How to Craft a Resume That Recruiters Will Love
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Stephanie Francis Ward: Resume writing. It’s something few people enjoy but many want to know how to do it better. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward of the ABA Journal, and today I’m discussing the dos and don’ts of resume writing with Joe Ankus and Valerie Fontaine, two legal search consultants. I have a question for both of you. Do you find that candidates often undersell themselves on their resumes? Valerie, what do you think?
Valerie Fontaine: I think the issue is more people overselling themselves on resumes. We don’t want people puffing. What’s most important is people be absolutely honest about everything they put on their resume and not try to exaggerate or puff. Sometimes we see people undersell. I think the case also is people not being clear about presenting all of their qualifications in the best light.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Valerie, can you give me some examples of you seeing where people over-puff on their resume?
Valerie Fontaine: Well, one of the things that I see is–and we may get into this a little bit later about grade point average when they’re putting down, last semester of first year, top 10 percent, you know, to give the impression they were top 10 percent. I also have similarly one of my friends from law school put she was in the top 99 percent. And it gave the impression she was in the top 1 percent, but truthfully she was in the bottom of the class. [Laughs]
Stephanie Francis Ward: [Laughs] All right. And Joe, what do you think about that question?
Joe Ankus: Yeah, I think–yeah, underselling is really unfortunately never been a problem. As Valerie said, it’s the overselling which creates most of the issues. You know, kind of a corollary example is the candidate that will say to you as a recruiter, “Well, which version of the resume would you like? Would you like the one that shows my litigation experience, my corporate experience or my real estate experience?” And I get a little nervous because I’m like, “Well, what are you?”
And what you find is, is that generally speaking candidates, to promote themselves–and I understand why they do it–they may tend to exaggerate by using vague kind of ambiguous phrases to imply that they’ve done more than they’ve really done. For example–
Stephanie Francis Ward: Like what?
Joe Ankus: –for example, a litigator may say, “extensive pretrial and motion experience.” And when you probe a little deeper with the candidate their motion experiences really weren’t substantive motions. They were motions for extension of time, motions to compel. Very rudimentary, basic type things. Their pretrial experience was limited to going to a calendar call. And an experienced recruiter is going to ferret through that and you’ll find that we might consider that kind of a puffery, as Valerie said, or an overstatement.
Valerie Fontaine: What I love is “participated in depositions”. And that meant they listened, they watched.
Joe Ankus: You’ve gotta be careful of the ambiguities in a resume. And a good recruiter is going to drill down and ask the tough questions to figure out whether their skill set is reflective of what the client needs.
Stephanie Francis Ward: So if you see someone that puts in their resume “extensive pretrial experience,” in other words what that tells you is this person has never tried a case.
Joe Ankus: Well, we don’t know. What it tells us is, is we need to ask more questions, because invariably clients of Valerie’s or clients of mine are going to ask us as the intermediary, “Joe, we told you this is a fairly trial-intensive position. The candidate seems to indicate it.” We, as recruiters, are going to try to vet that from the candidate when we speak to them and say, “Tell me exactly how many trials have you sat first chair on? How many trials have you sat second chair on, etc.?”
Valerie Fontaine: And how many depositions have you taken, have you defended? Have you argued dispositive motions? Please tell me about that. Have you handled mediations and arbitrations on your own? How many? That sort of thing.
Joe Ankus: Yeah, we drill down basically. That’s our job, is to drill down.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, I’m curious. Say you’re a younger lawyer who wants to get more into litigation, that you have this experience, as you mentioned. Would you be better off to put in your objective statement what you’d like to do and couple that with what you have done, but be more honest about what you have done?
Valerie Fontaine: Well, we can talk about objectives. I am not a huge fan of objective statements. First of all, in the hiring process it’s what a candidate can do for the client. It’s not what the candidate wants from the client or wants from the employer. So you’re trying to sell what you can do for the client. So it’s not “I want to be a litigator.”
So objective statements often are so vague as to be completely meaningless or they’re written obviously to mirror the requirements o f a particular job. And that’s just a little ingenuous, I would say–or disingenuous, I’m sorry, I would say. So I’m not a great fan of objective statements. I think it’s a waste of valuable real estate on a resume. What I’d rather see is a summary, especially for a more senior lawyer, to put down “experienced trial lawyer with significant first chair trial experience,” that sort of thing. Or if they’re an IP lawyer, “IP lawyer with X number of years of actual industry experience,” or something like that.
Joe Ankus: I’ll jump in. I agree with Valerie. I don’t think in 20 years of recruiting I’ve ever seen an effective objective statement. The summary, if appropriate, is the way to go. Many times candidates will use outdated, outmoded resume formats that they get from one only knows where.
