to your employment objective. Continuity of work experience is a high priority for any employer. You may omit jobs you held during high school and college if they do not relate to the position you are applying for. Always list positions or experiences that reflect positively on your skills and abilities for the position that you are seeking. Generally you will want to include the name and location of your employer, dates of employment, and the title of the position if it is an accurate description of your responsibilities. You should also give a description of your responsibilities and specific accomplishments. If at all possible, indicate the ways in which you were an asset to this organization by indicating numbers or amounts—for example, "supervised a staff of seven," or "increased sales by 25 percent."

When seeking non-traditional employment, you may wish to write descriptions in a different way than if you are seeking a traditional legal job. This is your opportunity to write about expertise with an eye to the other skills that you have gained in addition to this experience. Consider writing about:
  • supervisory experience
  • case management
  • information management
  • regulatory knowledge
  • research skills
  • public speaking experience
  • analytical skills
  • writing ability
  • counseling
  • negotiating skills

All of these skills and abilities could easily describe a law clerk's position in a law firm. This is your most important vehicle for translating your experience into terms and skills that will be understood in your job description. It is very important that by the time you write this section of your resume you have a clear idea about the kinds of skills and work experience you wish to emphasize.

One strategy for writing this section is to prepare a rough draft listing all of the activities and tasks you performed for each of your jobs, volunteer experiences, or other activities. After you have done this, you can sort through the tasks to determine which are most important, which you could delete, and the order in which you want to describe your job experience. Remember to include appropriate awards, ratings, and "conquests" you have received. Consider phrases such as: "regional sales leader for 1988 and 1989"; "rated outstanding during semi-annual performance reviews"; or other action phrases that focus on specific accomplishments. You may wish to list these experiences in the order that they most directly apply to the position you are seeking. If you handled a particular type of responsibility only a few times, you should still list it first on your resume if it is the skill or accomplishment you wish to emphasize. Your resume must be truthful, but you can choose where the skill emphasis is placed in the descriptions of your experience.

Begin all of the phrases describing your positions with action verbs. Write your resume in one tense; use strong, simple past tense verbs. Phrases such as "responsibilities included" are generally much weaker than simply saying "trained and supervised" or "researched and wrote." Set a goal of writing at least three action phrases to describe your  accomplishments.

If you title this section of your resume "experience," you can also include positions that were volunteer or unpaid. This is strongly recommended if this experience directly relates to your job objective.


You may also want to include a skills section, particularly if you have technical knowledge or expertise relevant to your job category. Computer skills, knowledge of Westlaw or Lexis, accounting background, experience with specialized forms or filings, and foreign language fluency could be included into this category. Remember that Westlaw or Lexis might be viewed as "foreign" to the type of employer you are targeting and could be perceived as a negative or as "legalese" if unfamiliar to the reader.

Additional Areas

There are a number of other things you may wish to include in a resume, including publications, professional affiliations, research projects, licenses, or memberships. Activities that indicate familiarity with a knowledge field or relevance to the job at hand should be included. Ability to raise funds or perform as a leader or a member of a team are usually seen positively by prospective employers. Political affiliations, religious organizations, or "controversial groups" should be approached with care on a resume. Remember that you are trying not to be excluded from the initial selection process. These categories may be important later in the process to ensure that you would be comfortable in the environment.


You may wish to include references on your resume if you need to fill space. Generally, printing references on a separate sheet with your name at the top will allow some flexibility in the types of references you are using. References should be individuals who can speak accurately about your academic or work abilities. It is particularly useful if you can obtain a reference from someone in the field that you are seeking to enter, or someone who is knowledgeable about this field and can discuss your suitability to this particular job arena. List the name, title, address, and phone number of each of your references. Generally, business addresses are most appropriate for your references. It is absolutely essential that you contact your references in advance to gain permission to use their names and that you speak to them in some detail concerning the types of positions you are seeking. Discussing your job search strategy and the skills necessary for the positions you are seeking with your references will make it easier for them to discuss your experience and expertise with potential employers. Sending your references an updated resume will further aid them. When you are searching for a position where you plan to use transferable skills, it is especially important to have references who can focus on your "expertise" in those areas.

Resume Format

The most frequent resume format is the chronological resume. The information on this type of resume is presented in reverse chronological order. You should list education and experience from the most recent to the past. Always indicate all of the positions that have been promotions from previous positions. If you have a fairly consistent work history with positions that are logically related and have progressive responsibility, it makes sense to write a chronological resume. Legal employers are most familiar with this format.

A second type of resume is the functional resume. In this type of resume, positions are not necessarily listed in order, but rather by skill or function. Three to five areas of functional skills are generally listed as focus areas. Titles such as "research," "writing," "management," and "communication skills" are often used to present a concise synopsis of one's areas of expertise. Composite descriptions of accomplishments from your different positions are compiled within each functional area. You will still want to list the positions you have held and employers for whom you have worked in an employment section after the functional areas.

A targeted resume is written for a specific job. It has two sections: the first is "capabilities," and the second is "achievements." The capabilities section gives specific skills (for example, "write detailed research reports"), and the achievements section gives examples of the manner in which the skills have been used (for example, "researched background material for textbook on urban economics"). After you have listed capabilities and achievements, you will want to include an experience or employment section as you would in a functional resume.

You may wish to try writing your resume in more than one format before making a final decision. This may also enable you to see your strengths in different ways. You should review your resume drafts with people whose opinions you respect, as well as people within your field of choice. Whenever possible, combine the two and seek the input of people who are knowledgeable about the field you are pursuing. If possible, find copies of resumes of successful people in these job categories. This will be helpful to you when determining both form and content.

See 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 for more information.

A few things to remember:
  1. Resumes are skimmed and not read. The average person will spend 60-90 seconds with your resume. What can you include to make a positive impact in a brief amount of time?
  2. Resumes do not have to be written in complete sentences. Use action phrases to present concise, clearly stated information.
  3. Provide white space in your resume. An entire page crowded with information is not pleasing to the eye. Make sure your resume is laid out in a manner that is attractive to you.
  4. Consider different kinds of type. Typesetting, which is generally very professional in appearance, is also expensive, (especially if you are preparing a variety of formats). Good quality type copied on good paper using photo-offset equipment will give a professional appearance. If using a printer or service, shop around! Ask to see examples of resumes that a business has done.
  5. Your resume should always be neat, easy to read, and free of any typographical errors. When you proofread your resume, take a friend with you to check for errors. Once you have accepted the resume, the service is no longer responsible for mistakes.

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Resume Format      Employment Objective      Personal Data      Employers      Non-traditional Legal Job      References      Resumes     

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