It's no secret that the legal job market is tough these days. If you're going to stand out, you need a fantastic résumé.
Here are some tips:
1) Make a great first impression. How long do you think the average hiring manager looks at a résumé? Thirty seconds? A minute? Try 10 seconds. (Maybe less.) Your story needs to jump off the page, or your résumé's going in the reject pile.Try this test: Hand your résumé to a friend. Let them look at it for 10 seconds. Take it back. Ask what they remember. Is this the impression you intend to convey? If not, edit and repeat the test.
2) Know what story you're telling. If you think your résumé is simply a factually correct, chronological list of all your prior jobs and education, it's time for a revamp. A good résumé tells a story about who you are, and why this job is right for you. Say you're looking to transition from the corporate world into a public interest job after graduation. Describing your years of corporate experience in detail isn't going to get you very far, but emphasizing your extensive volunteer work might.
3) Highlight what's most impressive. A variation on the theme, but you want to highlight the aspects of your background that will be most impressive to this employer. Make sure the highlights are at the top of the page, and to the left of the lines of text (yes, it's possible someone might not even read to the end of your bullet points!).
4) Address the reader's fears. This one's ninja level, but, if you can get inside the head of the person who's going to be reading your résumé and understand what they're afraid of, you can ally concerns before they even arise. For example, say you're fairly young and don't have a lot of work experience. If I'm sitting in a law firm's HR office looking at your résumé, I'll naturally be concerned about whether you're mature enough to handle the stress of the job and whether you'll be comfortable working with older colleagues. Just as I start thinking this, however, I see that you helped plan two major charity fundraisers in the last year, working closely with several of high-powered members of the community on a tight deadline. Whew, my fears are assuaged, and I'm much more likely to bring you in for an interview.
5) Don't be afraid to cut material. Most résumés have way too much stuff in them. Cut mercilessly. Do not include things "just in case" or because "it can't hurt." It can hurt. If you include extraneous junk, it distracts the reader from the good stuff. Only include things that help convince the reader you're the right person for the job (and use the space you save to talk in detail about what remains.)
6) Remember that the point of the résumé is to get an interview. You don't have to answer every single question in the résumé. It's designed to pique interest, and, if you get an interview, to give you something to talk about. So, for example, it's a good idea to include the title of your college honor's thesis (instead of just saying you did one). It's not a good idea, however, to include a paragraph discussing the project and your conclusions. That's overkill.
7) What can you do for me? Last, but certainly not least, the key takeaway question: What can you do for me? If I'm reading your résumé, I have a role to fill. If you can fill that role, I'll be delighted. I want to know how you can help me. Don't make me guess. If you want an interview, I need to know what's in it for me. The more closely you match your skills to my needs, the more likely I am to hire you.
Alison Monahan is the founder of The Girl's Guide to Law School and a co-founder of the Law School Toolbox. A 2006 graduate of Columbia Law School, she was a member of the Columbia Law Review, a Civ Pro Teaching Assistant, a Kent Scholar, and a Stone Scholar. After law school, she clerked in the District of Massachusetts and was a BigLaw patent litigator for two years. Now she helps other aspiring lawyers get into law school, get through, and stay true to themselves in the process.