Valerie Fontaine: A book, the internet, heaven knows.
Joe Ankus: And they’ll have on their objective statement–you generally–lawyer resumes are slightly different creatures than a middle-level management kind of mainstream managerial-type level positioning statements. It’s different. You don’t see too many lawyers having objective statements. And I’ve never seen–like I said, I’ve never–I can’t recall seeing one that wasn’t vague and really, just as Valerie said, takes away from valuable real estate on a resume.
Valerie Fontaine: Right. I mean, it’s very clear when someone looks at a lawyer resume, this is a lawyer resume because if you’re a junior person you’re putting your education at the top, it starts with JD. If you’re a senior person, you’re starting with your experience and it shows “partner at X Law Firm” or “of-counsel”, “senior associate litigation”, whatever. It’s clear immediately. It’s not like some sort of executive position that they want to know, are you going to be doing sales or–I don’t–product development or whatever. It’s clear you’re a lawyer.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Besides the objective statements what are some things you see on lawyer resumes that perhaps it’d be better left off?
Joe Ankus: Well, there’s just certain core things that I certainly recommend leaving off a resume, because I think they’re kind of anachronistic which is–the old format of resumes used to have things like “health: excellent,” “marital status: married.” Things that were just simply–even photographs of the candidate, things which just in this day and age simply just–not only are they, in my opinion, unacceptable, they detract and actually can probably damage a candidate’s candidacy. It just doesn’t make sense. That’s something I would leave off.
Valerie Fontaine: And they’re not legal to be asked about anyway, and they shouldn’t be relevant.
[Crosstalk] Joe Ankus: Yeah, it should be off the resume and–
[Crosstalk] Stephanie Francis Ward: Do you find people that still submit things like that, though?
Valerie Fontaine: Yes.
Joe Ankus: You do but again it’s because they’re misguided. It’s not that they’re bad people. They’re misguided. And again, they’re using outdated, outmoded archaic forms that they dredged up from somewhere. The more weighty question about things to leave off are, ironically, things like hobbies and interests, where you can actually strike a raw chord or build a positive rapport. And this is one of matter of personal choice.
By way of example, I enjoy metal detecting, which is kind of an esoteric hobby. And in an interview many years ago, I had people ask me about it with genuine curiosity and interest. And I had one particular interview with a large firm where the person didn’t even bother to look at anything except my interest, jumped on it and said, “My spouse is a historic preservationist. And my understanding is you folks go into historical sites and loot all the relics.” Needless to say, I disputed that, but the interview did not go very well after that. [Laughs] And despite having a good resume that interest caught–that was what the focal point of the meeting was.
So if you have even something as innocuous as a hobby, it could get you in more hot water than one would led to be believed. Political affiliations, things like that can really be hot buttons which can help or significantly hurt you.
Valerie Fontaine: I’m sorry. I wanted to talk about some specific things in addition, unless you have a follow-up question that–
Stephanie Francis Ward: Have at it, Valerie.
Valerie Fontaine: Okay. Some of the other things I would like to see left off resumes is words like “I” or “mine” or whatever–or “Mr. Jones is responsible for”. I mean, the resume is about you so you don’t have to use personal pronouns. You don’t have to have full sentences. Just state what it is you need to state. Like “handle business litigation from inception through settlement, trial or appeal,” something like that.
Also excessive abbreviations or acronyms. You can use the ones that are widely understood, like JD. You don’t have to use a lot of space saying Juris Doctorate. You can say LLM or state abbreviations, ABA, stuff like that. We can talk a little bit about unrelated college or law school jobs or other jobs. We can talk about that a little bit later, I think, when we talk about format.
But also, I would say unexceptionable honors. You know, the “Who’s Who” books, I don’t think that impresses anybody. And that is a waste of real estate. If you were on the Dean’s list six semesters, that’s fine if that’s the only honor you had in college or law school. But if you were [inaudible] for magna cum laude or summa cum laude, that’s just assumed you’re on the Dean’s list. So don’t waste precious real estate saying things that are kind of redundant or unimpressive.
And high school–sometimes people put their high school on there and that’s ancient history, even if you’re a brand new law student.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, if you are a young lawyer, to what extent should you talk about undergraduate achievements?
Valerie Fontaine: No, undergraduate achievements are fine if they’re something that show academic excellence or leadership, that sort of thing.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Those scholarships or awards perhaps?
