Thursday, September 4, 2014

Resumes and Interviews

I have been an interviewee and an interviewer dozens upon dozens of times in my legal career. As a professor, drawing on my interviewing experience from both sides of the interview table, I spend a fair amount of time giving my students comments on their resumes and giving them advice before they go on interviews. Below are some of the comments that I find myself making consistently.

Generally, I think employers want to know three basics things about you as an interviewee: (1) are you capable?; (2) are you likeable? and (3) are you dedicated? (For the purposes of this post, I am going to assume you haven't given the employer any reason to question your intergrity, but, obviously, integrity is also extremely important.)

I describe each category in greater detail, and provide advice, after the break.

Capable. If you received an interview, the interviewer probably thinks you have the baseline capabilities, but you can prove them wrong during the course of the interview and you may not prove as talented as your competition. In practice, I paid careful attention to the interviewee’s resume, and I think that the attention to detail shown on the resume is sometimes nearly as important as the substance. I make the following suggestions to students:

  • One-page. For lawyer positions, I suggest a one-page resume, even if you had an extensive first career. Use one to three bullets per position and explain the rest in the interview. Obviously, CVs for professor positions are quite different. 
  • Well-organized. Keep your resume well-organized and easy to read.
  • No Typos. Most law students know to avoid typos, but I see a fair bit of inconsistent formatting (such as different sized hyphens between employment dates) and I consider those typos as well. Lawyers will generally look at your resume more closely than most, and while we all make typographical errors from time to time, typos tend to jump off the page to lawyers. If you can’t keep a one-page resume typo free, employers are going to have doubts about your abilities with longer documents. 
  • Small-caps v. All-caps. This one is probably just personal preference, but I think small-caps are much easier to read and don’t suggest screaming.
  • GPA/Class Rank. If you don’t list your GPA, it suggests lower than 3.0; If you don’t list your class rank, it suggests outside top-50% or at least outside top-25%.
  • Leadership. I was always more impressed with a leadership position in a single organization that I was by mere membership in many organizations. Law review is a bit of an exception given that mere membership is an honor, but I liked to see editorial board responsibilities with law review and had extra respect for the EIC. 
  • Highlight Technical Skills. As Bill Henderson (Indiana) and others have noted, legal organizations (and even law firms) are embracing technology and significant skills in that area can be a major plus for a candidate. 
  • Highlight First Career. If law is a second career, highlight your first career, especially if contacts from that career could become clients.

Likeable. Many students, I think, overlook the importance of likeability in the interview process.

  • Relax (but not too much). Plenty of students are very stiff and nervous, even on mock interviews. Of course, this is an interview, not poolside chat with a friend, so conduct yourself accordingly. Better to be too formal than too informal, but most students I interviewed could have relaxed a bit and been better off.   
  • Include an “Interests” Section on Resume. I suggest including an “interests” section on your resume. When I was in law school, a majority of my law firm interviews focused on my listed interests of football and snow-skiing. A word of warning about interest sections, however: don’t list interests that are not serious interests. I once interviewed a law student who listed golf in his interest section but didn’t know what his handicap was (and seemed to be clueless about what a golf handicap was in general). He had a hard time regaining credibility.   
  • Remove the “Objective” Section from Resume. I haven’t seen any objective sections on resumes that added any value, and I have seen many that hurt because they were too self-focused. Relatedly, in your cover letter, focus on how your skills can be of use to the employer, not what you think you can get out of the position. I have seen way too many cover letters that say something like “I think this position would allow me to embark on a very satisfying career, aligned with my most important interests.” Be like Lori Goler who Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook) recalls saying: "I thought about calling you, she said, and telling you all the things I’m good at and all the things I like to do. But I figured that everyone is doing that. So instead I want to know what’s your biggest problem and how can I solve it."
  • Don’t Overstate Your Accomplishments. Lawyers, perhaps more than other professionals, will call you out on any overstated items on your resume. While I have met plenty of arrogant lawyers, and perhaps was one, arrogance isn’t going to win you many supporters in the interview. Avoid vague self-congratulations (e.g., “provided excellent customer service.”).  Stick to the specific, verifiable facts (e.g., “voted employee of the month in April 2012” or “responsible for a 35% increase in revenue from my clients.”).    
  • Treat Everyone With Respect. Sometimes office assistants and paralegals weigh in on hiring decisions, especially at smaller firms, and, in any event, lawyers are watching how you interact with their staff.    

