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What Law Firms Look for in a Lateral Resume

published January 07, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 1172 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
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The lateral resume is an extremely important marketing tool. It's a key component of the recruiting process. Although a lateral resume differs in some respects from a student's resume, some basic ground rules remain. Law firms generally want more information from lateral attorney candidates and are less forgiving when errors occur. So it's critical that you do your homework and take the necessary time and effort to prepare a solid lateral resume.
What Law Firms Look For In A Lateral Resume

Click here to view a comprehensive list of articles about attorney resumes and cover letters.


There are some major and minor differences in lateral resumes that you should be aware of when putting yours together. I'll point some of these differences out for you to help you get started.

Work Experience Before Your Education

As a lateral attorney, you should always include your work experience first on your resume if you've been out of law school more than three years or so. Whether you've been working three years or not, once your work experience becomes more valuable to a firm than your raw academic credentials, it should be listed first, immediately after your name, address, and e-mail address.
For example, when you first graduated from college and started looking for a job, your educational background was at the top of your resume. At some point, your work experience became more important than your educational credentials. The same thought process applies to lawyers. As an experienced lateral candidate, you want your work experience to be the first paragraph on your resume. While your educational credentials are important, the first thing an employer is going to look for is your previous work experience.

One or Two Pages in Length

Unlike law students' resumes, a lateral resume can be longer than one page, especially if you have been working for more than four or five years. But don't make the mistake of filling your resume with information that is of little use to law firms just to make it fill several pages. Don't include every speech you have ever delivered, every division of the local bar association in which you've been a member, or every organization for which you have volunteered. Too much "filler" or "fluff on a resume is just that, and it prevents the reader from finding the important information. And I've seen many excellent one-page resumes from lateral candidates with over ten years of work experience.

More Targeted

The typical lateral resume should be more targeted than your student version. By this point in your career, you should have at least the beginnings of a specialty. When you prepare your resume each time for specific employers, you'll direct your resume to their areas of practice and needs. There are obviously some exceptions, such as attorneys practicing in small or rural areas, where general legal practices are still the norm. But more often than not, in today's legal market, firms want to see a certain level of specialization, and your resume should definitely make that distinction.

Prepare a Different Resume for Different Practice Areas

Because the lateral resume is more targeted, you should prepare a different resume for each practice area you are considering. If you happen to spend some of your time working in the securities and corporate finance area and the remainder of your work experience is in global custody work, you should focus your resume on one of these areas, depending on the needs and interests of your potential employer. But if you haven't done your homework, you really won't know who does what, and you may end up sending your global custody resume to a firm that doesn't practice in that area.

Include an Addendum if You Have a Significant Amount of Outside or Volunteer Experience

Instead of creating a verbose resume that may not get read, attach an addendum to your resume with additional information that may be of interest to an employer. For example, an addendum might include a list of your legal publications, speeches you have given, your community involvement, or your participation in bar activities. It may be critical to include this information if you think this experience is important to a potential firm. And some firms may never read your attachment, but at least your short, concise resume will get read.


In addition to your work experience, law firms look for many of the same basic credentials in their lateral candidates as they do for entry-level positions. If you had difficulty getting into a law firm as a student, you may find obstacles in your path as a lateral candidate. In addition to the basic academic criteria set by law firms, you need a certain level and type of work experience to get picked up as a lateral candidate. As a lateral candidate, your universe is much smaller. And because there are more pieces to the puzzle, finding a lateral position in a law firm is more challenging than getting in as a law student. But you can do it if you do your homework and target the firms that will want and need to hire you.

A Pattern to Your Experience

There should be a pattern to your work experience. Firms query candidates who have jumped all over the map. They prefer to hire individuals who have a logical progression to their work history. Making a career change into law or switching areas of practice midstream is considered acceptable. But if you have no rhyme or reason to your career path, law firms may worry, and your job search may be more difficult.

For example, a firm might question the motives, dedication, and work history of a candidate who, after law school graduation, worked in a law firm as a real estate attorney, then decided to go in-house and worked as a general corporate lawyer, then returned to a litigation-based firm, and now is interested in working in even another area in a firm. Your work history should demonstrate some stability, even in an environment that offers little of it. Firms take risks when they hire laterals, and you have to demonstrate that you are a risk worth taking before you can be seriously considered for employment. If your career has been all over the map, some of these obstacles can be overcome, but realize that your journey is going to be even more difficult.

Where You're Admitted to Practice

All law firms are interested in your ability to practice in certain jurisdictions and courts. This information should always be clearly visible on your lateral resume. Remember that some states require most attorneys to sit for the bar exam. Therefore, it can sometimes take almost a year to get admitted into practice in a jurisdiction. If time is of the essence, your lack of bar membership could hinder you from being a viable candidate for a firm. Do not hide this pertinent information by burying it somewhere in the text. Add a section at the bottom of your resume clearly indicating which bars you are a member of and in which courts you are allowed to practice.


There are danger signs-red flags-that experienced recruiting professionals look for and readily identify on lateral resumes. I'll give you a "heads up" on some of these so you can avoid some of the pitfalls that so many candidates fall into.

