Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tips for writing a better resume

From the Texas Lawyer.

Commentary: How to Write a Get-Noticed, Persuasive Résumé

1. Use graphics. Let's say a new attorney's grades in the first year of law school put him in that half of the class that makes the top half possible. Years two and three were break-out years, and his GPA increased. The employee-hopeful could list the three years of law school, with his GPA noted by each year. Snooze. That makes the reader pull out the information. Such a technique tells, but doesn't show, and telling is not persuasive. What about using a chart, like one that shows rising stock prices, outperforming from previous years? Instant understanding. First rule of persuasion: Show, don't tell.

2. Generic descriptions get a generic rejection letter. It is good to have experience as a summer law clerk at a firm or as a judicial or corporate law intern. Good, but not good enough. I see resumes with generic descriptions a la "drafted pleadings; researched cases; prepared discovery responses."

These tell the reader absolutely nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Instead, the resume drafter should put this information into an interesting context: describe the types of cases involved: a role on the deal team or why the motion in limine was important. I sometimes ask why the resume writer doesn't do so, and I hear answers that I group into the "I'm Not Worthy" category from the movie Wayne's World. Some examples: "I do not want to sound arrogant." "Why would someone find this of interest?" Want a reader to be engaged and interested? Follow the second rule of persuasion: Be vivid.

3. Schooling vs. education. People do not hire a piece of paper. They hire a breathing person, with blood pumping through her heart, and flesh hanging from his bones. Once I met a third-year law student at my weekend breakfast place to go over her resume. It gave a lot of information on her, but nothing about her. When I asked if she ever had a job, she told me about her family business and how she and her sister worked there every summer -- not behind some desk, but driving and unloading a delivery truck in the Texas heat; stuffing flyers into envelopes and, once, taking a crowbar to a warehouse that was being remodeled.

She learned a lot about life during those summers. A well-meaning counselor told her it wasn't "professional" to list this type of work experience. Mark Twain remarked that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. Prospective employers want to know about this life "education" that is separate from what someone learned in school. It tells them about the experiences that shaped the potential employee as a person. When you are going to work every day with a person, you want to know what they're made of. And it's our "education," not our schooling, that tells them. Third rule of persuasion: Use flesh and blood stories, not dry and routine facts.

4. Drop the references. Attorneys just starting out should keep their resumes to one page. Period. They should not waste valuable real estate on a "references" section. It is just empty calories. Knowing three people is persuasive of nothing. The reader does not care about a potential hire's minister or law school professor or a judge he knows but never worked for. (I have seen all three.) The resume writer is using the references as "proxies" for virtue or intelligence or connections. Fourth rule of persuasion: Avoid unnecessary filler in favor of truly impactful information (this one comes courtesy of novelist Elmore Leonard, whose secret to success is to go back and cut out the parts of the novel that he thinks readers will just skip).

5. Contact capital. Dropping useless references leaves room for a section that belongs on every resume, but which I never have seen. I call it "contact capital," aka "business development."

Contact capital is developed over time. The employer needs to know what the applicant is doing today to make sure he has the capital in the bank tomorrow. It is the web of relationships that generates business, enhances reputation and ensures a career. This section of the resume is not formulaic. It is different for everyone. The resume writer should ask questions to figure out what she should include: "Am I on social media, and why?" or "What organizations do I belong to and will I try for a leadership role in them?" or "How am I maintaining the relationships I now have?"

Let's be clear on what I am not talking about. Chris Barez-Brown writes in his new book, Shine: How to Survive and Thrive at Work, that he hates the interview question "Where do you see yourself in 10 years?" As he says, "Who has a clue?" Rather, he writes you should have a "North Star" to guide you, because "it is important to know where you're moving toward: what kind of life you want and what kind of person you want to be. It is the quality of the vision that is more important than its precision." Fifth rule of persuasion: Be different. People remember different.

A persuasive resume is a resume that evidences a humble mind-set, not an arrogant one. It is about what a prospective hire hopes to learn and what he dreams about becoming. Attorneys should put these aspirations in their resumes, but only if they come from their hearts. New lawyers writing resumes should think about a story about being humble from Inner Excellence: Achieve Extraordinary Business Success Through Mental Toughness by Jim Murphy, the type of book I wish I had read 30 years ago. Murphy writes that Navy Seals are the most humble professionals he has ever met. For them, it is not about storming through the door; rather, it is about planning, practice, preparation and respect for the adversary. That's what makes a Seal. And, come to think of it, that's what makes the type of lawyer a legal employer wants to hire.

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