by Claudia Levy, Levy Legal Consulting LLC
Published in the ABA Law Practice Today
Obtaining a desired legal position is hard work. The competition is fierce for the best firms and public service positions. Lateraling presents its own challenges, as the best jobs attract national attention. But you can maximize your opportunities and increase your likelihood of obtaining the position you desire by taking certain steps. Through hundreds of meetings with eager law students, potential laterals looking for a change, and firms hoping to land the perfect candidate, I have found these tips to be essential for success.
- Perfect your resume
The resume is an essential marketing tool; it should sell you as a candidate. While a great resume will not likely land the job, a poor resume will eliminate all opportunity. The resume is almost always the first impression of you, with no room for typographical errors or poor grammar. Admittedly, some interviewers may only give a resume a passing glance, but others will view it as an insight into your work product.
The layout is crucial. It must be structured, formatted and designed to convey information quickly to the interviewer. A resume should always begin with the candidate’s name at the top in bold and in a font size slightly larger than the section headings. With gender-neutral names, use the title Mr. or Ms. Candidates who go by their middle name should initial the first name or put it in parentheses. Use a professional email address, ideally your law school email or a Gmail address using your name as the handle. Obtain and include a local phone number if you don’t already have one. You will appear more settled in the area where you are seeking a job.
All subsequent sections of the resume should be in reverse chronological order, meaning the most recent information is first. It should be easy to read and the best parts should jump off the page. Underlining, italicizing, or even bolding certain words is fine, provided it is done sparingly.
The first section should be Education, starting with the law school or most recent degree first. Do not abbreviate degree names and provide a GPA and/or class rank if you are still a student. As a practicing attorney, the GPA is not required, but don’t be surprised if you are asked for transcripts. Have them ready just in case. Combine Honors and Activities sections if they are not similar in number, and separate them if you have several entries in each. Again, your best achievements should jump off the page to the reader. Scholarships are absolutely an honor, even small ones, so include them. If the scholarship did not have a name, provide a reasonable description such as “Academic Scholarship” or “Athletic Scholarship” and explain in the interview.
In the Experience section, use action verbs to lead job descriptions and make them quantifiable and relevant to your reader. Determine how to describe duties in the “biggest” or “most important” way. (“Managed over 20 case files” or “Resolved nearly 90% of outstanding claims” or “Negotiated a settlement exceeding $1M”). Try to group similar duties together. For example, describe research and writing assignments in one point, then court appearances, client communications, and then list unique duties or highlight a large project or accomplishment. Do not overstate your experience. If your prior or current position does not directly relate to the job you’re applying for, highlight transferrable skills. Be factual and honest when explaining your experience, but also remember the audience and list the job duties most relevant to the reader first.
Consider a Professional Associations, Community Involvement and Interests section. Many employers look to this section first because it is the most interesting and provides more insight into a candidate’s personality. List memberships and leadership positions in bar associations. Describe involvement with any charities or community organizations, other than what is already listed in the Education section. Never list generic interests such as running, reading, cooking, or traveling. Provide specificity; you want to be memorable. Better examples are “completed 4 marathons,” “led mission trips to Haiti and South Africa,” “studied French cooking in Paris,” “avid reader of early American literature,” “regionally ranked equestrian,” “community orchestra member,” “enjoy rebuilding classic cars,” or “frequent volunteer at the humane society.” This section not only reveals a candidate’s personality, it shows that the candidate has outside interests, which may help to prevent associate burn out, and increases the likelihood that is the candidate has a larger networking pool to tap for business.
Do not use “creative” graphics or fonts, and use only one font. Never use an “Objective” section. The objective is to get a job, and a candidate already should be interested in acquiring the applied-for position. Similarly, do not use a Professional Qualifications section containing subjective descriptions such as “highly skilled litigator” or “results driven.” Such information is provided by references. Avoid stating references are available upon request. Instead, make a separate References document, using the same name/address header as your resume.
Many candidates worry about spacing on their resume or trying to fit too much information on the page. Consider a maximum length of one page for every 10 years of experience. If a second page is necessary, use at least one third of that page. Some details can be highlighted in a cover letter or brief cover email.
Type size should be no smaller than 11 point, and you should use a one-inch margin around each page, although that can be reduced slightly if necessary. To save space between sections, reduce the font size to as small as four or six point in that space. The greatest amount of space should be between the contact information and the Education section. Bullet points can be adjusted closer to the left margin, and space can be decreased between the bullet and first word. If underlining the section names, extend the underline across the entire page, and be sure all section lines are uniform.
Finally, do not think of the resume as simply another box to check in a job search. A resume is a living document and should be modified depending on the audience. Different versions are appropriate and the resume should always be current.
- Audit your online image
Most employers will review online profiles and perform a web search on a candidate’s name. A candidate should know what the potential employer will find and be able to use online image and information advantageously. Audit security settings on Facebook, Instagram, and any other social media to maintain information as private. Untag inappropriate photos, or better yet, remove them if possible. Stories exist where a third party “friend” to both a candidate and potential employer has provided the potential employer information and photos that a candidate thought were private.
Do not limit the audit to social media. At least know about old papers, editorials, and other publications that may be found through a name or email address search. Be aware of forum or message board posts that may appear from a similar search. Be cautious of political banter, religious opinions, or anything else potentially polarizing. This is also a good time to update your LinkedIn profile to provide comprehensive information similar to what is in the resume. Be sure to include a professional picture.