Valerie Fontaine: Right, right. And as you get more senior and you have more things to put on your resume, those things will fall off. Sometimes–and I’m in two minds about honors like super lawyer because I haven’t seen that make a difference in getting a job. But if you have other things you can put there, it’s kind of you have to make a value judgment over what’s most important to present, what’s going to be most impressive or be of more interest to the particular employer you’re approaching.
Joe Ankus: And I’ll add a couple points to that. One thing which is really critical for the audience to understand is about GPA: when to put the GPA on and when to leave the GPA off. And I have been surprised sometimes to get a resume and there will be no GPA for either undergrad or law school. And kind of the presumption among recruiters is if a GPA is left off, the presumption is it’s below a 3.0. And obviously if it’s above a 3.0 you should put it on the resume kind of as a kind of bright-line test.
And many times I have had candidates with GPA of 3.5, 3.6 in both law school and undergraduate that have left it off the resume. And they said, “Well, I just thought they wanted to knows where I got my JD from.” And I’m like, “No, no, no, no. I mean, you’ve just put a presumption up that it’s below a 3.0.” So I hope the audience understands, if you’ve got above a 3.0 my recommendation is get that on the resume for sure. Because otherwise people are going to be thinking that you have a GPA below the 3.0.
Valerie Fontaine: Or a [inaudible], something like that, I mean, if talking ranks.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, what about for lawyers of more experience? I mean, if you’re 15 years out, should you really put your GPA if it’s above a 3.0?
Joe Ankus: I would.
Valerie Fontaine: It never goes away.
Joe Ankus: Yeah, I would. I would. I think there’s absolutely no reason if you have done well to leave it off. I can’t see any reason to leave it off, no.
Valerie Fontaine: I mean, as you get more senior you can maybe take off some of your scholarships perhaps, unless you’re like–I mean, if you have things like Rhodes Scholar or a Fulbright Scholar, those things belong on forever.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Of course.
Valerie Fontaine: The thing about lawyer resumes that are very different than I would say business resumes is that lawyers are snooty and snobby about education. They’re credential conscious and it doesn’t go away. It follows you throughout your career.
Joe Ankus: There’s a couple observations I’ll make about this point. Many times clients have actually said to me, “I wouldn’t hire myself now,” which goes to Valerie’s point about being credential conscious. I’ve heard that many times. But two things that some of the audience should consider, two points. Number one is if they worked through college or worked through law school full or part time, I think that is something which should go on the resume. I think it shows that they were able to balance both professional and academic obligations at the same time.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Oh, that’s interesting. How would you characterize that on the resume?
Joe Ankus: I think it could be almost parenthetical and I think Valerie had touched on–Valerie and I had spoken about that and Valerie did elaborate on that. Before we get to that point, let me just add one more thing which I’m thinking about. For a new lawyer, one of the most overlooked things that I see, and I would love to see on resumes, is if a lawyer has had multiple summer clerkships, I would love to know, and they should put on the resume, “offer extended to come back” or “permanent offer extended.”
Valerie Fontaine: Absolutely.
Joe Ankus: So that the recruiter does not have to ask. Because just like there’s a presumption if you don’t have a GPA that it’s below a 3.0, there is a presumption if you don’t have something indicating that an offer was extended on a summer clerkship, that you didn’t get an offer. And that’s a red flag that a recruiter needs to delve into. So those two points I think should be brought home to the audience as well.
Valerie Fontaine: Well, obviously if you were working–or your first job was where you had your summer associateship, what I’d like to see is the name of the firm and then put “summer associate” and the year and then “associate: X date to X date”. It shows that you got that offer. If you clerked at a top, top firm but then you went to work for a different top firm that does leave the question. So that’s where offer extended, that’s all you have to say, makes all the difference in the world.
Joe Ankus: It makes all the difference for us as recruiters and for employers. It just avoids us having to ask the question and it just makes it a cleaner resume.
Valerie Fontaine: Yes. Now going back to the law school or college jobs, I’m a person who put herself through college and law school, so this is an issue near and dear to my heart. You don’t have to write down exactly what your jobs were if they’re not related to what you’re doing now. So in other words, if you worked, say, in some sort of environmental position and you are–during college and law school and you’re going to be an environmental lawyer then that is particularly relevant and you can put some details down.
But if, like me, you worked at Sears catalog pickup–that dates me–or the phone company, what you put down is you can say “financed X percent of college or law school expenses through concurrent employment” under your college or law school entry.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Well, could you see–and maybe this would be something that would be better to come up in an interview than on a resume–but say you had a modern day job, Valerie, of what you mentioned. I would say if somebody was going like to an insurance defense firm or any litigation defense firm, having that experience on the floor in a blue-collar job like that might give you some very good insight for depositions or witnesses or whatever.
