The legal job field is as competitive as it is diverse, so your application materials are critical when applying for internships and jobs. This means you will need to customize your resume and write a new cover letter for each job you apply for. Yes, this may take 3-4 hours. Yes, it’s worth it in order to stand out amongst dozens of other qualified applicants.
The most important requirement is that your resume and your cover letter MUST be error-free. Writing is one of the most important skills in legal practice, and if your resume has a typo, grammatical error, or even formatting inconsistency, it will immediately be discarded. Beyond basic proofreading, make sure that both documents showcase your best writing.
Here are some additional guidelines on resume length, resume sections, resume formatting, and cover letters for soon-to-be JDs.
One page. The only exception to this rule is if you had extensive work experience (5+ years) prior to attending law school. If you have less than 5 years of full-time work experience, then you should stick to one page. This may seem challenging, as many law students are high-achieving and have numerous internships and extracurricular activities from law school alone – not to mention prior work experience, educational achievement, or community engagement.
If you’re resistant to this one-page restriction, think of it this way: recruiters will view hundreds of resumes for an entry-level lawyer position. Best case scenario, you stand out (in a bad way) for having two pages; worst case scenario, your two-page resume screams “I think very highly of myself and can’t possibly pare down all of my amazing experiences.” In either scenario, your resume is passed over for candidates who can package their amazing experiences into an impactful, one-page document. Next!
There are resume rules, and then there are resume preferences. As a rule, your education should be the first section listed after your header while you’re in school and until you have full-time, relevant work experience.
Within the education section, degrees must be listed in reverse chronological order, which means your law program will be listed first. Depending on your school, GPA and class ranking may be significant to list, assuming that they enhance your profile rather than detract from it. Additionally, you have the option to list research, law school activities, or significant projects completed in your coursework.
After education, what resume sections you include are a matter of preference. It’s a good idea to include any internships, pro bono/clinical experience, work experience, extracurricular involvement, or publications, if you have them. How you name and order these subsequent sections is up to you, but you should prioritize the most relevant information first. For example, if you were the editor of your law review and hope to assume a legal writing position, you may choose to list law school/extracurricular engagement first.
The vast majority of your resume should be consumed by the aforementioned sections. If wanted, you can also consider standard resume sections like skills or interests, though those should only be included if particularly relevant to the position you’re applying for.
Though many professions have flexible resume requirements, legal employers expect to see a stylistically conservative resume. In addition, you should try to create an easy-to-read document that isn’t crammed. Here are some common formatting pitfalls:
- Font – Only use one and choose something professional (i.e. no script fonts). Examples include Arial, Avenir, Calibri, Iowan Old Style, or Times New Roman.
- Font size – While you can (and should) play around with font size within your resume, many law students fall into the trap of using teeny, tiny font in order to cram content into one page. As a general rule, avoid using anything smaller than size 11 font, though this can vary depending on the font used.
- Margins – Remember, you don’t want your resume to look crammed. 0.5” margins are fine, but don’t go any smaller.
- Color – This is an increasingly popular resume trend that law students should not partake in. Stick to black and white for a clean and professional look.
Public Interest Resumes
It should be noted that the “rules” change some for public service positions. Instead of packaging your experience into one page, public agencies want more detailed descriptions within each section. For example, they want thorough descriptions of internships and jobs and expect education to extend through high school. This often results in a 2+ page resume, and for more senior professionals, it can easily extend to 6+ pages.
Additionally, formatting for public interest jobs should be even more austere. Avoid lines, italics, bold font, etc. When in doubt, review application guidelines before applying for governmental and academic positions.
Your cover letter is a critical component of your application, and it should be given just as much attention (if not more) as your resume. While a “law school cover letter” takes the same format as other cover letters, let’s go over some best practices for law students in particular.
- Always submit one. Any time you email/submit your resume with the intent of seeking employment, you should always send an accompanying cover letter. Even if a job posting does not specifically request it or lists it as optional, find a way to attach it as an additional document, or email it to the recruiter. A [good] cover letter sets you apart from the dozens or hundreds of other law student applicants.
- Explain your interest in the practice area. It will be critical to explain what courses, projects, or work experiences led you to pursue a particular practice area or industry. For example, write about the project in your employment law class that sparked your interest in that practice group, or write about your oral argument that inspired your career in litigation. Furthermore, explain how you’ve developed skills in that particular area of law.
- Explain location and agency interest. It’s extremely important to explain why you’re interested in that specific firm or agency and to substantiate your interest with examples. Additionally, if you’re applying to a job outside of your current city, explain your interest in that particular office location. Firms want to recruit and retain lawyers in that office, so demonstrating your genuine and specific interest will bolster your candidacy compared to other qualified applicants.
Other than networking, your resume and cover letter are the most important resources in your job search. It’s important to spend hours perfecting these documents, and it’s also wise to have others review them before submitting. Visit your law school career services or our other resume/cover letter resources for more guidance.
Editor's note: You may want to read the following article in order to refresh your interview skills and narrow down on where to focus your preparation: Nailing Your Legal Interview