What follows is an in-depth analysis and re-statement of what the legal resume should resemble in the early 21st-Century. Executive summary: throw out your old resume and begin thinking about the eight golden keys to describe your work experience: degree of autonomy; caliber of client; sophistication of the work; volume of the work; client industry; degree of client access; dollars involved; and social/political significance of the outcome. The point is to incorporate "leadership" thinking to your resume: emphasize action, functional qualities, success stories--de-emphasize mere description.
A Little Less Conversation-A Little More Action!
When I sit down to write an article, I usually try to come up with some reference to classical antiquity, or perhaps Enlightenment-era philosophy. I like to think that the progenitors of our society have something relevant to say that sheds light even in our relatively “dumbed-down” pop-centric, go-go culture. But when I sat down to write this article on re-approaching the professional resume, I felt that the sedate, reasoned approach to life exemplified by our intellectual forebears just did not catch the spirit of the modern job search. Not at all.
I am not the first to notice that the interview process is analogous to a dating relationship. Moreover, in this age of increasingly short law-firm tenures, the law firm/attorney dance can resemble a singles’ bar scene. If this is the case, then recourse to the timeless Justice Holmes is in order. Recall his admonition: “the timid may stay at home.”
You do not want to stay at home—you want to fulfill your professional goals and get into a platform that creates the synergies you need. You have to get your name noticed, and for any given person, you do not have two chances to do it. Just one.
I pride myself on writing extremely detailed and evocative cover letters. I do my best to answer in a cover letter all the questions that a hiring partner would want answered before extending an offer. A fantastic cover letter will open doors and get you past multiple gatekeepers, but a resume must still deliver. At some point, a decision-maker is going to pour over that resume and hope that the skills and experience that she has been looking for will finally appear. And this person does not want to guess and surmise—she wants answers. I hasten to add that your resume has approximately 11.3 seconds to communicate those answers. This is why your resume very likely needs, “A little less conversation, a little more action.”
Action v. Conversation
While I would normally hesitate to quote the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll for the centerpiece of anything worth writing about, I have to admit that his injunction “action over conversation”, is the perfect synthesis of the interview process as dating ritual, and the need to truly communicate and impress in a resume. Basically, what I mean is that your resume must be taut, dense, full of “answers,” not “questions.” In short, your resume must be an action saga, not a job-description, or mere ‘conversation’.
With this as a philosophical basis, I provide the following broad perspective and practical advice on how to re-imagine your resume as a fearless piece of pointed advocacy, rather than a timid, milquetoast recital of unsupported conclusions.
A vital preliminary word about format.
Many of my candidates initially have a difficult time listening to my suggestions because they cannot get out of their minds the outdated rubric that a resume can be only one page long. They hear about the extra detail I want them to add and they are afraid that they will exceed this outdated and lifeless magic circle, which they conceive of as a cardinal rule. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. A resume, if well-read, is a pleasure to read. In the context of a professional resume--especially for a lateral attorney with at least one year of experience--two and even three pages are perfectly acceptable. Thus, if you are following me, I hope that you have allowed yourself to completely deconstruct in your mind your current resume and its format, the better to begin your reconception of that document anew.
First: The “Legal Experience” portion of your resume is going to be reconstructed to demonstrate your abilities, not describe them.
Think of your resume as a piece of advocacy. A good brief shows a judge how and why your client’s position is the only reasonable one. Similarly, your resume must be designed to answer the “how?” and “why?” behind statements like: “Experienced in all aspects of litigation” or “complete mastery of corporate formation tasks.” Something like that lyric “A little less conversation . . .” is going through the mind of someone who reads multiple resumes in a week. The hiring partner or recruiting coordinator is thinking “why can’t this highly educated person tell me something interesting about themselves—why does this resume look like every other one I’ve ever read except for the name, the school and the graduation date.” You as a candidate must make it your mission to foreclose the possibility that those thoughts go through the mind of the decision-maker at the firms you approach. Thus, I want you to conceptualize of your resume as a showcase for success stories that highlight your skills, and puts them into a particular context.
Second: Write the perfect bullet point with my “eight golden keys” to grabbing attention.