If online information about you presents an unavoidable issue, be prepared to address it. Don’t let an employer assume the worst; have an explanation that is clear, concise and well-rehearsed. Sometimes, even a little comic relief can help minimize the issue and help bring perspective. More importantly, the explanation should illustrate how a candidate has moved beyond the incident or situation. Above all, be prepared to speak directly, confidently and in control of the conversation.
- Take a fresh look at your personal appearance
Demonstrating a professional appearance is one way employers evaluate whether a candidate has maturity and good judgment. Wear a suit to all networking events and interviews unless specifically instructed otherwise. Men’s clothing should consist of a navy or gray suit with a white or blue shirt; black or brown shoes; and a conservative tie. Women can wear a navy, gray, or black suit; neutral heels no higher than three inches; hose or tights in the winter; any color sweater or blouse with a higher-cut neckline; and neat hair and jewelry. Avoid wearing cologne or perfume.
Even if applying for a position with a smaller firm or one with a more casual image, the employer still must evaluate how a potential employee will reflect on the firm and be viewed by their clients. Now is not the time to show off personal style. Clothing will not make the interview, but it can be detrimental. Although many millennials see nothing wrong with visible tattoos or piercings, not all employers, or their clients, agree. Make sure you are what stands out, not your outfit or personal image.
- Revisit your contact list and manage your relations
The first step in networking is to revisit contact lists and start reaching out to people. An old contact may now be working in a law firm, married to a lawyer, have a neighbor who is a lawyer, etc., so sometimes former, non-legal contacts can become surprisingly valuable. Make an organized list or chart that includes alumni; members of sports teams, churches, and social clubs; neighbors and neighborhood organizations; parents’ friends and business colleagues; former employers; and other helpful individuals. Many jobs are landed through an unpredictable connection. Keep track of calls, emails or visits, and maintain a calendar to remember to follow up.
Following up is difficult but necessary. Many subjective factors determine the best timing, but generally, do not let more than two months pass between contacts. The best way to follow up is with a reason. With a little creativity, you can become memorable in the process. Comment on a college football team’s success or school news from their alma mater. Reference an article about a hobby the contact has. Discuss a restaurant they recommended or mention an article concerning their firm. Even having an updated resume to send is a good reason. Keep the email brief and light. Attach the resume, and point out it is updated. The general message is: “This thing made me think of you so I wanted to send a quick email. Also, I’m still looking for a job and wanted to include my updated resume.” It should not require a response and should take no more than 15 seconds to read.
While consistent and thoughtful contact will make you memorable, the strongest impression is made through sending a handwritten note to thank a contact. The extra time and effort put forth will have a lasting impact.
- Don’t forget about your local bar association
Bar associations are a great resource for professional development and networking, especially the local ones. Seize the opportunity to meet local lawyers. Attend a CLE even if credits are not needed, simply to meet the other attendees. Many CLEs are free, or can be attended at a reduced rate. Join the young lawyers’ division and go to its events, or join a practice area committee. Experienced lawyers can help produce a CLE or panel discussion for the committee. Recent law school graduates should consider writing an article for their bar publication. Contact the bar and determine what types of articles they need; most bar associations are quite accommodating. Consider contacting business journals or other professional publications and submit articles. Such strategy provides the dual benefit of simultaneously increasing one’s network and resume.
- Expand your network
A candidate should have an elevator pitch prepared so everyone remembers who they are and what kind of job they are seeking. What is said to a stranger or non-lawyer should be different from what is conveyed to other lawyers. Limit the length to a few sentences, adjust the pitch to make it appropriate for each audience, and try to make it memorable. Beware of sounding like a “salesperson” or too “gimmicky,” but be enthusiastic.
It is important to network, but do not try and attend every event. When selecting professional events, pick only the most relevant events and have a plan. Research the expected attendees and have questions prepared to prompt meaningful interactions. Use social media to determine which connections will be the most helpful to make. Collect business cards and follow up with your new contacts after the event.
Be sure to set aside time for hobbies and personal interests. In addition to relieving stress and helping overall happiness, such pursuits provide opportunities to meet different people. Valuable contacts can be made through volunteering at a charity event, joining a new book club, or chatting with an acquaintance at the gym. All the while, you become a more interesting and fulfilled person.
- Be realistic
If the job search is not going well, it may be time to be honest about your qualifications or the competitiveness of the job or industry. The size of the city or industry may limit the volume of legal work available to lawyers in the area. The entertainment industry is bigger in Los Angeles and New York than it is in Nashville. More corporate and securities work is in New York than in Oklahoma City. Lobbying firms are concentrated in Washington, D.C. Whatever the limitation might be, it is important to be honest and understand whether outside limitations are making efforts futile. It is unlikely that a new graduate’s first job out of law school will be a dream job, but the biggest challenge facing new lawyers is getting experience. Be strategic and identify less-desirable jobs that could provide the contacts, transferrable skills, and opportunities to later move into the preferred position. Consider pursuing opportunities for contract or hourly legal work through firms or legal staffing companies to obtain experience and meet other lawyers. In some cases, performing well on projects can lead to full-time work.
The job search process can be agonizing, but effort pays off if the goals are reasonable, the strategy is carefully planned, and the processes are well-executed. Continuing these efforts ensures new opportunities will present themselves for years to come.