Resumes that Work:
How to Write A Resume that Stands Out from the Pile

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

Picture a managing partner in need of a legal administrator.  This is a firm in trouble -- either without an effectively functioning administrator, on the verge of losing one, or perhaps without an administrator altogether.  This managing partner is pressed for time, overwhelmed with the demands of his or her own responsibilities and perhaps those of the administrator, as well.  And now that managing partner is also faced with a pile of resumes to fill the position. The big question is, how do you make that managing partner sit up and take notice of you?  The answer is, by writing a resume that will stick to the managing partner's hands. So how can you prepare a resume that works?

The traditional resume includes descriptions of specific jobs and employers.  A prospective  employer has only your firm's reputation and size, and the description of your responsibilities, to consider, in order to assess your fit.  In most cases, this information is of limited utility.  Your firm may have a poor reputation but you may be a star -- but how will you convince a prospective employer of this?  Similarly, many candidates look equivalent if a managing partner considers only information on employers and job scope.

What's missing on the traditional resume is information about performance and results.  This information is critical to marketing yourself to a prospective employer -- and to  distinguishing your resume from others in the pile. This is not simply a marketing ploy:  the best predictor of future performance is past performance.  Your academic credentials and firm stature and size are only indirect measures of performance.  What you have accomplished in your career is the most important and direct measure of your potential value to a new law firm.   Building your strongest case requires a resume with a primary focus on performance and results, in the form of accomplishments.


Accomplishments

An accomplishment is a specific contribution you have made that led to a measurable result.  It can take many forms, such as saving money or time; solving a problem; improving quality, efficiency, client service or satisfaction;  or doing something for the first time or in a new and more effective way.

An accomplishment is a specific and quantified contribution, not a general statement about your basic scope of responsibility,  as in a job description. For example, a statement like "Managed the negotiation of contracts with vendor" is a general statement.  Compare this with "Negotiated a new contract for courier delivery services that saved the firm $35,000 over a two year period" which is a specific accomplishment.

Job description is an important part of any resume. But by making specific contributions and results the centerpiece of your resume,  you put the focus where it should be, namely,  on what you have contributed.

Accomplishments are invaluable to your self-marketing efforts.  Accomplishment-based resumes have produced great results for legal administrators because they highlight their unique contributions in hard-hitting, objective terms.   While the goal is to quantify all your accomplishments, in practice, it is not always possible.  The following is an example of a strong accomplishment which cannot be quantified:

  • Introduced the first management training program for partners.

In most cases, however, quantification is possible and effective.  Are you an excellent cost-cutter?  Consider the impact of an accomplishment like:

  • Introduced a new time and billing system comparing estimated and actual costs which led to a 20% reduction in costs during a growth period.

A superb people-developer?  Consider the following:

  • Established a formal mentoring program for new administrative managers which improved service by 50%.

This approach to presenting yourself provides employers with much better information to evaluate you.  It also gives candidates with less than stellar academic and employment credentials a chance to demonstrate competitive advantage.

Quantification increases the impact of your achievements dramatically.  Compare the impact of "Successfully managed major system conversion" with "Rolled out major system conversion for 250 users in three locations in nine weeks, with minimal disruption to business, and 85 percent faster than prior year's conversion." What employer would not be more impressed by the latter? 

A side benefit of using accomplishments is that they present your contributions in a user-friendly format.  A good accomplishment statement is a sentence long, presented in the form of a bullet, and is preceded and followed by a double space.  This format maximizes its impact and readability.  Effective marketing depends on this kind of user-friendliness.

Effective marketing also depends on building the strongest case for your target job.   In the same way a litigator builds his or her case selectively, using accomplishments to build your case requires being selective about the facts or contributions you emphasize.  For example, an administrator seeking a position in an international firm, might emphasize international accomplishments such as:

  • Negotiated a $600,000 package from building owner for the relocation of 50-person London office, resulting in a no-cost move for the firm.

This accomplishment showcases several things:  international experience, successful relocation experience, and a track record of effective negotiations and cost-savings, all relevant to the target job.  Language fluency or familiarity with specific international rules and regulations might be other examples of information to include in accomplishments to build this case.

A candidate for a job with a firm in a turnaround situation might emphasize cost-cutting accomplishments to build his or her case, such as:

  • Led a cost-management initiative which produced sustainable cost reductions of 15% in outside services.

