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12 Resume Mistakes that Might Cost You an Attorney Job

published November 17, 2014

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
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( 586 votes, average: 5 out of 5)
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The winning résumé is a marketing document, not an obituary that simply recites your life's chronology. From a marketing perspective, your résumé should emphasize the value you can offer to the organization you are seeking to join without compromising the truthfulness or completeness of your academic and professional history. In these tips on the nuts and bolts of résumé writing itself, we examine 12 common mistakes to avoid, as well as ways to highlight the perception of the value you bring to an organization.
12 Resume Mistakes that Might Cost You an Attorney Job

Your résumé should be drafted with a sensitivity to what is compelling in your background.


Every word in your résumé should be there for a reason. Eliminate excess verbiage and complicated explanations. Create bullet points, not dense, clause-ridden sentences. Use action verbs to preface accomplishments. Write in the (implied) third person. Don't be a slave to linear chronology, especially if you have changed jobs a number of times.

If the most striking impression made by a traditional linear chronology is the number of different jobs you have had, you need to reformat the document. The document should not convey a sense of chronic unhappiness and peripatetic job-hopping. To counteract this visual impression, create theme categories that tie jobs together. If a résumé might otherwise be confusing, create easy-to-follow categories. Some of the more common language and style gaffes include:

A. Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes
1. Emphasizing responsibilities but not accomplishments -- or, conversely, getting bogged down in minutiae. Were you "responsible for the S-1, representing the issuer" or did you "negotiate and draft the S-1, fielding comments initially from underwriter's counsel and subsequently the SEC"? Were you "responsible for antitrust litigation" or have you "cross-examined key prosecution witnesses in an antitrust trial that resulted in a directed verdict of acquittal" for your client? Some people resist speaking about professional accomplishments for fear that it makes them sound boastful or obnoxious, but if you don't present your accomplishments, no one else will.

2. Telling (instead of showing) the reader how wonderful you are. The flip side of Mistake No. 1 is more noticeable: the summary description that introduces the résumé and usually sounds something like this: "A goal-oriented professional who brings entrepreneurial zeal and legal analysis to the problems at hand. A team player who thrives on challenge and problem solving." These types of self-proclaimed personal assessments invariably generate skepticism on the part of the reader and tend to undermine your credibility. The better approach is to show the reader your unique value by reciting accomplishments that allow inferences consistent with your analysis of PMV.

3. Allowing chronology to determine structure. Most résumés should be written in reverse chronological order. But what if you did not follow the traditional path because law was your second career? Or you left a firm to work for the government? Or you ran someone's political campaign? Or you joined the Peace Corps after one year of practice (but came back to your firm)? You may need to create categories to help the reader see the connection between seemingly disparate elements.

For example, let's say that you are an intellectual property lawyer who attended law school after working for several years as an engineer, and in that capacity you filed patents for your employer's inventions. To make it more complicated, let's also say that you joined your present IP firm after three years of general practice. Why not lead with a category called Intellectual Property Experience -- Legal and Business, where you include your current firm and your pre-law engineering work. Follow that category with General Legal Experience, where you include your general practice firm.

There are many examples of using creatively defined categories to create themes in your résumé. Do you find that people discount the work you are doing for the local DA's office? Create a category called Public Sector or Public Service to remind them that your work has a higher goal.

4. Using a "one size fits all" approach. Most people don't buy many "one size fits all" suits or dresses. Similarly, after practicing law for several years, you have grown beyond being the fungible candidate for fungible jobs. If you are applying for a mergers and acquisitions position, list those deals that highlight your M & A experience; if it is a venture capital spot, give more emphasis to your VC deals. When applying for highly competitive positions that draw on certain aspects of your background, think about all professional experience you have had that is relevant to the particular position.


The visuals will draw the reader to certain elements on the page, independent of the content (like a Rorschach test or an impressionistic painting). Make sure the layout attracts the reader's eye to what distinguishes you from similarly situated professionals.

Do key elements stand out on the page, enabling the résumé to be visually scanned without requiring an in-depth reading? If not, or if the text looks too dense, or if the choice of language requires effort, the recruiter or employer may not bother to read the document. Even worse, the reader may ascribe these negative qualities to you. Some of the more common "optical" mistakes include:

5. Wasting critical space under your name with a prominent display of your address and phone number. If headhunters or employers want to find you, they can just as easily locate your address and phone (or e-mail) at the end of the document; the trick is making them want to find you. The top of the first page is where the reader's eye naturally goes first. Unless there is something remarkable about where you live, you are better served using that space for information more relevant to what distinguishes you as a professional. (For résumés longer than one page, the upper left corner may be a good place to highlight an impressive academic record.)

6. Making margins so wide that the text is forced into narrow columns. Some résumés have such a wide left column for dates that the corresponding text is squeezed on the right side of the page. This layout creates narrow text columns difficult for the eye to decipher and also results in dead space and excess pages. In this résumé, the visual priorities are reversed. The reader remembers when you worked at a particular firm but may not recall what you accomplished during that time.

You are better off using two lines of normal page width for the name of your firm or company, its location, and your position and employment dates. Following a brief description of your responsibilities, use bullet points to describe your accomplishments in greater detail. Normal margins broken up by bullet points create a document that is easier to read.

7. Including your photograph. No matter how physically attractive you may be, a photo can look tacky, and may make people take you less seriously as a professional. If you want to convey the physical energy that you project, present your athletic victories.

8. Using small print. Some people think that they can keep a résumé to one or two pages by using small print (10 points or under). However, the résumé should not be an eye test for the reader. Many of the people making hiring decisions are over 40 and need reading glasses for small print. By making someone put on glasses in order to read your résumé (thereby reminding the reader that he or she is getting older), you have created a subliminal negative association with the document (and, by implication, with you). The better approach is to edit the document so that you don't need to miniaturize the text. Use type that's at least 11 points; 12 points looks best.

9. Using a scripted font. To some people, a scripted font looks more elegant. In our experience, scripted fonts (just like photos on résumés) demand the wrong kind of attention, suggesting that the candidate comes with some excess baggage that may be best to avoid. It is better to use fonts that create a clean, professional appearance like Times New Roman.

10. Using bold typeface for standard categories. We often see résumés in which the categories Education, Professional Experience, Bar Admission, and the like appear in bold, while the names of universities, law schools, firms, and corporations appear in standard type. This is simply backward. Bold text initially captures the reader's attention, and the reader will more likely retain a visual imprint of what appears bolded on the page. Accordingly, use bold typeface for name, school, company, position, and anything else that is distinguishing about you. Why waste precious attention on words that are common to everyone?

11. Having your legal resume professionally printed. A professionally printed résumé can in some instances look too slick, and may give the impression that you have printed your résumé in bulk for a mass mailing (i.e., you must be desperate). Do have the résumé printed with a laser printer on good quality paper.

12. Failing to take into account how the means of transmittal will alter the appearance. When you e-mail a résumé, ask yourself whether the document is blocked by a filter. Is the document formatted in columns that will look like a jumbled mess unless the receiver uses the same word-processing program and version? What is the point of submitting your résumé if the document can't be opened at the other end?

Another thing about e-mail is that the proliferation of viruses (and fears about viruses) have generated reluctance to open certain attachments. So in addition to attaching your résumé, you may want to cut and paste it into the e-mail, thereby giving the receiver the option of reviewing the e-mail, the attachment, or both.

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

See latest attorney job openings available on LawCrossing.

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.

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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 November 17, 2014

By CEO and Founder - BCG Attorney Search left
( 586 votes, average: 5 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.