Your resume is going to be full of detail, but it must be snappy. The best way to draw a reader in, without making him or her feel ‘trapped’ by undifferentiated text, is to use bullet points. You have seen bullet points before—short sentences, or perhaps two or more sentences, set off by text above and below it by a dash, arrow or round dot, a “bullet.” Your resume should use them strategically, but the most important aspect is to craft the text. In my view, the way to view bullet points is similar to how you may have used them in a brief—as a recitation of evidence supporting a conclusion. The first line or two of any heading under the “Legal Experience” portion of your resume is your firm name, and title (“associate” or “partner”). If the firm is a well-known one, your “conclusion” may already have been stated (“I am a world-class [litigator, corporate attorney, etc.]”). Further, you may want to simply write out a two-line “conclusion” just under this information, to give the reader an idea what you have practiced. The idea is to communicate the way you frame yourself to other attorneys—you are communicating to the reader that you are a competent and well-rounded litigator (for example) that has lots of experience in sophisticated work. Alternatively, this could also be done at the very outset of your resume in a “Profile” section (a 3 to 5 sentence narrative paragraph summarizing the most important points about your legal skills).
Regardless how you frame the “argument” of your resume, the “bullet” points are the meat that backs up the conclusion already made. And those bullet points need to deliver. Note that these are not simply “further information” for the reader. No. They are a presentation of facts that prove—that demonstrate--your competence. The way to prove competence is through the eight golden keys, which individually or in combination provide the “scope”, the “context” of your work. They are:
a) degree of autonomy;
b) caliber of client;
c) sophistication of the work;
d) volume of the work;
e) client industry;
f) degree of client access;
g) dollars involved; and
h) social/political significance of the outcome.
Ideally, each bullet point throws in powerful phrases or word-clusters that allow each bullet text to contain 3 to 5 of these “golden keys.” Let me demonstrate. A bullet point in a litigation resume may say: “Took the lead in several complex commercial litigation matters.” I see this type of phrase every day in resumes. The candidate should have focused on one of these matters and touted his own, individual work. For example, the following communicates much more: “Wrote, argued and won summary judgment defending a Fortune-100 worldwide chip manufacturer in a $50 million licensing and distribution lawsuit based on appropriate application of choice of law provision.” Notice that I have used at least five categories including: a) degree of autonomy (“wrote, argued and won”), b) caliber of client (“Fortune-100”), c) sophistication of the work (“motion for summary judgment” and “choice of law provision”; e) client industry (“chip manufacturer”); g) dollars involved (“$50 million”). If I didn’t have any of these facts, I would try to find at least two categories that did apply. The point is to take the time to dig back into your past successes and mine them for gems. In the day-to-day practice, we tend to think only of our current projects, forgetting past successes—don’t make that mistake.
Third: Make sure you covered the basics.
Every attorney resume should have at least the following sections: a) biographical information (name, cell-phone number and email address); b) legal experience; c) education; and d) affiliations/admissions. If applicable, add the following: e) “Other Experience”; and f) “Publications and Presentations”. Try to use the above principles when describing your law school and undergraduate careers.
Fourth: Honesty--The ONLY Rational Policy.
It should go without saying that every single statement and every portion of every statement in your resume, transactions list, bio, or any other piece of writing you submit to a potential employer must be 100% accurate. There is no puffing, no stretching of the truth, no artful lapses of completeness to convey the wrong idea. Most real or perceived ‘blemishes’ can be handled. What CANNOT be ‘handled’ is even the hint of misdirection. The legal market is too tight to deal with the cognitive dissonance that results from partners having to re-think their analysis of a candidate’s fit for a firm, after realizing some important aspect of their profile that wasn’t immediately obvious from the original submission or resume.
Action, Action, Action.
Basically, this all boils down to making the job of the hiring firm easier. By doing the analysis yourself of what you have done, where you’ve done it, what the results were and how it impacted on clients, you are leading the reader to the conclusion you want, without the reader having to work to prove or disprove any representations you’ve made. Thus, less conversation—less space-taking chatter about “abilities”—and more action: more direct demonstration of your proven successes. If you can make that cognitive leap, you are much farther down the tarmac than your competition. And believe me as someone who is in a position to see trends in the industry, competition for premier positions will only increase.
Octavius Augustus Caesar was the first and "real" Augustus, the first heir of Julius Ceasar, and some say the first true emporer of Rome. It is easy after the fact to see the amazing prowess, endurance and wit the man had, and it is easy to think of his reign, like that of every other wildly successful monarch, as inevitable. He had, however, a very shaky start.