Someone Who Changes Jobs Every Two Years

There are individuals who simply move every two years or so. The reasons for changing jobs are often less important than the fact that the individual cannot stay in one place for very long. In the early years, these individuals are more difficult to spot, but after a while the pattern becomes clear. Firms often avoid these candidates like a plague. No one wants to hire someone who is going to move to the competition about the time they are finally trained and acclimated.

If you are guilty of this sin, realize that eventually it will catch up with you. Finding a new position will become more and more difficult as you add more employers to your work history. If you can, indicate on your resume or in your cover letter why you've changed jobs so often. This may help lessen the blow.

Someone Who's on the Market as They Approach Partnership Consideration

Firms usually query why someone who is up for partnership in the next year or two is on the job market. Automatically, whether fair or not, firms assume that these candidates know they are going to be passed over for partnership or perhaps have already been told they are inadequate partnership material. While this line of thinking may be unfair or inaccurate, firms often automatically jump to this conclusion.

If you truly believe you're going to be passed over, don't wait until the last minute. Think far enough ahead so that this red flag won't apply to you.

Someone Who's Changing Jobs After One Year on the Job

If you are changing jobs after only a short time (18 months or less), firms may sometimes automatically think you can't cut the mustard and either you are being asked to leave or you have seen the writing on the wall. While many attorneys change jobs early in their career for many reasons, you should make it very clear in your cover letter why you are on the auction block. An even bigger red flag is raised if an attorney clerked for the firm he or she is now wanting to leave.

A Senior Attorney with Little or No Portable Business

There's some truth to the law firm adage "Rainmakers never die." In today's economic climate, experienced attorneys are expected to possess some level of portable business. If you are a very senior associate (seven or more years of experience) or a partner and have nothing of tangible value to bring with you to another firm, law firms worry. In fact, you may have an extremely difficult time in the lateral job market without portable business after you reach this level. While the rules were changed several years ago and many attorneys were caught off guard and empty-handed, there has been adequate time to adjust to and play by the new rules. At a more senior level, you need to be able to bring business with you. Everyone can offer a firm experience after a while.


The general rules regarding law students' cover letters also apply to lateral candidates. There are some differences, however, of which you should take note:
  1. Your lateral cover letter should always explain why you are looking for a new position. Firms always want to know why an experienced attorney is on the job market, and if that information is excluded, a worst-case scenario may be assumed. No news is not necessarily good news.
  2. Lateral cover letters should also be one page in length. While a lengthy explanation of your circumstances may be necessary, no one willingly reads long cover letters. Remember that the purpose of a cover letter is to highlight points in your resume and to bring to light things that may not be readily apparent on your resume, such as why you are on the job market.
  3. You may also want to spend one paragraph briefly highlighting the more important aspects of your work experience. The experience on your resume probably doesn't go into great detail because it would be too long, so a succinct cover letter is a great opportunity to add a little more information about what you have done, hopefully whetting the appetite of your reader. But make sure you don't disclose confidential or privileged information on your resume or cover letter. If you're an international tax attorney who worked on a precedent-setting case before the tax court, you might spend a few sentences describing your experience, going into a level of detail not found on your resume.
  4. Refrain from making negative comments in your cover letter about former employers. Never make negative comments, especially in writing, about a former employer. Even if your former law firm sold your firstborn child, find something nice to say about them, or say nothing at all. The line of thinking is that if you will make negative comments about one employer, then you'll say bad things about all of them. No one wants or needs to be bad-mouthed.


If you initially contacted a firm by mailing your unsolicited resume, then you should definitely follow up two or three weeks after mailing it. You're wasting your time mailing an unsolicited resume if you don't bother to follow up on it.

While this type of follow-up is crucial to your job search, I suspect that the majority of lateral candidates don't send their resumes out unsolicited through the mail. It's just too risky. Most lateral job contacts are made through networking or through legal search consultants. But you should follow up on your resume's progress in a firm, regardless of how it got there.

If you are using a legal search consultant, ask for a progress report every two weeks. This should include where your resume was sent, whether there is interest in you at these firms, and if you're already interviewing with several firms, a rough idea of the timetable. While it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint how long this process can take in firms, a reputable headhunter should be able to give you a general estimate or timetable.

Following up with the personal contacts you used to get into firms is tricky. They did you a favor, and you can't act like a pest, attempting to find out if they've made contacts on your behalf. Use your political savvy, and handle these situations with kid gloves-and every one will be different. But don't ever rock the boat. If your contacts don't do what they said they would for you, then there's really nothing you can do.

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.

Please see the following articles for more information about resumes:

Please see the following articles for more information about law firm jobs:

Alternative Summary

Harrison is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and several companies in the legal employment space that collectively gets thousands of attorneys jobs each year. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. Harrison is widely considered the most successful recruiter in the United States and personally places multiple attorneys most weeks. His articles on legal search and placement are read by attorneys, law students and others millions of times per year.

More about Harrison

About LawCrossing

LawCrossing has received tens of thousands of attorneys jobs and has been the leading legal job board in the United States for almost two decades. LawCrossing helps attorneys dramatically improve their careers by locating every legal job opening in the market. Unlike other job sites, LawCrossing consolidates every job in the legal market and posts jobs regardless of whether or not an employer is paying. LawCrossing takes your legal career seriously and understands the legal profession. For more information, please visit

published January 07, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 1172 votes, average: 4.7 out of 5)
What do you think about this article? Rate it using the stars above and let us know what you think in the comments below.