Trying to create an eye-catching resumé and cover letter, one enterprising law student included confetti in the envelope. This approach did grab the attention of at least one law firm, the story goes. The firm’s response was to cut the resumé and cover letter into small pieces and mail them back to the applicant.
“I don’t know if that was true or not. It’s one of the stories you hear,” says Mark W. Smith, associate dean at Washington University School of Law in St. Louis. When he was practicing, Smith says, he actually saw “these weird kinds of resumés on pink paper, purple paper.”
As legal employers are flooded with resumés these days, some applicants are tempted to tinker with the traditional resumé, trying to stand out in a thick stack of competition. But that can put off the prospective employer, Smith and others say. Instead, applicants should focus their creative energies on a resumé that is well-organized, easy to read–and doesn’t contain spelling errors.
“No cute attempts to distinguish yourself, no pizza boxes with resumés inside, no resumés in the form of a court pleading,” says Kathy Morris, director of the ABA Career Resource Center.
Morris also advises against paper colors other than white or off-white. And, she says, don’t include a photograph.
Applicants should distinguish themselves by describing their interests, Smith says. “If I run marathons and you run marathons, then we’ve got a connection. There’s a natural tendency to say, ‘He’s like me, and I like him.’ ” But be careful, says Smith. Interests such as survivalist activities or guns might appear too aggressive.
From the recipient’s standpoint, resumé readers are looking for “a track record of success,” as well as a good fit with the firm’s needs and culture, says Stephanie Shambroom, professional recruitment manager in the San Francisco office of Heller Ehrman White & McAuliffe.
Even if applicants lack legal experience, other life experience may convey “that they’ve worked hard, they’ve progressed,” she says. “Maybe this is someone who’s run a marathon, someone who’s able to train and set a goal and accomplish it.”
Keep It Short and Simple
When writing a resumé, less is more, experts advise. Resumés should be no longer than one page–two, at the very most–and should be formatted in a way that makes them easy to read.
Don’t cheat on page length, the experts say. Often, “People scrunch too much information in a small font, no margins, and test the patience as well as the eyes of the reader,” Morris says.
Bold and italic fonts and underlining should be used “sparingly and strategically” to avoid distracting the reader, says David M. Diamond, associate director of career services at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago.
But such textual devices, used appropriately and uniformly, help readers speed through a resumé and find what they’re interested in seeing, Diamond says.
Even a simple job description can be fine-tuned. Nonlegal job experience, for instance, can show that the applicant has skills that lawyers need. However, resumé writers often make the mistake of de-emphasizing skills in job descriptions, Diamond says.
Instead of describing a job as “projects and initiatives coordinator,” for example, write “designed and implemented department initiatives and projects.” Better yet, Diamond says, add a brief list of projects and initiatives that have been successfully completed. “The idea is, you take the basic job function and repackage it to stress the underlying skills and demonstrate how that relates to the law,” he says.
Finally, when a resumé is finished, an applicant should proofread, proofread, proofread. “Proofread with a fine-tooth comb,” Morris says. “Spellcheck won’t be enough. And don’t forget to proofread from the very top down, including name, address and phone number.”
And stay away from confetti.