Valerie Fontaine: Well, the thing is, it shows that you had some sort of job. And if the employer is interested in that, they might ask about it. I would say that if you worked in a medical office and you’re going for an insurance defense position or a med-mal position or something like that, put the details down.
Joe Ankus: Absolutely.
Valerie Fontaine: So it depends on what you are going for. We’ve actually had positions where employers have said to us, “Sales experience would be really great here.” And so we ask our candidates, “Do you have any sales experience?” And they say, “Yeah, I worked for, you know, just sold shoes during college.” So we’ll have them put that on the resume. And that goes into tailoring the resume for the particular position you’re going after. And we can talk about that a little later.
Stephanie Francis Ward: I suppose some employers would think it’d be great to hire someone who sold shoes and other might be kind of snobbish about it so–
Valerie Fontaine: That’s correct.
Stephanie Francis Ward: [Laughs]
Joe Ankus: And that comes back to knowing your client and knowing your candidate, you know.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Yeah. I’m curious, typically how long do you think a resume should be? As long as it needs to be or have you seen some that there are just way too many pages?
Valerie Fontaine: We’ve seen way too many pages.
Joe Ankus: Back in the day–and Valerie may appreciate this–back in the day, when we did not have email but when we only had a fax machine, the definition of my worst nightmare was getting a five-page resume followed up with a 40-page unsolicited writing sample on my fax machine, where it would chew up the ribbon, the paper and everything else. Yes. So the answer is there are many times when they’re just too darn long.
Valerie Fontaine: So what we would like to see is for a junior person, it shouldn’t go longer than one page. For a more senior experienced person, two pages. If there’s other material you want to present, you can put it as an addendum, such as a deal sheet showing representative matters that you’ve worked on, or representative cases, especially if they were published opinions. Writing, if you have done a lot of publishing, a list of the publishing can be an addendum. Or if you’ve done a lot of speaking that can be on an addendum.
So you can see that there’s just a couple of pages and you might say “extensive publishing in the legal press”. And then you’ve got that backup material if the employer wants to look at it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Okay. Now if you’ve been out of work for a while, how should you handle that on your resume?
Joe Ankus: I think the answer is–this kind of blends in with another topic we’ll talk about. The answer is, I think you need to handle it honestly, which is–many times a good employer or a skilled recruiter is going to figure it out. Because unless the candidate is going to blatantly lie on the resume, which does happen, is that they’re going to use just dates without months. So a candidate may say “worked at one place from 2001 to 2004”. But unbeknownst to you, they started the job in July of 2001 and were out of their previous job for the last six months.
So the short answer is, I like resumes that have months and years. And if there are gaps, the candidate should be able to explain them up front to the client or the law firm or the employer. It’s something which I don’t ever advocate hiding because it’s just going to come back to bite the candidate later. Invariably it will be discovered in some of the most bizarre ways. But generally, upfront and just be prepared to deal with it and discuss it on the resume and/or in the interview.
Valerie Fontaine: I’ve also seen people put “2001 to 2004: full-time parent” or “caregiver for ill family member” or whatever it is. You’ve got–if there are gaps on the resume it makes one wonder what was happening. One of the things I do when I’m interested in a candidate and I look at a resume, if I go through and I see if there are any gaps, I go, “Okay, they were here there, they were there there” and whatever. And I see if there are any gaps. And then I say, “What were you doing in that period of time?”
And if they were unemployed, they were unemployed. So often with lawyers during that period of time they may be doing project work. And so you put down that you were doing project work.
Joe Ankus: There’s no shame in it. And then even if you’re unemployed, it’s–our point is, I think we like to err on the side of disclosure rather than nondisclosure. Resumes aren’t the time to gloss over certain things because it’s just going to create an awkward situation in an interview.
Valerie Fontaine: And you also don’t want your resume to leave questions unanswered, because a prospective employer might answer it in their own heads to the negative. And I like to have the obvious questions answered. And I think as a recruiter, that’s our job to make sure that the prospective employer understands exactly who the candidate is and what they’re doing and what they can offer.
Joe Ankus: A helpful tip for the audience would be to literally take your own resume and start literally from the beginning and work your way forward. And if there are any gaps, whether they’re real or perceived, you want to address them now. Literally start from the beginning and work your way to present day. That should help you alleviate this problem. It’s not a hard problem to alleviate.
Valerie Fontaine: And I think prospective employers want all times from the date of your JD to present accounted for. So if you are a second career lawyer and you have a degree that’s 20 years ago and you did something else, just a statement of “prelaw career in insurance sales”. And you can go into detail if it’s relevant to what you’re doing now. If it’s not, good enough.
