The format/design of a successful legal resume accomplishes three things: 1) it is pleasing to the eye, 2) it is easy to scan, and 3) it highlights those things you want to highlight, while downplaying those things you want to hide. If your layout accomplishes these three things, it's fantastic! We say that because people tend to fret unnecessarily over the look of their resumes, often to the point that they lose sight of what's really important: the content. You might love Helvetica font or hate Times New Roman, but if 9 out of 10 people disagree, you've got to go with what the masses like. Creating your resume is not akin to decorating your house. While your format needn't be mundane, keep in mind that your artistic sensibility is not what counts in your search for a legal position.
There are three basic formats for a resume:
- A hybrid of the two
Because this article deals solely with legal resumes, we will mainly be concentrating on two of these three: chronological and hybrid.
A purely functional resume format markets skills and achievements over job chronology. In a functional format, dates, job titles, and company/firm names are either buried or omitted completely. Most legal employers are bothered by purely functional formats because the progression of your legal career is important to them. Professions that are skills-based, such as those within the computer industry, lend themselves to a more functional format because the main focus is on the specific skills a candidate possesses.
A chronological format contains a list of your positions, from newest to oldest. In a purely chronological format, each position is self-contained. The details about each position are grouped together with the employer name, job title, etc., so that the person reading your resume can quickly see what you did, when, and in which position.
A chronological format works well because it's easy to follow. There's not a lot of guesswork involved when an employer can skim through your resume and quickly see your job chronology. This can be harmful in some cases, however. If you've done a lot of job hopping in your career, having a solely chronological format will draw attention to this fact. Also, if you have gaps in your employment, they will be emphasized by this style.
For these reasons, we often recommend a hybrid format. This format provides the best of both worlds: the emphasis on achievements and skills provided by the functional format and the legibility and simplicity of the chronological format.
A hybrid format can take many forms: It can contain one or more summary sections, it can divide your experience by practice area as opposed to employers, or it can highlight representative cases over specific responsibilities. Basically, a hybrid format allows for flexibility and creativity in the way that you present your experience while still containing a chronological timeline of your work history.
Clients frequently ask what the most effective format is. There is no answer to this question because whether or not a format is effective depends on how effectively it portrays your specific experience. The format that works well for one person might be a disaster for another.
Get the content in order first, and once it's all there, figure out the best way to arrange it. Whatever you do, don't plug the information into a stock resume template. Most resume templates look generic. Anyone else who used it will have a resume that looks identical to yours. You don't have to be a computer whiz to come up with an original format that works.
Once upon a time, there was a rule that stated resumes must never exceed one page. While some still abide by this rule, most have relegated it to the "old-fashioned" pile. The problem with the rule is that it causes people to eliminate essential information from their resumes in the interest of fitting them on one page. Or it causes them to cram their resumes so full of information that immediate headaches ensue.
The modern resume is not bound by the one-page-only rule; however, conciseness is still favored. If you're a recent graduate without a lengthy career prior to law school, your resume should probably be one page-simply because you don't have enough relevant legal experience to merit a longer resume.
Outside of that situation, your resume's length should be dictated by how much you absolutely need to say. Notice the "absolutely need" part. Your resume should contain only the information that is relevant and important. In other words, you shouldn't cut something out solely to save space, nor should you add a bunch of irrelevant "fluff" just to fill two pages.
Just as with format, you want to let the content of your resume dictate its length. Before worrying about one page or two, get the content in order. Once it's there, see how it looks on the page. If your resume is just a little over a page, make some adjustments to the layout to fit it on one page. Likewise, if you definitely need to move into two-page territory, space your resume out a bit so that it fits nicely across two pages. Your second page should be at least half full. Keep that in mind when deciding on your final length.
Using Layout to Your Advantage
After your primary format (chronological or hybrid) has been decided, there are a million stylistic choices to make. While there are no "rights" and "wrongs" with regard to resume style, there are some "dos" and "don'ts."
Before a word of your resume is read, it should give off a professional, polished appearance. You want your resume to achieve a balance of white space vs. text that makes it look full without looking cluttered. You also want to make sure that your format is easy to navigate. Within 10 seconds, the person reading your resume should be able to pick out your job titles, assess your educational background, and get a general sense of the level of your experience.
Avoid tiny fonts; large blocks of text; and overuse of bold, italics, underlines, and other formatting styles. These things can be effective in small doses, but ineffective if overdone. If you see an entire page where only one word is bolded, your attention will be drawn to that word. If half the words are bolded, however, you won't pay special attention to any of them.
Don't get too creative with your font choice. Times New Roman is a no-fail choice. Other serif fonts (such as Garamond or Book Antiqua) are good choices as well. As far as size, 11-point works well for resumes because it's legible, while still allowing a lot of information to fit on one page. And 12-point can be used if you need to make your resume look full and you've exhausted the content possibilities. Finally, 10-point should only be used if absolutely necessary. It can be hard on the eyes. Never go any smaller than 10-point.
As a general rule, paragraphs within resumes should not exceed six or seven lines. Once a paragraph becomes longer than that, it is likely the reader will gloss over certain things. Assuming each portion of your job description is important, you want to make sure it is displayed in a way that will get it noticed. It is better to have 4-5 lines that will definitely be read than 10-12 that will be ignored.
One trick to achieving an easy-to-read resume is to use bullet points. When items are displayed in a bulleted list, each one is given more attention than if it were lumped into a paragraph format. You can also combine bullet points with paragraphs. This allows you to highlight certain aspects of your experience. For instance, you may want to discuss the nuts and bolts of your job in a paragraph and use bullets to highlight some notable achievements.
If you have worn several hats in your positions, or divided your time between one or more practice areas, you can also break your job descriptions into different categories.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
A lot of times, the aspects of the layout that people fret over the most are those that matter the least. These are some of the questions that we have been asked:
Should I tab or right-align my dates?
Should I italicize or underline my job titles?
Should I use an ampersand (&) or the word "and" between the semesters I was on Dean's List?
Should I use a 10-point or 11-point font?
Our answer: NO ONE CARES! First, we dare you to find someone who has dismissed an otherwise qualified candidate based on these types of factors. Second, in the improbable event that you do find such an employer, would you really want to work for that person? If this person turns you down over a square bullet point, what would he/she do to your trial brief?
Look at examples of successful resumes to get some ideas on effective ways to present the information on your resume. Again, make sure you use format and style to your advantage. There are certain layouts that make the resume look like it fills up the page, even if there's not much information to work with. There are other layouts that allow you to fit a lot on a page without making it look cluttered.
Remember, while it's important to have a visually attractive resume, the majority of the time and effort you put into creating your resume and cover letter should be dedicated to creating compelling content. The style of your headings, the size of your margins, and whether you use #56 or Apt. 56 in your address block should be the last things you consider.