Dedicated. Firms generally want someone who is dedicated – to the type of work they do and to their geographic area – and someone who is a hard worker in general. 

  • Area of Law. If you are interested in a certain type of law, join organizations, do internships, and take classes in that area. It was dificult for me to believe law students I interviewed who said they really wanted to do M&A work, but had no evidence of that interest on their resume or transcript. 
  • Geographic Ties. If you are from out of town, explain in your cover letter why you want to be in the geographic area where you are interviewing. All else being equal, applicants with ties to the area seem to be more successful in landing a job. This is one of the reasons I tell pre-law students to strongly consider law schools located in the geographical area where they want to practice. 
  • Work Ethic. There are various ways to show that you are a hard worker on your resume. Law review membership suggests a strong work ethic to me, as does taking difficult elective classes and overcoming past obstacles. I suggest that marathon runners note that accomplishment on their resumes (in the “interests” section) because of what that distance running suggests about their work ethic. 

In a time when even getting an interview is tough, I suggest that students reach out to attorneys that practice in their desired area and ask to meet with them. (Start 1L year, if possible.) Don’t ask for a job, ask for advice; if they like you and have a way to get you an interview, they will. Ask small. An ask for a 15-minute meeting is more likely to get a “yes” than a 60-minute ask. Make the meeting very convenient for them in both time and place. Be grateful and don’t be demanding or presumptuous; they are doing you a big favor given that time is quite important to attorneys who bill in six-minute increments. A handwritten thank you note can go a long way. 

As always, your mileage may vary, and I am open to comments and conflicting views. Finally, I doubt that I have always taken my own advice, but sometimes the most lasting lessons are learned from mistakes.

Haskell Murray, Law School, Teaching | Permalink


Great observations and ideas, Haskell. Your point at the end on "reaching out" is especially well taken and deserves emphasis. I find that many of my younger students believe that trolling job boards for positions and applying for them is the way to find a job. Although some do find jobs that way, most folks get positions because they meet people who inform them of an opportunity (often not posted or not yet posted on any job board) or who hire or recommend them for a particular position because of their previous knowledge about and experience with an applicant. I tell students that they are unlikely to find their next job at home in front of the computer in their jammies . . . .

Perhaps you'll consider doing another post on cover letters alone? I think there are significant additional points to be made on those. In particular, and this goes for interviews, too, I might note that being able to cite to and briefly describe specific examples of accomplishments and activities from professional or personal experience that illustrate capability and dedication can be quite compelling.

Finally, it used to be that my law school alma mater didn't permit listing class rank or GPA on resumes used in the OCI process. I do not know if that's still true, but I would just make the point that following the rules of your institution's placement office is independently important. It would be a tragedy for a student to lose privileges to use the career services of the law school in this tough job environment . . . .

Posted by: joanheminway | Sep 5, 2014 2:31:20 AM

I think the posting and comments are excellent. As we see structured mentoring programs in Tennessee, I believe this type of guidance should be incorporated into the curriculum for mentors and mentees.

Posted by: Tom N | Sep 5, 2014 11:01:19 AM

Thanks for the comments. Joan, obviously you are correct - student should read and obey their school's rules. That said, I imagine their are very few schools that currently prohibit GPA/rank because it is an employer driven market and many law firms only want students from the top of the class.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Sep 6, 2014 5:17:55 AM

All good advice. Excellent post, Haskell.

Posted by: Mohsen Manesh | Sep 7, 2014 5:36:53 PM