Named as Julius's heir and assuming his position at the tender age of 18, Augustus (Gaius, then) had no money, no connections, no power and no family to fall back on. Worse, he had very, very powerful enemies.
Someone to Listen To
You may remember Marc Anthony was running around claiming the 'throne' for himself (sorry for the anarchronism). At any rate, it all worked out, obviously. It helped to have the greatest orator of all time take up his cause (Cicero) and it helped to be completely ruthless (siding with the Senate as he did at need against Antony, then, when more powerful, switching alliances and "purging" the Senate of the traitors to Julius). Either way, I believe Augustus and his brilliant success sufficiently makes his case as someone to listen to for advice.
World's Greatest Aphorism
And Augustus was all for aphorisms, most of which he coined himself. My favorite? Festina lente. Now, many of you have heard this one, roughly translated "hurry slowly." But there is more, far more, to it than mere irony. The point is, of course, that one must have plans and move as direcctly toward their fulfillment as possible. And, of course, one must have the determination, patience and "stick-to-it-ive-ness" to take the long view when necessary--switching alliances when convenient, professing loyalty the next, and taking direct and perhaps ungentlemanly action when prudent. (You can see how this philosophy might appeal to a headhunter).
Gloss on the Phrase
More importantly, however, is a further nuance to the injunction. "Lente" also carried with it the connotation of "toughness", "durability", "flexibility" and "suppleness." It makes me think of trying to put a nail through stucco--the hammer just bounces back at you. Thus "festina lente" is an encouragement not to just be "deliberate" (which attorneys often use as an excuse to simply "bide their time" and take no action) but also to be tough, to be tenacious, to be able to bend with the wind.
Bringing it Home
And thus I finally come to my point: One must take action where one's actions will count. Simply to strike without knowledge of where to place the hammer is fruitless at best, possibly injurious (you can hit your own hand) and even fatal (if the hammer bounces back into your face). This is particularly true when dealing with transition between law firms. (Yes, I realize this is not a partiuclarly graceful segue).
At any rate, firms have their own pace; their own way of making decisions. In other words, they make decisions about bringing on new attorneys at in their own sweet time regardless but not heedless of the consequences. Firms are completely aware that taking too much time will mean that some fantastic candidates will simply move on and look for new positions. But even in a tight labor market (which we indeed have and will continue to have), firms know that eventually they will find the fish in that great sea that will fit within their framework, and that will put up with their impossibly opaque and glacier-slow decision-making processes.
Thus, my moral for dealing with a firm after the interviews are done, the conflicts statements are written up and the offer is yet to be seen: relax! The firm will either act or it will not. In the meantime, keep looking for more possibilities. There is no one perfect firm for you and simply "willing" for that "perfect" firm to act is pointless.
Rather, demonstrate the strategic mind that Augustus had: find your target, move in towards it, but do not hesitate to take the mountain-trail-like switch-backs sometimes necessary to move in a straight line.
The Celia Paul group refer to themselves as career "counselors", not coaches. The distinction being that as counselors, they focus on working with attorneys who are contemplating an exit from practice. Conversely, coaches focus on working with attorneys who are committed to remaining in practice. My questions:
What are the three most important reasons that (first) a rising associate (and second) a partner needs your service?
A lawyer's career counselor is one who works with an attorney who is not satisfied being at a firm, or being in house, or being a traditional lawyer. The career counselor:
(1) identifies the options (maybe a venue-change, maybe a change in direction within or outside of the law, maybe an entrepreneurial activity) available to him or her;
(2) helps identify whether those options exist in the actual marketplace; and then
(3)helps the individual land the job. (A "career coach" is one who works with a lawyer who's planning to stay on the job).
The three most important reasons that an attorney might wish to see a 'career counselor' are...
1) the attorney is dispirited, distressed, disappointed, or fed up with the law or his job;
2) the attorney is looking for more satisfaction, balance, fulfillment, or a well-lived life;
3) the attorney has been downsized, fired, excessed, or made redundant.
In short, the career counselor's focus is not the firm's efficiency or bottom line, but rather the attorney's career well-being. (These are not incompatible.) In fact, we've developed a "Career Well-Being Inventory" which you can scrutinize to compare yourself against those lawyers who have changed career directions and who say their new or current career provides career satisfaction and well-being. We have been using this 47-item career well-being inventory to help partners and associates measure their satisfaction at work, and how readily they could change directions if they wish.
