The impressions that matter

By Douglas Levy
The Daily Record Newswire
Picture a law firm’s recruiter faced with a large pile of cover letters and resumes for the open associate spot.

As committed as he or she is to giving each one a chance, there’s the inevitability that the four or so hours ahead will leave him or her tired and bored.

If you’re a recent law school grad or young solo attorney looking to move ahead to a larger firm’s practice, keep that image of the interviewer in your head, said panelists at a resume workshop during the recent State Bar of Michigan Young Lawyers Section’s Summit in Novi.

That can serve as a motivator to put something on your entry that will grab the recruiter’s attention.

For example, Grace Trueman, who practices probate and estate planning at Dickinson Wright PLLC, said she likes to focus on numbers. To her, a resume with quantitated experience on a resume — such as how many hours devoted to an internship project or an innocence clinic — will immediately get her to stop and look.

“As attorneys we boil down to hard facts a lot of the time, so if you have numbers, it will say, ‘This is concrete proof of how hard of a worker I am,’” she said.

But getting to those numbers means offering a welcome lead-in, which is what the cover letter is for.

Rebekah Page-Gourley, who writes, edits and leads new lawyer initiatives at the Institute for Continuing Legal Education, said going with a standard cover letter is “the ultimate turnoff,” especially when elements are cut and pasted from samples or other people’s letters.

“It’s an art and you have to tailor it to the people you’re talking to,” she said.

This means a continual process of writing, rewriting and editing — then repeating, Trueman said.

In a sense, it’s like setting up a specifically pointed conversation that hasn’t happened yet.

“It’s an extra opportunity to show who you are and what you’re all about, and to shine in a different way,” she said. “[But] if you don’t put the time and energy into it, don’t do it at all.”

Amanda D. Szukala, a former Wayne State University Law School recruiter and Oakland County assistant prosecutor, said the “conversation” on paper must never be misleading or appear disingenuous — which can happen because of the verb tense.
“If you did something a while ago but it reads on the resume like you’re still doing that activity … that’s a way for the resume to get thrown in the garbage for me,” said Szukala, who now works in family law at the Law Firm of John F. Schaefer in Birmingham.

Page-Gourley said resumes should be kept to one page if you are right out of law school or a summer associate spot, but if you had a career prior to law school and it’s worth breaking down, go to two pages.

Szukala said she prefers resumes to be two pages in order to air things out instead of having one page of credentials crammed and stretched to narrow margins.

She said the minimum font sizes should be 12 points, because anything less is asking for the resume reader to squint. In addition, she said everything should be clean and readable, with bulleted items and ample white space.

Jerome Crawford, associate legal director at Horizon Global, said sentences and headers should be aligned and uniform in appearance.

Page-Gourley said any blatant mistakes or fudging of legal experience can come back to haunt you later. As an example, if your cover letter and resume are poorly written, they could be stored in a law firm’s file. Then, if you apply at that same firm five years later, the old resume could be retrieved internally as a means of further review.

The structure of the resume should put your most relevant legal experience first, with education history at a later point.

Trueman advised not being duplicative with experience. For example, if you were an associate at a firm, then became a partner there, don’t break those titles out as two separate items on the resume. Instead, incorporate them in the same area under that particular firm.

And as professional as you may appear physically, the legal profession-oriented resume is not the place for your picture.

“I’ve heard it work for other fields like acting and advertising,” Crawford said, “but not for this field.”

Trueman said one of the trends today is incorporating elements like QR codes onto a resume, linking to a LinkedIn page, an online portfolio or a practice area blog.

Yet, she said to keep in mind that larger firms often have seasoned attorneys at the recruiting and hiring helm, and they may go the more traditional route in regard to resume extras.

Crawford said the resume should be managed regularly, even if you’re not looking for a new place to work.

“Your resume is a fluid document,” he said. “It will change and change over years until you have a masterful CV.”

Finally, make sure to keep a few interesting aspects about yourself or your legal experience off the resume, Crawford said, in order to use them during the interview.

“Your resume is what got you in the door,” he said. “I don’t need you to re-read your resume to me in person.”