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Legal Resumes and Cover Letters

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The Resume

A resume is an opportunity to create a positive impression with an employer. It may be viewed as a photograph that presents a certain image, yet leaves a more compelling story to be told-perhaps during an interview. Because this document is a self-portrait, it is sometimes difficult to give generic advice on the preparation of a legal resume. Yet, there are key concepts and general rules of thumb to follow concerning format and content.
  • A resume should be limited to one page-however, if you have had an extensive career and need to expand to another page, remember, the second page should be at least half full and repeat your name, address and telephone number at the top of the page. When in doubt, stick to a one page resume unless you are a very senior level attorney.


     
  • Name, address and phone number should appear at the top of the resume-phone numbers are essential; invest in an answering machine to avoid missed opportunities.
     
  • No job objective is necessary on a legal resume.
     
  • Experience section can be formatted either chronologically or functionally. Chronological resumes are oriented by date, with the most recent position first and proceeding backward. This is the most popularly used and accepted format because it is logical and easy to follow. This is the format to use if you have a steady work history with no gaps and if your most recent job is related to your job target. If this is not the case a functional resume may be more effective. Here accomplishments and experience are organized under broad skills or practice area headings with the most important category at the top, followed by two or three other functions. This format allows you to organize your experience according to your interests. It also allows you to de-emphasize employment dates, company names and titles.
     
  • Education section should contain all pertinent information from your law school experience, including the official name of the school, year of graduation, Journal/Moot Court experience and a list of any appropriate academic and/or extracurricular activities. This section should also contain similar information for other graduate schools attended as well as your undergraduate institution. Generally your education goes after experience on a legal resume once you have had at least one year of professional experience. If you had stellar grades in law school, you may want to keep your education section first for your first year or two after graduation.
     
  • Consider including a section which draws attention to unique skills such as foreign languages, computer skills, and any personal interests. The section may be titled Personal or Interests. Its purpose is to facilitate conversation or "break the ice" during an interview and to give the employer a more well rounded appreciation of your background. Make sure that your personal interests are descriptive-i.e., "travel to the Far East, Mexican cooking and nineteenth century literature" are much more effective than "travel, reading and cooking."
     
  • Consider adding a section for Professional Affiliations and/or Community Activities. This will enable you to list bar association committees, board memberships, pro bono work, and any other extra-curricular or leadership positions on your resume.
     
  • Include CLE or other continuing legal education courses or symposia under a Continuing Legal Education section. This can be useful to include if you are trying to make a transition to a different practice area. You can demonstrate knowledge of and an interest in a particular field by listing this type of course work on your resume.
     
  • Legal Resumes should generally be conservative in appearance. White, off- white or cream colored heavy stock paper should be used. No photos or other graphics are necessary. Ten, eleven or twelve point print size is appropriate. As much as you may be tempted to stand out from the pack, the legal profession is conservative, and flashy "ploys" are not usually well received. Good fonts include Times and Helvetica. Try to do your resume on a home computer so you can quickly adjust it for different jobs.
     
  • No Personal Information (height, weight, age, marital status, health) need appear on your resume.
     
  • Prepare a List of References that is separate from your resume. It is not typical on a legal resume to include names of references. Prepare a separate sheet of paper listing references (three is usually an adequate number) to have available when you go for an interview. Use paper which matches your resume and cover letter. Don't forget to alert your references first so they are prepared for a potential employer's call. Phone references are usually preferred over written references.
Other tips and techniques to keep in mind:
  • Use CAPITALIZATION, bold print, underlining, indentation and outline format to present information. Make the resume easy to scan.
     
  • Use CAPITALIZATION, bold lettering and white space around an item, such as your name, to help the reader remember the item.
     
  • Use generous margins (but not so generous as to look skimpy!).
     
  • Laser Print your resume if at all possible! Do not use a dot matrix or other type of printer unless the print is perfectly clear and smudge free.
     
  • Put dates on the right hand margin instead of the left so they do not stand out to the point that the employer will be distracted from the more important aspects of your resume.
     
  • Use "bullets" if your descriptions are longer than 5 lines.
     
  • Make sure the overall look is neat and clean.
     
  • Balance text on the page.
     
  • Proofread to eliminate errors and typos! Do not rely on yourself to proofread your own resume-you will miss errors because you have become too familiar with it.
Think of your resume as a sales document. To design an effective sales document, you must have a clear idea of the job you are seeking so that you can skew your resume to your target audience. Concentrate on format and style as well as content. Decide which information to include; pay close attention to the words you use to describe your experiences.

Consider starting your resume with a Biographical Summary consisting of several statements that demonstrate your credentials or that you are a perfect fit for the position. The focus is on your abilities.

Describe what you can do, not what you want to do.

Another option is a Career Summary paragraph highlighting your professional background as it relates to the desired position.
Another choice includes beginning your resume with a paragraph entitled Professional Capabilities allows you to list what you have done as well as what you think you can do in the future.

Cover Letters

An individual cover letter must accompany each resume you send out. Its purpose is to support your candidacy by supplementing the information set forth in your resume. A cover letter should:
  • Convince the reader that you are worth getting to know better.
  • Draw attention away from liabilities by addressing potential questions the resume may raise.
  • Emphasize salient achievements and accomplishments in greater depth than the resume does.
  • Introduce new sales material that is not included on your resume.
  • Demonstrate enthusiasm and knowledge of the industry.
A cover letter is the ideal place to focus on the specific skills you want to emphasize for a particular employer. Some general guidelines for writing good cover letters include:
  • Use correct grammar, good sentence structure and standard business letter format. Use paper that matches your resume.
     
  • State the purpose of your letter. If you are responding to an ad, indicate the source. If you are writing at the suggestion of a mutual acquaintance, indicate that immediately. If you are writing about the possibility of a job, indicate why you are writing to this particular organization. Cover letters should be slanted as individually as possible.
     
  • Pinpoint how your skills and experience relate to the particular needs of the employer to whom you are writing. Focus your letter on the needs of the reader. Focus on what you can do for the employer (what credentials, skills and experience do you have that would help the employer), not what the job would do for you.
     
  • Always be objective when describing yourself to an employer. For example, instead of writing "I am a hard worker," "I would be a great asset to your firm," or "I have many leadership qualities," show them by means of examples from your past: "The experience I gained as director of the office is indicative of my leadership abilities."
Address your letter to a specific person by name and title. (It's always smart to call and double check, as hiring partners change frequently).

Do some research on the organization before writing your letter. Read annual reports or brochures, look the organization up on Lexis or Westlaw, use the information you learn in your informational interviews, or if you have an understanding of the field, ask yourself what kinds of problems this particular employer is likely to be facing.

Limit your cover letter to three or four paragraphs. It should rarely be more than one page.

Present unique or distinctive attributes, without using superlatives, in an attractive, professional and well written manner.
Close your cover letter with a request for an interview indicating what action you will take-i.e., that you will call them (within 7-10 days) to arrange a meeting. Then follow through.

Keep careful records of the positions for which you have applied. Maintain copies of your correspondence with dates indicating when you will follow-up. FOLLOW-UP is crucial.
 



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Effective Sales Document      Job Target      Legal Resume      Continuing Legal Education Courses     

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