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Creating an Exceptional Paralegal Resume

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left

( 993 votes, average: 4 out of 5)

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When a potential employer first meets you, chances are he or she is not looking you in the eye.

Ninety-seven times out of a hundred, he or she is looking at a piece of paper known as the resume. Initially, more opportunities are lost because of a poor resume than any other factor known to job seekers.
Creating An Exceptional Paralegal Resume

With so much riding on the appearance and content of the resume, it’s amazing half the workforce doesn’t just give up in the job search process! More resumes than ever before are rejected and after someone peruses it for less than five seconds.

Your resume should be a well-constructed, easy-to-read presentation of your capabilities, accomplishments, and skills. It should be reader-friendly and short. Its purpose is clear cut: to entice a prospective employer to the point where she has no other choice except to invite you for an interview. That’s all! Interesting then that so many future careers have been aborted all because people don’t know how to put together such a simple but crucial document.

Paralegals must remember that people in law firms are all too critical. Because so much is riding on a law firm’s product its people and presentation of legal documents most potential law firm employers are unforgiving when it comes to a poorly written resume. That resume, they are certain, is indicative of the kind of work product you will produce. And if you can’t produce a great looking resume, you surely cannot produce great work product.

Everything counts when writing the resume: from format to paper, from key words to brevity. The result should be one tightly written, perfect portrait of you and your related work accomplishments, education, and skills. This is the first impression you’ll usually make on a law firm. And if you want the job, it had better be good.

Every resume received by a potential employer has only three buckets into which it can be placed: “call for interview,” “possible,” or “reject immediately.” While there are no real statistics as to how many resumes get rejected, chances are that it is an overwhelming 90 percent another argument for why your resume has to be absolutely perfect.

Few people actually read a resume thoroughly the first time they pick it up. There are simply too many resumes that hit the interviewer’s desk at any given time. Rather, a practiced eye will scan it to see if there are key components that leap out. An employer will check to see if the individual has the qualifications, education, and background that meshes with current job openings. Reviewing resumes from a pile that can number anywhere from 2 to 200 causes the potential employer to call upon his physical being: a jaundiced eye immediately catches a poorly prepared resume. The eye may not have even completed the scanning process when other body parts begin to react. The hand takes over quickly and reaches for the paper. The arm then tosses the rejected resume directly into the round file. And finally, the brain blocks out any memory of ever having seen that particular piece of paper.

Your resume is a reflection of yourself. It can be compared to how you’ve put yourself together. When you wake in the morning, get dressed and ready for work, chances are you hardly just throw anything on in any which way. Generally, you’ve given some thought to what you want to wear and for what purpose. Not only is your clothing indicative of where you are going and what you are doing, it is a statement to others about you. The same thinking should be applied to preparing your resume. You don’t want to just throw anything into it. Preparation time and thought behind what you are going to say are important. What you don’t say is just as powerful as what you do say.

Your resume is more than just a recitation of where you’ve worked and what you’ve done. It is a reflection of your writing skills, thinking pattern, sense of organization, and pride in work product. When you are creating a resume, hoping to attract potential “buyers” of your skills, you are also laying the groundwork for the kinds of positions you are willing to accept. You may want to have two or three different resumes targeted to different industries or jobs. There’s nothing wrong with having various formats, lust remember, the resume is a marketing tool that is designed to get you in the door. It cannot get you the job!

Preparation For Writing Your Resume

The biggest mistake most candidates make when attempting to construct a resume is to believe they will simply start writing and within an hour or so, a finished, beautiful, flowing product will be ready to go. Please don’t shoot the messengers when we tell you that the less thought that goes into your resume, the less effective it is likely to be!

Before you begin to redraft your resume or create one for the first time, consider what your previous job hire experiences have been:

Resume gets few or no responses: While the resume may look right to you, it may be quite wrong for the legal community. You may not see obvious errors, typos, or quality of composition. Your skills may not be in harmony with the positions for which you are applying. On the other hand, you may have a great resume but be using the wrong version of it to fit into positions you are seeking.

