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Promoting Your Legal Career

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Crafting the Winning Resume Reference List and Writing Sample

The purpose of every resume is to get you to step two the interview. It cannot win you a job, but it must win attention during the screening process. Employers typically spend thirty seconds or less reading a resume. Unless your resume gets attention, you will sit at home!


Selling Yourself to the Legal Industry

Job hunting is selling yourself. A resume is an advertisement about you. It is an example of your work product, and the prospective employer will scrutinize it carefully. Legal work is based on accuracy. You will be judged by the appearance of your resume and cover letters. Mistakes are not tolerated in a law firm! A careless mistake translates in the attorney's mind as "a person who produces poor work product."

Your resume is a brief summary of your educational and professional background. Its goal is to present your qualifications to the employer in the most favorable light. As an advertisement, it should be geared toward your target market the legal field. The resume can be further tailored for a specific area of law, job opening or law firm. Word processing allows you to customize your resume for each application. Within one to two pages, your resume must emphasize those skills and abilities that most interest lawyers. The rest is superfluous.

There are many styles of resumes. Regardless of the format, the resume must be concise, accurate, and attractive. Laser printers can produce resumes that look typeset, but don't get carried away with design. Try to avoid very large or extremely boldfaced headings, logos, etc. Remember, this resume is going to the legal community a very conservative and exacting audience.

Understand Yourself before Selling Yourself to Others

Whatever your background, you probably possess skills transferable to the paralegal field. Carpenters have become paralegals in the field of construction litigation; persons with medical backgrounds are needed in the areas of medical malpractice and personal injury; environmental experience can be applied to real estate development and environmental litigation; insurance claims handlers make great insurance defense paralegals; persons with manufacturing experience do well in products liability firms; counselors and social workers fit into family law practices; those with import and export backgrounds become international trade law paralegals; entertainers and writers understand entertainment law; real estate agents have gone to work as real estate paralegals; and escrow and trust officers gravitate toward probate.

A self-study is helpful before you begin your resume and job search. You cannot sell anything that you know little about. Awareness of your strengths and weaknesses can help you decide upon realistic and appropriate job expectations. It will also make you more aware of yourself as a "product." Take time to think through the following questions. Take the time to write out your answers to each question. This process provokes thought and can be used for rehearsing interviews.
  • What am I doing in my present (or past) position that brings me the most satisfaction?
  • What do I most enjoy doing?
  • What are my most significant accomplishments?
  • Would I rather work with paper or people problems?
  • Do I like to give great attention to detail or am I a "free spirit?"
  • Would I rather work 9 to 5 or make my own hours?
  • What are my best and worst personal qualities?
  • What makes me different or special from everyone else?
  • Do I enjoy taking responsibility for my actions or would I rather let someone else take the risk?
  • What are my long-term and short-term career goals?
When you have thoughtfully evaluated yourself, you should have a good idea of the kinds of jobs where you will be most comfortable. As a result, you can create a stronger resume and have more confidence when interviewing. For more examples of self-evaluation techniques and other helpful job-hunting hints, see What Color Is Your Parachute?, by Richard Bowles (1991 edition).

Only a small part of your self-evaluation will ultimately appear in your resume. More emphasis on your skills and personality can take place during the interview. At that time, you will be able to accent your accomplishments
Resume Appearances Count

The appearance of your resume is critical. The visual impression it makes at first glance must persuade the employer to read further. Resumes with items scratched out and corrected in handwriting and with sloppy white out go right into the circular file. Type your resume on a word processor so you can make corrections and print new copies. Many resumes have informal handwritten cover letters. Some are even torn out of spiral notebooks! These make a lasting impression the wrong kind. Always use easy-to-read, 10 pitch typeface (pica). If you are typing, make sure that the ribbon is dark and the keys are clean. If you use a word processor, it is best to use a laser printer or a letter-quality printer. Consider having your resume professionally printed unless you want to customize it for each application.

HOT TIP: Purchase a ream of high-quality paper (such as classic linen), with matching envelopes. By buying a large quantity, you can use the same paper for your cover letter and list of references and for your follow-up thank you notes. Paper and envelopes that match look better and show the employer that you have a sense of style.

Your resume should be printed in an 8 1/2" x 11" format and reproduced on high-quality paper in white, off white or pale gray on one side only. Do not use any brightly colored paper in blue, yellow, pink or green.

Be very careful not to mar your resume with fingerprints or careless folding. Mail the resume and cover letter in a large envelope or carefully fold them into a standard-size envelope. Type rather than handwrite the address. Neatness is mandatory.

When preparing the resume, be aware of margins. Too much white space makes the resume sparse. Not enough makes it appear cramped. Employers prefer a one-page resume for entry-level paralegals. Two pages are acceptable only if you have been working as a paralegal for a long time. Never go over two pages.

Law firms are very fussy about what constitutes a good-looking resume. Think in terms of the law firm: most prefer traditional appearance and content.

HOT TIP: Typographical errors have a way of breeding when you're not looking. Don't trust that you will find them yourself. Ask an objective colleague to review your resume for typographical and grammatical errors. It should be proofread at least three or four times before the final print.

Remember, the job you are seeking is detail-oriented. A law firm will predict your work product by the quality of your resume. If your resume is not perfect, it reflects poorly on you and will usually prevent you from getting an interview.

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.

Resume Dos and Don'ts Checklist

The most common mistakes are resumes that are too long, distortions about accomplishments, typographical errors and misspellings, insufficient detail, irrelevant material and failure to cite job accomplishments.