Okay, what's the point of having a career counselor who claims an expertise in lawyer's problems? For that matter, are there really problems particular to lawyers that other business professionals don't have?
The point is twenty five-years of experience counseling lawyers has given us the perspective that lawyers’ career issue are both unique to them, and also shared by other professionals like doctors and scientists. This counts when lawyers refer other lawyers to us.
Are there problems unique to lawyers? The unique problems: law-firm work-life balance, partnership demands, rain-making, long hours. “Getting tenure” and “making partner” are not unique.
In a study of why lawyers are unhappy, three reasons emerged:
1) much law, especially litigation, is a 'zero-sum game', meaning someone wins, someone loses;
2) most lawyers (partners & associates) have a small 'locus of control', meaning others tell them what to do;
3) people who are attracted to law tend to be prudent; prudent people may tend be pessimists (optimists live longer, but pessimists are more realistic); some pessimists may tend to become disaffected or depressed.
These issues are not unique to lawyers, as we have found physicians and scientists with similar career issues.
Alright, what is this counseling thing all about anyway? Lawyers are so socially conservative as a group (I don't mean politically, of course)--and they get only more so with "age" in the industry.
Is your life a worthy expression of who you are? Is your life a well-lived life? How does it feel to get up in the morning to go to work?
Here’s what career well-being feels like . . . You fully enjoy the exercise of your talents, skills, and signature strengths. Your work is ‘a worthy expression of who you are’. Your work (in law at a firm, in-house, or in public service) feels as if it is inevitable, like the good fit of a hand-in-glove. You feel energized by an area of law (working on a matter, or with a client, or in the courtroom, or doing public service, or simply ‘lawyering’). You feel good when learning new legal skills or exercising your favorite muscles. You often think of new ways to use these skills, or others related to the job or career.
Thus, if I talk with you as a counselor , are we going to be doing funky guided meditations? Group hugs? Or is this something that a hard-boiled professional can get his/her arms around? We are NOT going to be talking about our childhoods, right?
Career counseling for lawyers is a logical, systematic, and orderly approach to lawyers’ career circumstances period. No hugs, no meditations -- no ‘ands’, ‘ ifs’, or ‘buts’. (It’s not astrology, not touchy-feely, on the one hand -- but on the other, it is not Newton's Laws or Quantum Mechanics either. Indeed, our career counseling instruments quantify “career disappointment” and give you, the lawyer, concrete next steps.)
Your profile, you and the market place, and organizing your campaign are the three concrete steps that our lawyer-clients find orderly, systematic, and logical:
(1) your profile…
The purpose in the first step, "Assessment", is to identify a range of desirable career options for you, given who you are, and to help you acquire the ability to describe yourself clearly, fluently, and self-confidently during interviews in your new career direction(s).
(2) you and the marketplace…
The second step, "Options Exploration Research", develops timely knowledge and realistic marketplace data -- as they pertain to you -- for each of the options above.
(3) organizing your campaign…
The third step, "Implementation", gets you where you want to be. Our purpose is to produce an efficient job-landing in a career direction that provides career satisfaction. For details, click here.
What do you see as the major challenges facing first, partners, and second, associates, in living up to their potential as practitioners/ rainmakers?
The major challenge -- from our perspective of 25 years counseling lawyers -- is to find the type of (legal or other) environment that makes you, the lawyer, feel "this career or job was inevitable for who I am--the best possible career circumstances I could hope for at this point in my life". In short, finding a balanced life.
So why should I have my candidates contact you? What makes someone a great counselor?
You shouldn't! They should decide for themselves if career well-being is important to them, and discuss with us if we are able to deliver the goods...career well-being.
Many of our former clients say we're good at what we do. Take a look at our success stories.
By the way, we pioneered distance career counseling to lawyers anywhere in the US and overseas.
What if I as a potential candidate really do have some problems (performance issues, personality deficit (wink), maybe some other inappropriate behaviors)? Can you handle this?
Short answer: some we can deal with, such as pessimism; others such as clinical depression we refer to appropriate professionals. In several cases, we were given permission to exchange views with our client’s clinician. See the study referred to above...”Why lawyers are unhappy?”
To sum up, what is your operating philosophy towards success and professional development in the legal market? How do I know you and I would have a similar idea about what constitutes a "healthy", "successful" career?