Resume gets interviews but no job offers: You may be overselling or underselling your skills on paper. Nothing comes through more loud and clear than a candidate whose skills do not match what was presented in the resume. Review it for false advertising. And while you’re at it, check out your interviewing skills, mode of dress, and your perfume.

If Your Resume Isn’t Working, Why Not?

Listing resume sins could take up another book. However, the following are the most common mistakes candidates make:
  1. Too long: ONE page is what employers want. So often, candidates complain that they simply cannot contain themselves. As a result, lengthy, boring, and useless resumes emerge. In today’s 15-second sound-byte mentality, less is best. And if you are applying to a firm or organization that scans resumes, most likely anything beyond one or two pages will be rejected.
  2. Too barebones: Candidates who list “name, rank, and serial numbers” in an attempt to capture brevity are making a mistake. Not enough information does not capture a potential employer’s interest.
  3. Too wordy or wrong tense: Resumes that ramble on and on get chucked. Are your sentences too long? Have you put in too much information? Do your sentences make sense? Keep the resume in the present tense, avoiding the use of the third-person tense “Prepare, monitor” instead of “Prepares, monitors.” Always, always avoid the use of the word “I.”
  4. Unattractive appearance: Resumes that are not on quality paper are too hard to read. Ones that use unacceptable fonts, are disorganized with no consistent format, and have an unprofessional appearance give the impression you are sloppy. Sloppy is not listed as one of the ten most desirable skills you’ll need to get hired.One of the most common assignments paralegals are asked to do is to condense material into an easy-to-read, summarized format. If you can’t do it with your own resume, employers will assume you can’t do it on the job.
  5. Irrelevant information: Including personal information such as marital status, height, sex, date of birth, race, weight, health status, number of children, political affiliation, hobbies, religion, or your picture indicates you are not up-to-date on current changes in employment law. Employers do not have a right to this information and as a paralegal you should know this!
  6. Laundry list: Simply listing every assignment or responsibility you have ever had does not impress employers. You must give some thought to what you will include and in what order. PUT YOUR MOST SUBSTANTIVE DUTIES FIRST. For example, if you draft pleadings and attend depositions, those duties should surely be mentioned before your responsibility to index documents. If one of your duties was to wash the coffee cups each morning upon arrival, by all means leave it out! No one really will consider that a job accomplishment.
  7. Typos: Without a doubt, besides a resume that is too long, this is the number one reason a resume will make it into the reject pile. There simply is no excuse for not checking your work product.
  8. Lack of integral accomplishments or achievements: Without quantifiable achievements, you’re underselling yourself. So be sure to include them. “Lead paralegal on highly visible tobacco litigation matter,” “Dean’s List for three semesters,” and “created filing system that saved colleagues substantial time,” are just a few stellar accomplishments.
  9. Over packaging: Resumes that are in presentation folders, have cover pages, are in unusual colors, are velobound, or are three-hole- punched are out of place in the legal community. Stick with a conservative look and proven formats as discussed in this book.
  10. Doesn’t fax well: Because so many employers ask that you fax your resume, it is important that you create a resume that faxes well. Dark paper, black blotches, paper with spots on it all come out the other end looking as though your resume went through a grinder. It does not make a good first impression.
  11. No dates: The absence of dates of employment on a resume will lead potential employers to believe that the candidate has something to hide. Resumes without dates are among the first resumes to get chucked.

There are two types of resumes: chronological and functional. There is also a hybrid of chronological/functional. Employers today seem to prefer the chronological resume that lists your work history in reverse chronological order. Most employers feel that the chronological resume gives them a better handle on your experience. The functional resume is used for people who have been at one job for a very long time, those who have job-hopped a lot, and those with something to hide.


1.You can choose a paragraph format or use bullet points. Bullets help the reader understand individual subunits of an overall paragraph. If you use a paragraph format, do not create a paragraph longer than eight to ten sentences. If you do use bullet points, make sure that there is enough information to adequately describe what it is that you do. Make sure the key word of each statement is at or near the beginning of the line. Use the strongest one to begin each statement:
2. Make sure all your headlines are consistent. Whether you choose to underline them, use italics, and/or capitalize, they must be positioned the same and use the same method of emphasis.

