May 2017

Say “Goodbye” to the Generic Application: Targeting Your Materials to Enhance Marketability in a Competitive Market

By Emily Hirsekorn

Career Advisor, University of San Diego School of Law

You likely used the same resume and cover letter to apply for most law school positions, as employers expect law students to have little relevant experience or widely varied experience. Once you enter the workforce after graduation, however, expectations change: application materials must demonstrate a focus, directly relevant to the position at hand. For this reason, most attorneys have multiple versions of their resume and cover letter. To ensure you remain a competitive candidate in the tight-knit San Diego legal market, we offer below several tips to sufficiently target your materials.

Resumé

I commonly review resumes that are jam packed with information, bleeding over onto multiple pages. For legal positions, we nevertheless continue to recommend submitting a one-page resume and one-page cover letter (with limited exceptions) beyond law school. While you may have worked in several positions at some point, you need only include relevant information on the resume; doing so will also help target your resume to the career path/position for which you are applying. Overcrowding the resume with irrelevant entries detracts attention from the relevant content. Furthermore, attorneys often omit relevant content to make room for less relevant content that they believe is more significant. More specific resume modifications you can make to target the resume include:

Education

  • If you completed a relevant law school concentration, make sure to identify it next to or beneath your degree. If, on the other hand, you completed a law school concentration that does not relate in any way to your desired position/career path, omit it.
  • Consider adding a Relevant Coursework sub-section under your law school entry to highlight coursework related to the desired position/career path.
  • Revamp the Activities sub-section: (i) Highlight any participation in relevant associations and events. (ii) Omit old, irrelevant activities from college and possibly law school (e.g., intramural soccer).
  • Move law school clinic work and law school research assistant positions into the Education section under Activities, unless this work is directly relevant. This revision will keep the Experience section focused on your most significant work.

Experience

  • Include only relevant experience entries, unless less relevant entries are needed to fill a large gap in time, as irrelevant entries can detract from your relevant experience. Experience can be relevant due to substance or skills involved (e.g., a judicial externship is relevant to nearly all legal work due to its emphasis on research and writing).
    • Too Many Entries: If you have more than five experience entries on the resume, consider omitting one or more, even legal entries. Oftentimes, the oldest entries drop off first, but retain those entries if they are directly relevant or show some other qualification.
    • Law School Work: Move legal clinic, research assistant, and law journal entries to the Education section under Activities, unless this work is directly relevant.
    • Non-Legal Entries: Omit non-legal entries from the resume unless (i) non-legal work is your only experience or (ii) the non-legal work is in fact relevant (e.g., engineering experience when applying for patent law jobs).
    • Judicial Positions: Retain in the Experience section judicial externships and clerkships due to prestige.
  • Within each Experience entry, identify only relevant and significant tasks performed. Tasks can also be relevant either substantively or skills-wise. Examples: (i) researching family law issues for a government agency is substantively relevant to family law private practice and (ii) any sort of writing, particularly business writing, is relevant to traditional legal work, regardless of the field in which you completed the writing task.
    • Administrative Tasks: Do not include administrative tasks, such as answering phones, unless a job posting explicitly mentions them as necessary.
    • Prioritize: List first in each entry the most relevant tasks; employers may see only the first tasks.

Volunteer Experience

  • If you have any relevant volunteer experience (beyond legal internships and externships), add the work to your resume. If you volunteered during law school, and the volunteer work was not substantial, add it to the Education section under “Activities.” If the volunteer work was substantial or you performed it prior to or after law school, create a separate Volunteer Experience section beneath the Experience section. Depending on room and significance, either format Volunteer entries as you format the Experience entries or omit the description of your volunteer work to keep this section brief.
  • Do not include volunteer experience that ended prior to college; voluntarism during childhood to fulfill educational requirements or familial expectations does not show the same type of interest or commitment as does voluntarism beyond high school. Such volunteer work will also appear outdated.

Interests

  • While the Interests section typically falls off the resume after graduation due to space limitations, maintain the Interests section if needed to express particular interest in relevant activities. For example, you may wish to maintain this section to identify your interest in historic ships and piracy at sea novels if applying for a position in maritime law.
  • If you include an Interests section, ensure each interest demonstrates or relates to your qualifications.

Cover Letter

Writing a cover letter after law school also becomes challenging, especially if you have worked in multiple positions during a short time period following law school. Attorneys often include either too much content or not enough content. Bottom line: To target your cover letter to the position at hand, it must be brief, straight forward, and relevant; there are several ways you can meet these standards.

Brevity

  • The briefer the letter, the easier it will be to read.
  • Without extraneous content, the letter will remain targeted and focused.

Straight-Forward Content

  • Employers spend very little time reading cover letters, so highlight only the most important information in your letter, with summaries in the first and last paragraphs.
  • While remaining sophisticated, avoid excessive and convoluted language.

Relevance

  • Ensure every experience and qualification mentioned is relevant, either substantively or skills-wise, to the position at hand.
  • There is no need to mention every experience entry on your resume, especially if you included it simply to fill the gap that would otherwise exist. Instead, use topic sentences regarding your qualifications, followed by supporting examples from your work and educational experiences. Also mention any relevant unique coursework, law journal membership, and leadership roles.
  • Keep in mind that in addition to technical skills, soft skills (e.g., interpersonal skills) are also relevant.

These guideposts should help you start tailoring your application materials for future positions. USD School of Law’s Office of Career and Professional Development has helped countless alumni target application materials to particular career paths and individual positions. For further assistance with your materials, contact your law school’s career and development office.