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Writing a Legal Resume: A Curated Career Conversation

write a legal resume

Job postings for legal positions in large companies are on the decline. Companies are hiring less as they face fewer clients and deals. According to the law firm hiring tracker Leopard Solutions, there was a 6% decrease in job openings in 2023 compared to 2022. The number of job openings went down from 15,424 to 14,561.

With a tight labor market for legal professionals, it is important to have a well-tailored and impactful resume. I am excited to share my conversation with Susannah Khayat, an experienced lawyer with over 15 years of experience. Since 2022, Susannah has been serving as Briefcase Coach’s expert in legal resume writing. With her legal background and effective writing abilities, she is able to convey clients’ stories through their resumes and other executive documents. During our discussion, Susannah shares proven strategies for crafting a compelling legal resume, provides specific examples tailored to various industries, and highlights common pitfalls to avoid in your documents. Let’s get started…

Sarah Johnston (SJ): How does writing a legal resume differ from executive resumes for other industries? 

Susannah Kahyat (Susannah): Generally speaking, lawyers tend to be more restrained and professionally conservative, often occupying governance, oversight, and regulatory roles, so our design approach is likewise restrained and conservative. We do not recommend that attorneys go bold with red or orange pops of color or incorporate unique graphic elements. 

Lawyers also have accomplishments for which the results are less tangible. While in some roles it’s easy to point to profits, revenue, efficiencies, or growth to measure success, this is often not the case with attorneys. Sometimes the absence of a negative occurrence – a transaction closing smoothly, legal advice preventing an adverse outcome, or no action by a governmental agency – is evidence of success. 

SJ: How does a legal resume differ for different types of law?

Susannah: A legal education prepares you for various professional roles, and attorneys work for corporations, nonprofit organizations, in private practice, and government. We tailor clients’ resumes to match the job for which they are applying. 

The bar exam is one of the only times a lawyer, or a prospective lawyer, has to demonstrate knowledge across multiple unconnected areas of the law. Lawyers usually specialize in a few related areas and rely on their network to guide clients to find an attorney who meets their needs if they lack the specialized knowledge to help them. So, a legal resume for a transactional lawyer differs from that of a litigator, which differs from that of an intellectual property lawyer which differs from that of a labor and employment lawyer.

While each role is unique, there are some generalizations that we can make about the differences in resumes across industries.

Government lawyer resumes often highlight experience in public policy, regulatory compliance, and government proceedings, emphasizing skills in interpreting statutes, drafting legislation, and representing government agencies.

In-house lawyer resumes emphasize corporate legal expertise, showcasing skills in contract negotiation, risk management, and corporate governance, along with an understanding of industry-specific regulations and business operations.

Private practice lawyer resumes focus on specialized legal experience, depending on the candidate’s subject matter focus. For example, a resume for a job candidate looking to make a lateral move to another law firm as a senior litigation associate might feature client representation, and legal research skills, often highlighting achievements in case outcomes, client satisfaction, and business development efforts.

Each type of resume tailors experiences and skills to align with the specific requirements and expectations of the respective legal sector.

SJ: At the Briefcase Coach, we write a lot of General Counsel resumes.  What do you think makes a strong GC resume?

Susannah: A successful general counsel resume conveys that the candidate is a partner in accomplishing organizational goals, not a roadblock. The legal department is not a revenue driver for a corporation, so we aim to demonstrate how a candidate is an integral part of the leadership team, helping to guide strategy and advise stakeholders on accomplishing organizational goals within a legal framework. General counsels are also the consummate cross-functional leaders because legal issues arise across many facets of a business, so we highlight soft skills like communication, collaboration, and emotional intelligence.

Some specific examples that demonstrate strategic leadership and valuable experience that we highlight in GC resumes include: 

  • Financing & Financial Restructuring: This could be legal advice on loan agreements, securities offerings, debt restructuring, and other financial transactions. 
  • Compliance & Risk Management: Some of the experiences we highlight include assessing legal risks, guiding regulatory compliance, conducting internal investigations, and establishing policies and procedures to mitigate legal exposure. If a candidate has experience with publicly traded companies, that experience is highlighted because of the increased regulatory complexities involved. 
  • M&A: Even if the M&A heavy lifting is handled by outside counsel, we highlight the oversight role of the GC –  reviewing deal documents, overseeing due diligence review, negotiating terms, seeking regulatory approvals, and collaborating on post-merger integration.
  • Data Privacy & Cybersecurity: All companies have some kind of stored customer data that requires safeguarding and implicates multiple legal considerations. A general counsel oversees data privacy and cybersecurity initiatives by partnering with IT to develop and implement data protection policies and ensure compliance with data protection laws. A GC also responds to data breaches and manages legal aspects of cybersecurity incidents.
  • Labor & Employment: A general counsel provides legal guidance on employment matters, including hiring practices, employment contracts, workplace policies, discrimination claims, wage and hour issues, and employee relations.
  • Litigation: Even if outside counsel handles litigation, a GC evaluates lawsuits, assesses risk, and provides strategic guidance to leadership on the best course of action. A GC also represents the business in a negotiation process. They negotiate settlement terms, review settlement agreements, and advise senior management on settlement decisions.
  • Real Estate: Depending on the type of business, it might be beneficial for a GC candidate to have experience in real estate law, including portfolio management, acquisitions and sales, leasing and property management, development and construction, zoning and land use, and regulatory compliance. 
  • Legal Cost Containment: One of the ways in which a general counsel can impact the bottom line is by managing legal costs and optimizing legal department resources. They develop budgeting strategies, negotiate fee structures with outside counsel, implement cost-saving measures, and prioritize legal initiatives based on strategic importance and budgetary constraints.