3. Use proper spacing throughout the entire resume. Make certain dates line up, particularly if you are using a paragraph format.

4. You may want to use a combination of paragraphs and bullets when you have complex phrases. Use action statements, and break them up with subheads:

Assisted attorneys at trial of $200 million dollar multidistrict environmental case. During eight-month trial, responsibilities included:
  • Preparation of witness files
  • Coordination of war room
  • Expert witness coordination
  • Set-up of computers in courtroom

5. Use 1 to 1 /4-inch margins of white space at the top, bottom, and left- and right-hand sides of the page, which creates a balanced look.

6. Use caps sparingly. Do not write your entire resume in caps—it’s too hard to read. Don’t underline too much either. That’s also hard to read.

At the very top of the resume goes your name, preferably in all capitals and bolded. You can either place the heading in the right-hand corner or better, center it for fast identification. Never write “resume” on top. It’s obvious what this is. Do not use a curriculum vitae in the legal field. It’s out of place.

Next, put your street address or P.O. box, followed by city, state, and zip code. After that comes your home telephone number and, if appropriate, your work phone but only if you can receive private calls on a direct line where no one can tap into your voice mail. Otherwise, you may just as well send a memo around to the entire office that you are planning to jump ship.

You might also wish to add your E-mail address if it is a private address and not the one assigned to you at your present place of employment. No sense letting the entire office know your private business.

Make absolutely certain you have voice mail. It sounds much more professional than having your roommate, significant other, spouse, or kids try to take a message. Make certain the voice mail has a businesslike message on it. Leave off cute sayings, music, “God bless you and keep you,” the dog singing, and the kids barking. This is the second impression a potential employer will have of you. Let’s not lose them now.

Sample Headings

Judi Smith
2040 Elm Place
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(310) 555-1330 (e)

Robert Brown
4245 Highland Avenue Woodbridge, NY 10024
Home: (212) 555-3001
Office: (212) 555-2330


If you are an entry-level paralegal with no experience in this field, education is the next heading. If you are an experienced paralegal, education is placed after work experience. Generally, the more experience in the legal field you have, the less important your degree becomes. But no matter how much experience you have in other fields, you are still considered entry- level if you have held no jobs as a paralegal. If this is your first paralegal position, education is the first thing an employer will look at. If, however, your academic credentials are much more impressive than your work history, it’s perfectly OK to list them prior to employment history.

If you have received a paralegal certificate, degree, or education, this designation is placed before your undergraduate degrees. It is even placed before postgraduate degrees. Indicate coursework only if you are an entry- level paralegal with no prior legal experience.

The most commonly awarded degrees may be abbreviated: B.S., B.A., Ph.D., J.D., M.A., M.B.A., M.F.A. However, if you have a degree in a lesser- known area such as Master of Human Relations, spell it out. NEVER list your high school—ever—even if you have no college or paralegal schooling.

Indicate your grade point average only if you achieved a 3.4 (B+) average or higher (on a 4.0 scale). Be prepared to furnish your transcripts. List any significant academic achievements such as scholarships, Dean’s List, Honors, Magna or Summa Cum Laude, Valedictorian, Editor of Newspaper, or more.

Sample Education

B.A., UCLA, Los Angeles, California, 1997 Major: English Minor: Business

Paralegal Certificate: Litigation/Corporate Specialty

University of Paralegal Studies, Legal Assistant Training Program 1998

Graduated with Honors

M.F.A., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan 1996 Dean’s List; Graduated Summa Cum Laude

B. A., UCLA, Los Angeles, California 1994 Awarded Thespian scholarship

You do not need to put the year that you graduated college. If you leave it off, it is generally an indication that you are over the age of 40. Be aware, however, that you are not hiding your age. You will tip recruiters off that you are over 40. Just how far over 40 is anyone’s guess. You should, however, put the year that you received your paralegal certificate. Employers want to get a handle on how recent that education is.

If you have been awarded a Certified Legal Assistant or PACE Registered Paralegal designation, you can either put this after you list the paralegal certificate, above the paralegal certificate, or under a section entitled “Awards, Achievements, Professional Accomplishments.”