Do:
  • Place your name at top of the resume in capital letters.
  • Make sure that your phone number is on the resume. If you don't have an answering machine, invest in one.
  • Include paralegal information toward beginning of your resume.
  • List your education in reverse chronological order. Include your degree or certificate and the date earned. If you have little job experience, include a description of the courses you have taken.
  • In your work experience section, start with your most recent position and work backwards.
  • Illustrate your career/job accomplishments (for example, "Reorganized law firm's entire filing system"). For a chronological resume, describe what you did in five lines or less.
  • Send your resume personally to the hiring authority.
  • Be organized and concise.
  • List computer skills, including software packages you've used.
  • List any foreign languages you speak or read.
  • Follow up by phone or letter you may be the only person who does.
Do Not:
  • Write a resume longer than two pages. One page is preferable if you are an entry-level candidate.
  • Put "resume" on your resume. It's like writing "book" on a book.
  • Use abbreviations.
  • Include personal information like height, weight, age, health, religion, marital status or number of children.
  • List religious, political or fraternal organizations.
  • Include salaries, past, present, or desired, even if the advertisement you may be responding to requests this information. This subject should be reserved for later interviews.
  • Include a photograph with your resume.
  • List the names of your references on your resume. References should be on a separate sheet to be given to the employer at the time of the interview.
  • List the names of your present or past supervisors. They can be included separately in your reference list.
  • Include your reasons for leaving a previous job.
  • Use the word "I" anywhere.
  • Send out a resume with typing, grammatical or spelling errors.
  • Send out a resume that is smudged or poorly reproduced.
  • Include typing skills unless you really want to type.
  • List high school activities or honors.
  • Use brightly colored paper. It is best to use white, off-white or light gray.
  • Use computer paper that is perforated or "torn off" from sides or at the top.
  • Make Sure Your References Help You
It is considered unprofessional to include your references on or with your resume. "References available upon request" should be the last line of your resume. This statement is the conclusion and tells the employer that you know what is expected of you.

At some point during your job search, you may have to present your references. Make sure that you have a neatly typed list of at least three people, along with their addresses and phone numbers. Take this with you to interviews, but don't present it unless you are asked.

Your references should be people with whom you have worked, including supervisors, colleagues and/or paralegal instructors. Do not include friends, relatives, ministers or rabbis. Employers want to know how you work, not just what a great personality you have.

Ask for permission before you include a person as a reference. When asked, that person's reaction will give you some indication of the reference you will receive. Ask your reference what he or she intends to say about you, or at least whether the opinion offered will be positive.

Make sure your reference knows you well enough to verify the information on your resume. You do not want Professor Snob to say, "Who?" Send each of your references a copy of your resume to avoid this problem. Obtaining letters of recommendation can avoid the nuisance of telephone calls for both your references and your prospective employer.

HOT TIP: Provide your references with a copy of your resume to refresh their memory regarding your dates of employment and job duties.

List references on a separate sheet of paper. It is a good idea to use the same paper for your references as you used for your resume. Use the same identifying information as you did on your resume: your name, address and telephone number. Also make sure that you list a current telephone number at which your references can be reached during business hours.

Reference Examples

John Doe, Esq.
Doe, Smith & Doe
2049 Century Park East, Suite 1250
Los Angeles, CA 90067
(213) 555-1111 (direct line; voice mail available)

Jane Smith, Litigation Instructor
University of Paralegal Studies
12201 Washington Place
San Francisco, CA 95491
(415) 555-1111

Impeccable Writing Samples Can Be Your Secret Weapon

Writing samples are an excellent way to show your prospective employer the quality of your work product and your ability to express yourself clearly on paper. People in law firms frequently groan about the "paper trail" they must leave and the paperwork in which they are buried. However, drafting documents, letters and interoffice memos is an important part of virtually every paralegal job. Offering a writing sample differentiates you from other candidates and shows that you are confident about your work. Let your prospective employer know that writing samples are available by stating "References and writing samples are available upon request."

Writing samples can include writing assignments completed as a paralegal student. Documents or business letters drafted for class make good samples.

Summaries of depositions, on the other hand, do not allow for much individual expression and are thus difficult to evaluate as a writing sample. Articles or short papers you wrote in college can also suffice, although they may not be as relevant as an evaluation tool, especially if they are several years old. Any original research paper is good. If these items are school assignments, it is a good idea to delete any comments, although leave in the grade if it is an "A" or the equivalent. You may also draft a sample memo, letter or short document without using real names, dates or places. Be sure you mark it "Sample." If necessary, retype your writing sample on a word processor to eliminate messy white-out or to correct any errors that may have occurred in the original.

Legal memos, complaints or other documents with points and authorities attached sometimes make good samples. However, some firms prefer to see non-legal documents (such as detailed memos), because many legal documents (especially pleadings) contain primarily "boilerplate"—not original—language. If you are going to submit a sample from work on an actual legal matter, all the confidential information must be removed. This includes all references to places and products as well as names. Failure to hold legal information confidential will immediately eliminate you as a candidate under consideration. Mark out or white out all confidential information, then copy the document to be sure none of the identifying language can be seen.

Your writing sample should demonstrate your grasp of English (sentence structure, grammar, punctuation), as well as your ability to reason and write persuasively. Have someone proofread your writing sample, and retype it if necessary. A fresh eye is more likely to see errors you have missed. Your writing sample should ordinarily be no more than two to three pages.

Make several copies so you can distribute the samples to your various interviewers. Do not send writing samples or list of references when you send your resume and cover letter. They are reserved for interviews only.


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