If you fully enjoy the exercise of your talents, skills, and signature strengths, your work will be “a worthy expression of your life”. This is what it feels like…
1. a sense of ownership, authenticity in exercising your skills (‘this is the real me’)
2. a feeling of excitement when using or displaying them
3. a rapid learning curve as the strengths or skills are developed and used
4. continuous learning of new ways to enact the strengths or skills
5. a sense of yearning to find ways to use them
6. a feeling of inevitability in using them (‘try and stop me’)
7. invigoration rather than exhaustion while using the skills or strengths
8. creation and pursuit of personal projects that revolve around signature strengths, that tap skills and strengths
9. joy, zest, enthusiasm, (perhaps even bliss or rapture) while exercising them
10. the sense that you could “whistle while you work”
11. the central feeling that your job, career, or vocation is “nice work”. (Based on M. Seligman)
If you agree that you possess all of these qualities… no further improvement is possible. You already have found “nice work”. You do not need to change jobs or careers. You do not need career counseling. You have a "calling".
Bios of Stephen Rosen & Celia Paul.
Celia Paul Associates specializes in career change, career planning, and career coaching for lawyers. Since 1980 we have guided over two thousand lawyers to satisfying careers both within and outside of the law. Celia Paul Associates is the largest, oldest, and most well known U.S. career management firm specializing in attorneys. Articles about the firm's premium career planning services have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, National Law Journal, New York Law Journal, and in Bar Association publications. Several thousand attorneys have participated in the career transitions programs developed especially for lawyers by Celia Paul Associates. The firm is also consulted by well-known large law firms on the outplacement of their partners and associates, and on the professional development and retention of senior and junior law firm associates.
A psychologist friend of mine and I were lamenting the antics of a mutual friend. The three of us are in leadership roles in a high-minded fraternal organization. Admittedly, however, we don't always live up to our ideals of efficiency, orderliness and professionalism when it comes right down to it. At any rate, my psychologist friend bandied about the phrase "learned helplessness" in a half-joking jab at our friend, who tends to hang us up until the last minute, and in unpredictable ways. His point, I came to find out, is that our friend's overbearing and unpredictable behavior was teaching us to just "put up with it" rather than take effective action.
The Ravages of a Lack of Control
The concept intrigued me and we began to chat about the phenomenon. Apparently, in researching depression in the 70's, Dr. Martin Seligman discovered that animals do not respond well to situations they perceive as not under their control. A dog, for instance, will recover eventually from the trauma of having electric shock administered to him, if he is given an environment where he can learn that a particular action will consistently grant him a reprieve. Conversely, a dog given the same doses of shock therapy, but in an environment where no action on its part has any effect on administration of the pain of electric current, will eventually lay down passively and take repeated shocks, despite the fact that the animal (once so conditioned) was permitted to simply walk away from the trauma at any time. In short, the dog gives himself up to his fate and enters a semi-fugue, or even catatonic, state. This, in a nutshell is "learned helplessness." Under some particular controls, humans have been demonstrated to react in the same way.
Been there; done that!
Of course, all of us who have worked in law firms already know this! The legal industry has been pretty consistently immune from increased humanity in human management in the corporate world. Thus, lawyers still tend to exist in a milieu of inconsistency and incredible power imbalance where the whims of high-producing partners are catered to, no matter how counter-intuitive and destructive they may be. Indeed, many associates simply learn do keep their heads down, bill, and take what comes, "hoping" they will eventually make partner, or that things will somehow just get more humane. And we wonder where all the lawyers go!
Break Out of the Mold
The good news is that even in the canine world, many do not fit the pattern. A healthy number (but a minority) of dogs subjected to the barbaric treatment outlined above refused to give up and did not succumb to "learned helplessness." In psychological terms, these canines, and their human counterparts, did not "internalize" their trauma. Neither did they succumb to the belief that their condition was permanent. This fundamental belief that the individual indeed has control and that things do indeed change--no matter what evidence to the contrary--is a strong indicator of mental health going forward.
Take Effective Action
The moral? We always, always, always have control in our situations, no matter how bleak they can appear. And this doesn't mean just "walking away" as last resort. Rather, we can as professionals take positive steps within our firms and alongside our "tricky" partners and colleagues, to make terrible situations better. To maintain our effectiveness and our sanity, we must always react to disappointments and complex problems with the attitude of what ACTION we intend to take. Analysis is our stock and trade, but if our "logic" leads us to conclude that we have no acceptable options, we must remember the fundamental truth that we do have options, and we do have the power to act on them.