Transitioning to In-House Counsel

SJ: What advice do you have for someone wanting to transition from private practice to in-house counsel?

Susannah: Often the route to being an in-house counsel is developing a close relationship with a client and parlaying that into an in-house role. Law firm associates generally have little say in their assignments, but if your long-term goal is an in-house position stay receptive to being detailed or seconded to a client. This is a great way to gain valuable in-house experience and insight into the business while developing client relationships. 

As with a general counsel resume, the goal is to demonstrate your worth as a strategic advisor and an asset to the business and as someone who will work with the stakeholders to design business strategies that work within regulatory and legal frameworks. Gain as much business knowledge as possible so that when leaders approach you with a business objective you can devise a legal strategy to achieve that goal, rather than pointing out all the legal issues with the plan.

It can also help to specialize in a particular industry and gain experience in this area from both a business and legal perspective. A strong candidate will be familiar with the major players in an industry, the vocabulary, the latest business developments, AND the particular legal challenges and issues that arise in the industry. 

SJ: When does it make sense to include a deal sheet as an addendum? 

Susannah: A deal sheet is valuable for a transactional associate interested in making a lateral move to another law firm, but less so for an in-house role, since that is unlikely to be a key skill sought for in-house attorneys. We also recommend including a deal sheet for attorneys with sufficient substantive experience on the deal so that they can speak knowledgeably about the project in an interview. So, if you played a small role in a deal – maybe reviewing due diligence documents – but lack insight into the deal in its entirety, that might not be something you would include on a deal sheet. 

SJ: What are the most important legal skills and experiences to highlight on a resume, and how should they be presented?

Susannah: Aside from substantive knowledge and experience, it is valuable to highlight the soft skills that demonstrate that you are someone people like to work with and whose personal attributes are an asset to an organization. 

  • Communication: Lawyers must have strong verbal and written communication skills to convey complex legal concepts clearly and effectively to non-lawyers, including clients, juries, or business leadership. This is one of the reasons you want to have a strong resume, to demonstrate that you can communicate clearly and concisely. 
  • Time Management & Multitasking: Using real-life examples (e.g. handles x number of cases simultaneously, closed X deals in 2023) demonstrates effective time management skills and an ability to prioritize tasks, meet deadlines, and manage workloads efficiently.
  • Negotiation and Persuasion: Providing examples and outcomes showcasing strong negotiation and persuasion skills is a good way to demonstrate your ability to achieve favorable outcomes, resolve disputes, and persuade others to accept legal arguments.
  • Emotional Intelligence: Lawyers need emotional intelligence to navigate sensitive situations, manage client expectations, and build rapport with diverse individuals. Empathy, self-awareness, and interpersonal skills are important for building trust and fostering positive relationships. You can demonstrate this by showing high team retention rates, employee engagement scores, or involvement in mentoring programs. 
  • Collaboration: Lawyers often work in cross-functional teams, collaborate with colleagues, experts, and stakeholders, and coordinate efforts. Collaboration skills, including teamwork, flexibility, and the ability to work well with others, are important to highlight on a resume. 
  • Adaptability: The legal landscape is constantly evolving, and lawyers must adapt to changes in laws, regulations, technology, and client needs. You can include examples of leading through change, adapting policies to new laws and regulations, and adopting new technology. 

SJ: How can lawyers quantify their accomplishments (e.g., number of cases won, settlements achieved) to showcase their impact?

Susannah: In a specialty like litigation, you want to emphasize the outcomes of cases, the number of cases handled successfully, the complexity of the matters, and the jurisdiction and level of the courts. For transactional lawyers, you emphasize the volume of deals, the number of parties involved, and the monetary value of the transactions. If a lawyer practices in an area of heavy government regulation, you want to show that the client has a mastery of the relevant rules and regulations and has a track record of successful interactions with government agencies. 

SJ: What type of experience is relevant to include on a legal resume?

Susannah: The most relevant and important information to include depends on the type of position the candidate is vying for. If applying to move in-house, it’s important to include recent legal experience that highlights the skills needed for the position. This does not necessarily only include legal experience, but could also include any industry experience, or general business skills that would benefit the organization. If you have years of law firm experience, some of your earlier work might be less important to include, especially if you have more recent, substantive experience. Having worked on a document review as a junior associate 15 years earlier is not going to elevate your resume for a general counsel position.  

SJ: Are there any ethical considerations lawyers should be aware of when crafting their resumes? (e.g., confidentiality, avoiding misleading information)

Susannah: Lawyers need to avoid including anything in their resumes that would violate NDAs or disclose information protected by privilege. Lawyers also have ethical standards and rules of conduct set and enforced by state entities. 

SJ: What are some common mistakes lawyers make when writing their legal resumes, and how can they be avoided?

Susannah: All job candidates need to consider the audience for their resume and this is no different for attorneys. Think about whether you are applying for a position at a law firm, a startup, a multinational corporation, in the public sector, at academic institutions, or with nonprofit organizations. The audience will dictate the skills and experience you choose to highlight in your resume. 

Another mistake to avoid is providing a list of job responsibilities without describing the results. For example, rather than saying “Drafted summary judgment motion” you can strengthen this statement by emphasizing results, writing “Researched, strategized, and wrote summary judgment motion that successfully resolved litigation for a defendant client federal court litigation.”




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