Given the fact that paralegals are hired to serve as ancillaries to attorneys, tasked with intensely-detail oriented work, it only makes sense that their resumes need to be flawless, comprehensive and, of course, persuasive.
Whether crafting your CV for your very first paralegal gig, or as you prepare for your next move in an already-established career, ask yourself this question:
Does my resume pass the five-second test?
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Studies show that resumes are given all of about five seconds of attention before they either make the keeper stack or hit the wastebasket. It’s your job to make sure your resume gives prospective employers a reason to pause, linger a little longer, and discover why you are the best person for the job. If you do it right, your resume will make the cut and end up dog-eared on the desk of your future employer.
Of course, a resume serves one functional purpose: showcase your paralegal skills, education, and experience. Even reading that sentence, you might find yourself getting a little bleary-eyed with boredom.
Keep in mind that its real, intrinsic purpose, however, is to provide a window into your character and to serve as a reflection of how you will perform your job and what you have to offer the firm.
The perfect paralegal resume is well-organized and concise. It’s also thoughtful, smart, and impeccable. In other words, it’s everything attorneys want their paralegals to be.
While there are a few things you must consider if you want your resume to earn a spot on the boss’s desk, you also want to be careful not to overthink the process. Fussy, pretentious, and over-wrought have no place on a paralegal’s resume. Instead, short, well-constructed, and easy to read should be your mantra.
Keep in mind that a long read of your resume won’t occur until after an initial scan, so keeping it to the point and free of any fluff will always work to your advantage.
There are two main points to keep in mind when writing and constructing your resume: appearance and content.
Before we get to the façade of the resume, let’s look at the nuts and bolts: content.
Things to Consider When it Comes to the Content of Your Resume
When considering the content of your resume, remember that the legal environment is the epitome of persnickety, so now’s not the time to misspell a word or omit a key piece of information. You’ve got to be on your A-game and ready to impress.
Your resume should be tightly written and engaging, and, of course, it should highlight your work accomplishments, education, and skills. But it should be more than a chronological list of your work history and education. It’s your first writing assignment for your future employer, so make it a pleasure to read.
Show off your keen sense of detail, your organizational prowess, and your sharp writing skills.
Here’s what to keep in mind:
Lists are Out, Accomplishments are In
A resume is not a laundry list; be thoughtful about what you put on it. More information does not equal a better resume. Adding in the minutiae of your last job won’t complement your resume, it will only detract from your real accomplishments.
Outline your most substantive duties at your last job or internship in a way that tells your story. What did you learn there? How did it make you a better paralegal? If you are proud of you research work, take the time to explain why. And, by all means, highlight your career accomplishments (e.g., Assisted attorneys at trial during a multi-million-dollar environmental case) and your educational accomplishments (e.g., graduated magna cum laude).
Of course, you will list duties such as drafting legal correspondence and taking witness statements, but also consider job duties you handled that were outside the scope of your normal duties. Detail your flexibility and willingness to tackle new challenges.
Adjectives are Fine, Actions are Better
One of the biggest mistakes found on resumes is a running list of personal and professional qualities— the dreaded list of adjectives.
Your resume should showcase actions. In other words, employers don’t want to know you are responsible, they want an example or two of when your sense of responsibility served you well, either professionally or personally.
Whether your list of qualities include being analytical, detail-oriented, or fastidious, you must provide examples to back up those fancy adjectives.
Get Real About False Advertising
Talking yourself up is important—this is, after all, your chance to make a great first impression. But beware of overselling yourself. An employer can and will call you out on what you put in your resume. Don’t profess to be a whiz at drafting pleadings if you only had a couple months of experience doing so. Keep it real and focus on your strengths.
Little Job Experience Doesn’t Mean an Unimpressive Resume
The experience section should be broken into two sections: 1) Legal Experience 2) Other Professional Experience. Your experience as a new paralegal is going to be minimal, but you can always detail professional experience you may have gained in an internship. This is one of the best ways to highlight your skills and the pre-professional experience you’ve had.
Your resume doesn’t have to be all paralegal, all the time. Any number of life experiences, special skills, and unique abilities have the power to make you stand out from the crowd. Are you fluent in Italian? Did you win a public speaking award in college? Were you class president in high school?
If you are short on experience, keep in mind that leadership roles in student and academic organizations are also important additions. If you were in a student organization but didn’t hold a leadership position, make sure to specify what contributions you made to the organization. Did you write their newsletter, coordinate a social event? Any activities that highlight your leadership qualities and initiative are always important additions to your resume.
Describe Your Unique Skills in the Context of Job Performance, Don’t Just List Them Out
You don’t need a separate “skills” section.
Instead of a dedicated section that includes a lengthy list of skills, give the information richer context by showing how you used those skills in the performance of a job. Include skills under the work experience or education sections of the resume to show where and how these sills were acquired and honed.
Being short on experience doesn’t mean your resume should be threadbare in the employment/experience section. If you’ve worked jobs outside of the legal environment that required strong communication and writing skills, talk it up.
Provide employers a glimpse of what you can offer by revealing the best tricks you have up your sleeve. Are you a whiz at Excel? Are you skilled in computer programming?