Joe Ankus: Right.
Valerie Fontaine: You don’t have to go into great detail on something that’s completely unrelated, but you don’t want to leave questions unanswered.
Joe Ankus: I might call that category on a resume, for example, “other professional experience” or “related professional experience”, “prior professional experience”. And, as Valerie said, if it’s relevant elaborate on it. Otherwise just account for it.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Now we’ve talked about how the resume actually looks, but what I have noticed is it seems like now when people apply for a job, if they know someone at the employer they always want to use that connection if they can to perhaps have that person hand the resume off as well as applying online. What are your thoughts on that, in terms of how connections fall in with getting your resume to the right person and getting it attention?
Joe Ankus: I feel very, very strongly that the resume is–if you’ve got a good connection, the resume is going to be secondary. It’s the old familiar adage, “it’s not what you know but who you know.” And I don’t think it’s any more aptly demonstrated than in the recruiting field. Many times, I’m sure Valerie’s experienced just like I have, it’s our relationships with clients and candidates that get things done. It’s not the format of the resume per se or what’s even on the resume. It’s the fact that the relationship is solid enough and the trust factor is solid enough that we can make–convince employers and candidates to get together. And that’s where the magic happens.
So, connections clearly are important. I think they’re fundamental. I know that’s not the fundamental purpose of the podcast today, but it would be remiss not to at least touch on that. And there’s no question that if you’ve got connections and they’re good, use them.
Stephanie Francis Ward: And if you’re a young lawyer and say you’re at a bar association event and you just–you meet someone and then you apply for a job, would that be enough of a connection if you exchanged business cards and maybe you sent them an email and said, “Hey, nice to meet you?”
Valerie Fontaine: Absolutely. “Great to meet you the other night. Interested in hearing about your practice or whatever it is you talked about. As we discussed I am in the market. Here is my resume in case you have any ideas for me.” You don’t ask for a job unless you know they’re hiring. If you always ask for “in case you have any ideas I’d love to hear your suggestions”.
Joe Ankus: You know, Wayne Gretzky said you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take. And the answer is, take your shot. And I agree with what Valerie said, you’re not asking them for a job. You’re basically just following up and seeing what’s going–making the connection. No reason not to do it.
Valerie Fontaine: I wanted to expand on something that Joe said a little earlier about how relationships are paramount. I totally agree, but you have to have at least the modicum of experience and qualifications for the prospective employer. So the relationship is key on getting their attention, but the resume is a tool for presenting what it is you can do for them.
Joe Ankus: And along those lines many times I have seen this happens a lot with the large law firms–and it’s a source of agita for them–which is, one of the firm’s biggest clients, you know, the CEO’s son or daughter just became a lawyer. And frankly their credentials aren’t that good but it’s a huge client of the firm and it’s a big firm and they only hire, you know, stellar candidates. And now they’re like stuck. They’re like, how do we tell the CEO of our biggest client that we’re not going to hire their son or daughter because they were–
Valerie Fontaine: – they’re not good enough.
Joe Ankus: – they were in the bottom 10 percent of the class? It creates for some awkward situations where the connections are great but, as Valerie said, the resume’s not going to save them.
Valerie Fontaine: You gotta back it up.
Joe Ankus: You gotta back it up.
Stephanie Francis Ward: Sometimes people in the bottom 10 percent of their class are the world’s best lawyers.
Joe Ankus: Well, there’s a saying about that.
Stephanie Francis Ward: [Laughs] And on that note, that’s everything that I have for the both of you. Did either of you want to add anything else?
Joe Ankus: I just want to thank you for including me today. I appreciate it and I hope our listeners take some valuable tips away.
Stephanie Francis Ward: All right. Well, I want to thank you both so much for your time.
This ABA Journal podcast was brought to you by WestlawNext, the most advanced technology combined with market-leading content and West’s history of trusted editorial excellence. Helping legal professionals save time is what they’ve been doing for over 125 years. Learn more at WestlawNext.com.
Never include your head shot or hobbies in a resume, but do mention your GPA, providing it’s a good one. What else should you include? Hear veteran legal recruiters discuss their likes and dislikes with ABA Journal podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward in this month’s podcast.
In This Podcast:
Joe Ankus is a legal search consultant based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The former large law firm associate also serves as executive director of the National Association of Legal Search Consultants.
Valerie Fontaine is a partner in Seltzer Fontaine Beckwith, a Los Angeles legal search firm. Fontaine is a lawyer and the author of The Right Moves: Job Search and Career Development for Lawyers.