The Appropriate Length for an Attorney Resume

The Appropriate Length for an Attorney Resume

“How long should my resume be?”

It’s the most common question I hear from lawyers needing help to write their resumes.

It’s a question that doesn’t just plague law students or junior attorneys; senior attorneys ask as well.

No matter whether you’re actively looking for a new job or volunteer role, in stealth job search mode, looking for boards or director positions or other leadership roles, or just thinking ahead about the direction you want to take so that you have a resume ready, the answer is always the same…

One Size Does Not Fit All

Wondering whether I’m about to endorse the one-page rule? I’m not.

The rule that “every resume must be one page” has an indefinite origin, but it has a definite effect: it forces candidates to shoehorn their content into a prescribed design.

The one-page rule makes no concessions for the candidate’s individual journey or career goals. It makes no concessions for the employer or reader’s individual needs.

The result is candidates feel forced to edit out some of their most interesting qualifications and experiences, as well as the context, scale, and impact of their work. Their contributions start to disappear, as does their vision, leadership or work style, and philosophy.

Rather than serve as narrative that allows the candidate to shine as an individual lawyer, the resume becomes a stale collection of mere names, dates, and places. The meaning is gone. The individuality is gone. The purpose is gone.

Neither side of the hiring table benefits from the one-page rule.

When their stories are gone, all candidates look pretty much the same. Attorneys are left frustrated that their resumes don’t reflect who they are, what they’ve accomplished, or what they offer.

Employers are left frustrated because there is precious little to base hiring decisions upon when faced with 200 — or 2000 — indistinguishable resumes.

The Only Rule You Need to Know

A colleague of mine, former executive recruiter Jared Redick, and I use the model that he has described as content > purpose > design.

Although we arrived at the paradigm separately, we came to it from our shared recognition that the candidate’s individual journey and the resume reader’s needs should be prioritized over an arbitrary and inflexible mantra that every resume must be one page and only one page.

The only resume writing rule you need to know is this:

Your resume should be a long as it takes (and no longer) to tell your story to your audience for your particular purpose.

For some, like the vast majority of law students, this means their resumes will in fact be one page. It’s the rare law student who needs two pages to tell her story.

In my 20 years of law and legal hiring, I can only think of a handful of law students who needed a two-page resume — and all but one were second-career or non-traditional law students.

That’s right: in 20 years, I’ve had one traditional law school student who we decided should have a two-page resume.

Although technically a traditional law student in that he went straight from high school to college to law school, he had highly unusual and substantive experiences that were directly relevant to his career goals and the non-traditional job to which he was applying.

On the other hand, I’ve frequently coached and written for high-level lawyers who have needed four, five or even six-page CVs: chief legal officers (CLOs), general counsels (GCs), chief compliance officers (CCOs), and rising stars at Global 500 or Fortune 500 companies; some law firm partners; heads of state agencies; and other executive-level attorneys.

These experienced individuals have long track records of accomplishment and sophisticated career histories.

Make the Resume a Compelling Read

The legal recruiters and hiring attorneys I’ve interviewed over the years have all said the same thing: if the resume or CV is a compelling read, then they will read it regardless of page length. Even recruiters and hiring attorneys who initially told me they want a one or two-page resume immediately backed off this “rule” when gently challenged.

As it turns out, when hiring professionals talk about a resume being “too long,” they often aren’t talking about the absolute page length of the resume.

What bothers them is that the resume is longer than it should be because it contains irrelevant information, is unfocused or unorganized, or otherwise doesn’t meet their needs.

The reader is forced to either to slog through it, or to put the document down and go onto the next candidate. You can guess which option most hiring folks choose.

I often note that attorneys are risk adverse and proof-oriented, both by nature and by training. Hiring professionals are often cynical, and with good reason, given more than 50% of resumes contain false or misleading information.

So hiring attorneys present a double challenge to candidates. When reviewing candidate resumes, they generally mistrust overblown or salesy language. They view hyperbole as an invitation to challenge the candidate.

All of which means to succeed in passing the resume screening —

You need to provide an engaging yet straightforward resume, filled with facts that you can defend without reservation in a job interview or other setting. Make it a powerful tool for your network to use when advocating on your behalf.

What legal resume readers are looking for — and respond to — is a resume which is:

  • User-friendly, easily read by both humans and applicant tracking systems (ATS).
  • Well-organized, with appropriate use of emphasis and organizational tools like bold, italics, and bullets, so that the reader can quickly find any particular bit of information she needs.
  • Evidence-based, backing up any superlatives with proof, meeting the legal industry’s standard aesthetic preference for modern classic.
  • A demonstration of your value (in marketing this might be called your unique value proposition) and where you’d fit into the organizational culture and structure.
  • A demonstration of your understanding of the employer, its industry, its business model, and its customers or clients.
  • Focused, whether explicitly or implicitly, on how you can help the employer and the problems you can help the employer solve.

In short, the structure and language of resume must reinforce your claims that you’re organized, detail-oriented, and understand the demands of your audience.

The Bottom Line

You can see what this means for the length of your resume. Nearly all law students can accomplish these goals within one-page resume. Many experienced attorneys can accomplish these goals in two or three pages.

However, for executive lawyers, content and purpose are almost always at odds with a one-page design. Compliance with an arbitrary one-page rule means that it’s nearly impossible to fulfill the purpose of the resume, including providing content that the reader needs in order to take positive action.

Focusing on the content and purpose of the resume means that it’s nearly impossible to comply with a one-page rule.

The key is to let the resume’s length flow naturally from its purpose, rather than use “rules” on page length as an absolute constraint.

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