Skills And Abilities

You get your choice. If you are an entry-level paralegal with no work experience, you should put your skills and abilities section right after education. If you are experienced, place it after work history. It’s best to bullet-point these areas.

Sample Skills and Abilities
  • Solid interpersonal skills
  • Excellent analytical background, with attention to detail
  • Strong financial and research skills

Generally, information relating to your computer skills, languages, or public speaking follows the employment section.

Work History

You can call this section several things: Work (or Employment) History, Work (or Employment) Experience, or even Professional Experience. If you are an experienced paralegal and have related work history in another field, you might divide the work history section into two categories: Legal Experience and Related Experience. Legal experience should always be listed first.

Work history should always be listed in reverse chronological order. In other words, start with your present position and work backward. It’s not enough to simply list every assignment or job duty you have performed. Rather, go back through your experience and determine which assignments and skills sell you the best. Match up your achievements to reflect value-perceived factors such as ability to work independently, flexible, excellent crisis-manager, team-oriented. Tie these elements in with your specific duties.

Avoid the use of “I,” “me,” and “my.” Use brief phrases that begin with action-oriented verbs. However, if you are preparing a resume for the Internet, this type of resume requires fewer action-oriented verbs and more emphasis on skills. More on this later.

If you are an experienced paralegal, do not mention the names of cases, clients, or matters in the body of the resume. You may be violating attorney- client confidentiality. If you are working for a law firm that is in-house counsel for a corporation, of course mention that. Stating that you were a paralegal on the White v. Green case is not a good idea. Or that you worked on probate matters for clients such as Rock Hudson or Cary Grant. You can, however, state that you were a litigation paralegal on a large-scale insurance defense matter involving more than 300,000 documents or that you handled the estates of very high-profile movie stars.

Sample Work History Entry-level

American Eagle Land and Development Company Minneapolis, MN Nov. 1995-Jan. 2000

Responsible for financial accounting for land and tax credit subsidiaries. Reviewed monthly financial statements; maintained land ledgers, recorded property taxes and assessment district amortization schedules.

Experienced Paralegal
Helland, Marks and Osborn
Lexington, KY Aug. 1995-Present

Responsibilities include: organize and maintain documents; analyze factual information; construct exhibit list for trial; review, index, and summarize pleadings and correspondence produced by opposing parties; draft legal memorandum to clients regarding case status and preparation; research legal issues and rules; assist in trial preparation; summarize discovery responses.

Computer Skills
Because few paralegals without computer skills get jobs anymore, we highly recommend that you entertain another section in order to sell your computer skills. List software, hardware, and unique abilities here. If you are an expert in any one program, say so. If you are “really good,” state that you are proficient. If you are somewhat skilled, you may say you are “knowledgeable.” If you have little knowledge but have used the programs, state “familiar with.”

Special Skills And Abilities

Here is where you’ll list special skills and abilities. If you used a skills and abilities section above, you may want to call this section “Additional Skills.” This section is for language skills, technical skills, public speaking skills, writing skills, and the like.

Sample Special Skills and Abilities
  • Fluent in Mandarin Chinese
  • Notary Public
  • Excellent Public Speaker

Organizations And Affiliations

If you are a member of a paralegal association or other business-related organization, this is the section to list it. It is not a wise idea to list political or religious affiliations. Keep it to business.

Sample Organizations And Affiliations

Do not include the names of references on your resume. It is not professional. You may add a line at the bottom of the page that states, “Professional references furnished upon request.” However, even that line is not used too often. Most employers understand that you will provide a list of references. Have a separate sheet of references handy to take with you on the interview. The paper should match your stationery and resume. List three professional references, preferably those with whom you have worked.

If you are relying upon a colleague or past or present employer to vouch for you, be sure they know about it ahead of time. Employers will check references, and we cannot emphasize how important it is that you list people who know your work, skills, and abilities. Send your references a copy of your resume. Make sure you provide current phone numbers. Giving a prospective employer a former work number indicates you are not too detail oriented a faux pas for paralegals.

