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Targeting Your Paralegal Resume to Both Humans and Computers

published January 10, 2013

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 18 votes, average: 4.2 out of 5)
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It used to be that writing your resume was pretty routine: use “action” words, white or buff paper, keep it to one or two pages, chronological or functional, easy-to-read font. Well, folks, say good-bye to the good ole days.

Litigation support, meet human resources. Or, inhuman resources, we should say. Today, in many of the major corporations, your resume is most likely to encounter a computer long before it is scanned by good old-fashioned eyeballs. That is because, at many of the large corporations, computers are taking the first crack at accepting or rejecting the ongoing flood of resumes. What the legal community was first introduced to as litigation support through scanning of documents has now entered the human resources department. In the new era of rejection, resumes are scanned and entered into the computer long before a warm, friendly, hiring authority has placed human hands on them.


Many job candidates never know that their resumes have been scanned by a computer or by human eyes, particularly if they have applied to a major corporation. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, hundreds of large companies Sony Corporation, Coca-Cola Company, International Business Machines Corporation, Paine Webber, NationsBank Corporation, Avis Rent A Car, Microsoft Corporation, Pfizer Inc., Shell Oil, Staples, to name just a few use types of text searching or artificial- intelligence software to track resumes. Mid-sized companies are also starting to use the software as vendors start marketing cheaper Web-based versions.

And for those of you who are snickering as you recall that the legal field was the very last to get on the technology express, woe be unto you who firmly believe that scanning resumes will never catch on in the legal field. A simple set up of Option and Concordance should do the trick. But enough sooth saying.

These resume-scanning systems make a lot of sense from an employer’s perspective. Employers are being bombarded by resumes from all directions mail, fax, E-mail. And in this candidate-tight market, employers need all the help they can get to quickly identify and court the right candidate. According to the Wall Street Journal, Allied Signal filled more than 30 percent of approximately 2,500 job openings from a computerized resume pool, in the first half of one year. The company estimates it can prune the time it takes to fill an opening by at least a month.

From a candidate’s point of view, resume scanning is another chink in the armor of job search success. This new phenomenon might seem innocuous if it weren’t for the fact that the consequences were so potentially damaging to a person’s chances of having a resume end up on the desk of a living, breathing hiring partner. Typically, an administrator, paralegal coordinator, human resources director, or general counsel sets up a search request and asks the computer for specific qualifications. Then many of the resume-scanning systems rank the candidates they pluck out of the system.

Staffing organizations also use scanning systems. The more popular ones, like Resumix, specialize in recruiting systems that place a number or percentage next to a candidate’s name indicating how much of a hiring manager’s wish list is reflected in the resume. So if you have 87 percent and ten others have 95 percent, you may be out of luck if the manager has no desire to plow through all available resumes before coffee. The systems scan on key words, which makes everybody the same. A computer cannot tell whether the resume reflects a “warm and friendly” person as opposed to a “highly professional” individual. It also protects against discrimination. It doesn’t care whether the candidate is an Asian-American or an American with disabilities. It may, however, want to know if the candidate went to an acceptable undergrad university and has a paralegal certificate from an ABA-approved school. If a candidate went to Princeton, has one year of experience with a major firm, but went to a paralegal school that is too new to receive ABA approval, she may get the Big R (for rejection) letter.

Without knowledge as to how a description is typed into the computer, many candidates are at the software program’s mercy. Some candidates try to list every conceivable skill in an effort to determine which words the computer is looking for. Others use buzzwords and industry-speak as they try to describe their experience.

According to Yana Parker, author of Damn Good Resume Guide (Ten Speed Press 1996), a tracking system can identify behavioral traits dependability, responsibility, a high energy level as easily as it can technical skills. “Be enthusiastic,” she says. “Let your passion show. Don’t use tired language.” Hmmm. We wonder if she knows another way to say “drafted pleadings.”

But resumes do eventually get read by real human beings on a computer screen. Although we used to write volumes and volumes of articles that said you have about three seconds to catch an interviewer’s eye, we now say you have about twenty lines to grab their attention. If they’re interested, they will keep scrolling. So don’t waste precious real estate. Lead with your technical skills and personal qualities. Identify yourself as a solution to someone’s problem.

Scanning systems comb through resumes for words that signal job titles, technical skills, and levels of education or experience. And most of those words are nouns. Where we used to say use lots and lots of action words, we now say use lots of nouns. Employers are now looking for software programs you can use, what practice specialties you know, what assignments you can perform. Preparing a scannable resume is much like preparing the traditional-style resume in terms of focusing on format and content. The more skills and facts you provide, the more opportunities you’ll have for your skills to match available positions.

Some resume-scanning companies and outplacement counselors advise a block of key words at the top of the resume, but this technique doesn’t help differentiate you among other candidates. The keyword block can be helpful when comparing apples to apples a business litigation paralegal searching for a business litigation position. On the other hand, it may backfire if the same business litigation description were written in such a way that a resume reflecting an insurance defense background would get rejected even though the skills were right on point.

A recently published article in a fascinating new magazine, Fast Company, states the more buzzwords, the better. Career counselors used to advise clients to avoid buzzwords in their resumes. Today, buzzwords are all the buzz. Because applicant-tracking systems rank resumes by the number of key words, your chances of scoring higher are better when the resume is buzzword loaded. “Turn your experience into keywords,” urges Margaret Riley Dikel, coauthor of The Guide to Internet lob Searching (VGM Career Horizons 1996), “and maximize the number of them in your resume.”

But beware of what buzzwords you use! If your experience is a little old, you might want to watch outdated lingo that wouldn’t have registered with computers looking for up-to-date key words. Terminology and technology have changed. You’ll need to present yourself with up-to-date skills, or you may not get the hit. Additionally, you don’t want to date yourself.

And for those of you who are still not clear on the concept called summarizing, you’re in luck! You get to break the one-page rule in this new era of resume writing. One page of paper doesn’t mean much in the on-line world because readers scroll. But don’t overdo it. Electronic resumes running three pages or more are apt to get bounced. Simply put, you must be able to hold the readers’ attention most of whom only understand 15- second sound bytes.

In the New Do’s and Don’ts categories, you get some brand new choices. Scanners work well with these typefaces: Helvetica, Futura, Optima, Palatino, New Century Schoolbook, and Times New Roman. Although some counselors advocate Courier, we feel it looks old-fashioned.

If you send your resume as an attachment, rather than paste it into the body of an E-mail message be aware many employers ignore attachments because they worry about viruses. They don’t want to waste time with files that their computers can’t translate.

Some career counselors suggest that candidates have two resumes: one for people, and the other for computers. Others think a separate, scannable resume is unnecessary. But advising candidates to write more than one resume is nothing new, particularly if you are emphasizing a different skill set for a variety of jobs. It’s hard if not impossible to know what will work, particularly since the whole concept of scanning resumes in the legal field is so new. You will, no matter what, still need a hard copy, printed on high-quality paper, to bring with you on the interview and for those companies that use snail mail in lieu of E-mail. Thank God for some traditions. We’d hate to put Kinko’s right out of business.

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.

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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.

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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 www.LawCrossing.com.

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