Oh, and if you’re an expert at using Lexis or Westlaw, you probably want to get that on there too.
Create a Career Objective You’re Proud Of
Your career objective is the introduction to your resume, so it really belongs on the cover letter and not on the resume itself.
A career objective found on a resume template website isn’t going to cut it if you want to catch the eye of an employer, and you can bet they know a stock objective statement when they see one. This is your chance to be thoughtful and precise. What are you really looking to accomplish? What can you really do for them?
Make sure it complements the position you’re applying for. And, perhaps most importantly, make sure it conveys your desire to contribute something to the firm; what you can do for them. The objective statement isn’t so much about the personal attributes you’re trying to highlight; you’ll have time for that later.
For example, instead of, “Seeking a paralegal position where I can utilize my experience and education,” …. * Yawn * … consider “Detail-oriented paralegal seeking a position where I can make a positive impact through exceptional client and staff support.”
Aside from that, just make sure it is short and to the point.
Basic Structure, Tips and Points to Highlight
Ok, ok – I guess we have to touch on the stuff everybody already knows too… There are some things that are expected on a resume, no matter how stock they may be. Keep this in mind and don’t try to use something that is inherently unimpressive and a standard part of the job to impress. Get all the generic stuff employers need to see in there, but keep it succinct and give more attention to anything that might reveal an important aspect of your character or any specialized skills you have.
- Objective Statement (on the cover letter)– Always, always avoid generic or substance-less objective statements that provide little to no insight into your career goals and what you have to offer the firm. Your enthusiasm about the profession should be felt in this opening statement, so think beyond skills and qualifications.
- Work History and Other Experience – You’ll inevitably need to explain your job duties, but try to emphasize things that highlight any specialized knowledge or skills… drafting legal correspondence, conducting investigation, taking witness statements, handling discovery materials. If you don’t have any law office experience, maybe you still have some experience with interpreting and drafting official documents. Maybe you have an example of how you’ve used written communications skills in a persuasive way, like for a grant proposal.
- Education and Credentials – If you just completed your paralegal program and do not yet have experience, this section will be particularly important. Don’t forget to highlight any electives and whether you got your education through an ABA-approved paralegal program or a regionally accredited school.
- Volunteer Work – Volunteer work is major, particularly for charitable organizations that provide free legal services, and should be featured prominently. This tells far more about who you are than all the specialty certifications in the world. It’s definitely okay to set this apart from your other experiences, but take care not to come off as too self-satisfied.
Resume Content Tips to Remember
- A resume should be one—no more than two—pages long. Any more than that and you’ve lost an employer’s interest, not to mention losing the most valuable information somewhere in all the wordiness. Concise and to the point is always your friend. Keep it in the present tense and avoid use of the third person.
- On the flipside, a barebones resume that doesn’t provide any insight into you as a professional won’t do you any favors either. Show employers who you are and what you’ve worked so hard to achieve.
- Stick to the standard resume format: chronological work history, working your way from your latest job on down. Other resume formats are best left to the creative industries.
- Void “I,” “me,” and “my,” and make sure every sentence describes an action. For example, it’s not: “I prepared briefs for multiple attorneys.” Instead, “Prepared briefs for multiple attorneys” works better on a resume.
- Consider aesthetic. If the page presents in a way that is unappealing to the eye, consider it a wastebasket resume. Take the time to produce something you’re proud to put your name on.
Giving Attention to the Appearance and Aesthetic Quality of Your Resume
You’re not in a creative field where a resume may look and act more like an art project than a chronological history of your work experience and education. But make no mistake about it, the aesthetic quality of a resume – the way it looks and feels at fist glance – says more about you than you might think.
It would be nice to think that content is all that matters, but in reality, humans are hard-wired to appreciate symmetry and balance, and the aesthetic quality of a resume can have subconscious implications that you – and your hiring manager – may not even be aware of. Even in the field of law where the goal is to achieve justice without prejudice, the appearance of your resume is incredibly important and should not be taken lightly.
Simple is always best. Here’s what you’ll want to remember when designing your resume:
- A standard font on linen or cotton 24-lb resume paper in a white, off-white, or buff shade is best.
- Use a conservative font: Times New Roman, Century Schoolbook, Arial, and Palatino are all acceptable. Don’t use script fonts. Use capitalization properly and avoid using all caps.
- Make sure headings and spacing are consistent throughout the resume. One-inch margins present an easy-to-read, balanced look.
- If you use abbreviations (BS, PhD, JD, MA, etc.) make sure they are consistent throughout the resume.
- Don’t list references on you resume or mention that references are available upon request; this is a given.
- Handwriting on a resume is not acceptable.
- If your resume is two pages, don’t print on the back of the paper—use two sheets of paper.
- If you are an entry-level paralegal, list your education first. If you are an experienced paralegal, your work history should be first.
- Personal information, current salary information, and personal photos are not acceptable on paralegal resumes.
- A cover letter is imperative. Make sure it is personalized to each individual firm and always address it to a specific person. Call ahead to confirm who to send the resume to and the spelling of their name.
- Proofread your resume. Pass it off and ask a trusted friend or colleague to give it a good edit… and to give you their immediate gut reaction to how it looks and feels.