The “OLDER” Workforce

It seems absurd to address the “older” workforce as those over 40 when the average age of paralegals is 38. Still, there’s no denying that age discrimination does exist. Fortunately, for paralegals, it appears to exist less in this field than perhaps in others.

Anyone with highly specialized technical skills is highly in demand. Registered nurses, real estate specialists, and those with a securities background are also in demand in the legal field as of this writing. Hardly anyone cares about age when specialty professionals are so hot. But even if no one in the entire world ever expressed a single discriminatory thought, you might be sensitive about your age and not want to broadcast it to the world.

As an older candidate, there are some guidelines you might want to follow if you are sensitive about the issue. If you’re not, by all means go for it! It’s really your choice. Experience is wonderful, and every kind of background is useful in the paralegal field.

If you are sensitive about age, leave off the year you graduated college. You do not have to list every job you’ve ever held. And you do not have to account for gaps in the resume, particularly if you were a homemaker. Typically, you don’t have to go back any farther than 10 or 15 years at the most. You can leave off the date you received your paralegal certificate if it was more than 15 years ago. However, many employers will want to know.

The reverse chronological resume is still a good resume for the “older” candidate. You can use the functional resume to focus on specific expertise. By focusing on achievements and skills related to the paralegal field, you may make the resume stronger.


The functional resume is frequently used for those who have jumped around in their careers or for longtime contract employees. During the recession of the early and mid-’90s, so many people were merged, purged, or otherwise scourged that job-hopping became routine. Now that the economy has straightened out somewhat, it may not be as readily accepted. High turnover is a negative in the minds of many employers, who tend to shy away from job-hoppers who may contribute to the trend.

The Functional Resume

A functional resume has been the subject of a lot of controversy for quite some time. Some employers believe that the functional resume is used to hide information, while others believe that it is a good way to demonstrate long-term achievements. Although most employers prefer to see a chronological development, there are a few instances when a functional resume is useful:
  • When you have a long work history that doesn’t always relate to the position you are seeking
  • When you are reentering the job market after a long absence
  • When you’ve job-hopped for quite some time
  • When you are a long-term or contract employee

It’s not advisable to use the functional resume when:
  • You are an experienced paralegal with a number of prestigious firms behind you.
  • You want to show a progression in your career.
  • You really have very little experience.

Sometimes it is advisable to use a functional resume if you have a variety of practice specialties that you want to highlight. You can structure the resume to use a variety of paragraph categories. For example, you might include headings such as:
  • Litigation
  • Management
  • Corporate
  • Administrative
  • Real Estate
  • Training

The Targeted Resume

For those of you, such as experienced paralegals, who are seeking to move up the career ladder, now anxious to get into management, you may want to use a targeted resume. It focuses your search, and because of its specificity, it is often called the “Achievement Resume.” It reflects the language of a single job range even when you have a multitude of experiences.

You can have several targeted resumes. In fact, you should. If you were an experienced litigation paralegal with supervisory experience, seeking to become a paralegal manager, you might want to highlight all of your administrative, human resources, staffing, training, and supervisory experience.

Sample Targeted Paragraph for Move to Paralegal Administrator Supervised team of twenty paralegals. Coordinated work assignments. Staffed litigation teams with temporary personnel. Evaluated work product. Recommended salary increases. Trained coders in Concordance, and designed accompanying training manual.

Ten Commandments Of Resume Writing
  1. Never handwrite anything on the resume, including strikeovers or cross-outs. For example, if your phone number has changed, change the resume.
  2. Don’t state current salary. If you are asked to provide salary history upon submitting the resume, follow directions but do so in your cover letter.
  3. Don’t list references. Provide a separate sheet of paper.
  4. Don’t include the names of supervisors and phone numbers under work history or anywhere else on the resume.
  5. Don’t enclose a photo or attach a copy of the add.
  6. Don’t try humor or sarcasm. You have no idea what the reader’s sense of humor is like. Don’t do anything cute such as write the resume in the form of a brief, send a shoe with the note saying, “I’m trying to get my foot in the door,” or send a nut that opens up with a note saying, “I’m nuts about this firm.” Don’t even think about it.
  7. Don’t mention on the resume that you were fired or laid-off.
  8. Don’t exaggerate or mislead. For example, don’t foster the belief that you have a degree when you don’t.
  9. Don’t send a writing sample with the resume unless requested.
  10. Stick to one page two at the most.

Ten Great Resume Writing Tips

Your resume is an introduction to a potential employer. Although it does not get you the job, it does serve as the tool that can open the door for you. The resume is an indicator of your key skills and characteristics of your qualifications. It can also give an indication of your personality, writing skills, ability to pay attention to detail, organizational skills, goals, stability, and level of training. Here are just a few tips that can help you get past the gatekeeper and onto the next step, the interview:

Resume appearance: Never underestimate the importance of first impressions. Keep resumes aimed toward law firms and in-house legal departments in a conservative format. Follow the following guidelines for a clean and organized resume:

A. Use white or buff-color paper only. Bright colors (even a soft blue) are considered gauche in the legal field. (Keep those for advertising agency or entertainment-related jobs.) Darker colors such as gray or blue will not scan or fax well. Be sure you use a quality bond.
B. Stay away from textured or parchment paper.
C. Keep at least a one-inch margin all the way around the resume.
D. Use only 8A x 11" paper. Do not use 8A x 14" in an effort to fit everything in. And don’t fold over an 8A x 17" piece of paper.
E. Use a conservative font such as Times New Roman, Century Schoolbook, Helvetica, Arial, Optima, or Palatino. Stay away from Courier. It’s out of date. Don’t use script fonts at all. They are either too avantgarde or too hard to read. Stay away from Comic Sans it’s not serious enough. Use 12 or 10 point only.
F. Use only black ink. The legal field is not quite ready for the beautiful colors of ink available today.
G. Use a laser printer. It’s really the only way to go. Many jet printers just don’t have laser quality. By all means, do NOT use an old dot matrix printer.
H. Do not use computer paper.

I. If you are using two pages, do not print on the front and back of the paper. Use two sheets of paper.Use at least 24-pound quality bond paper, preferably with a cotton rag content. Do not use a cardboard or cover stock. It’s too heavy. Get matching blank stock to use for the cover letter and references along with matching envelopes. You may need to make as many as 500 copies of your resume. Be prepared!

2. Keep the resume to one page: This rule does apply to you. Employers no longer have the time to wade through pages and pages. On the average, employers will spend 10 to 20 seconds eyeballing the resume first to see if you are the ideal candidate. Many corporations today will scan the resume into a software package that is designed to accept only one page of your resume. Don’t get ruled out.

3. Put dates of employment on the resume: Resumes without dates of employment look as though you have something to hide.

4. Education: If you are an entry-level paralegal, put your education first. If you are an experienced paralegal, your work history is first and education is last.

5. No personal information: Do not put personal information on the resume such as marital status, age, number of children, or health. Do not attach a picture or put salary history on the resume. Address salary history, if asked, in the cover letter.

6. References: Take a list of professional references with you to the interview. Make sure it is on paper that matches your resume and that your name is on the reference list. Bring at least three references and be sure you have called them to let them know someone may be calling.

7. Job descriptions: Describe your job with the most substantive duties first. Don’t just prepare a laundry list of duties. Prepare each job description so that it substantiates why you can move up the ladder.

8. Skills and abilities: List computer skills under a separate category titled “Computer Skills.” Unless you want a secretarial job, do not put how fast you type or include office machine skills, such as adding machine, photocopier, or fax. It is assumed you know how to use these.

9. Cover letters: Here is the first test of whether you can write. Use your imagination. Tailor each letter so that the employers know you are interested in their firm. Be sure the letters are personally signed and addressed to a specific individual. Nothing is less impressive than to receive a photocopied bulk-mailed cover letter.

10. Never lie: Although you do not have to list every job you have ever had, do not fudge on dates, work history, skills and abilities, job descriptions, education, or anything else on your resume. Remember: your work history, education, and salary can all be verified. If you exaggerate your skills and get hired, most likely your skill gap will be discovered once you start. Keep the process honest.

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 paralegals and paralegal jobs:

Please see the following articles for more information about resumes:

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

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