Your track record may not reflect your future potential.  Your current firm's structure or culture may limit your ability to exercise your full range of talents.  For example, you may have an MBA and the ability and desire to manage the firm's financial function, but be unable to do so because the firm has a CFO who manages this function.  However, the situation is not so black and white.  You can and should emphasize those financial accomplishments you do have, such as producing the most rigorous administrative budget ever.

Your accomplishments should also put your unique talents in focus. You are building a strong case for an administrator position, but also for the kind of administrator you are.  For example, if you are particularly effective as a team builder, be sure to include one or two team-building or team-based accomplishments.  Did you lead or participate in a team that produced the firm's first strategic plan?  Did you introduce a team-based incentive program?


Resume Format and Organization

While accomplishments are the centerpiece of your resume, its overall format can support or hinder its impact.  To maximize its marketing impact, a resume's format should be designed with the prospective employers in mind.   Providing the critical information in the context of a well-organized and succinct document increases the probability that your resume will have its intended impact.

A major decision is whether to employ a chronological or functional format.  From a marketing standpoint, the functional categories around which you present accomplishments are not necessarily the most meaningful ones to your prospective employer.  As a former headhunter and hiring manager, I strongly recommend a chronological format.  This is the standard resume format with which employers are comfortable.  A resume with an alternative format can create suspicion -- what is he or she trying to hide?   Preparing a chronological resume with tightly organized and employer-focused contents, including accomplishments, makes your strongest favorable impression on prospective employers.

The basic organization of the resume is:

  • Career Summary
  • Work History
  • Professional and Community Affiliations
  • Education

Each of these components will be addressed in the following sections.


Career Summary

Like the executive summary of a report, the career summary serves the critical purpose of summarizing your major qualifications so that a prospective employer can immediately appreciate why you are a strong candidate. By eliminating the need to search for signs of relevant qualifications, you create a positive first impression. An effective career summary is a major, and in most resumes, overlooked, marketing tool.

The format of this section -- one or two short paragraphs, a short paragraph and bullets, or all bullets -- is secondary and depends on the marketing messages you want to deliver.  Appropriate information for a career summary includes years of experience;  kind of employer, if appropriate; functional breadth; areas of particular expertise, demonstrated ability, or extensive experience, perhaps even experience with a particular issue or project (such as improving client service,  reducing staff,  or converting to new systems).

Any relevant skills and knowledge, such as facility with a particular budget forecasting model, foreign or computer languages or software, which are important to the case you are building, should be included in the career summary so an employer does not overlook them.

Tempting as it may be to describe your performance with adjectives like "organized, dedicated, hands-on" -- even if they're true -- don't!  They simply declare value without demonstrating it by referring to objective areas of achievement.  And they take up space that can be more effectively used.

For example, compare the impact of the following two career summaries:

"Focused, dedicated, and results-oriented legal administrator with over 10 years of experience in major law firms.  Excellent organizational and team-building skills. "

with

"Legal administrator with over 10 years of experience increasing profitability through cost reductions and productivity enhancements for major law firms.  Experienced in turnaround, merger, and start-up situations.  Demonstrated ability to build strong teams."

The first example merely claims positive results, while the second example demonstrates them objectively and as a result, more powerfully.


Work History

The next section, work history or professional experience, presents work experience in reverse chronological order.  The rule of thumb is that you should include the past 10 or 15 years of work experience; additional jobs are optional.  No matter how far back you go, remember to emphasize those positions that are relevant to building the case for your target job.  If you held a job in an unrelated field, either omit or de-emphasize it.

The basic information on each job (title, employer, location, years of employment) is followed by a brief paragraph of job description and then a set of bullets listing major accomplishments in that job.  

For example,

1985  BIG LAW FIRM  San Francisco, CA

1996   Administrator

Managed operations and staffing functions for this general service 300-attorney law firm with offices in San Francisco, New York City, and Chicago.  Oversight  responsibility for finance and accounting, MIS, human resources, business services, and facilities.  Supervised staff of 15 and operating budget of $30M.

  • Established the firm's first collection department which reduced accounts receivable over 90 days by 50% in the first year.
  • Introduced first performance-based compensation system which reduced turnover of top performers by 80% firmwide.
  • Coordinated a major demolition and construction project in only 2.5 weeks so that scheduled move and new sub-tenant occupancy occurred on time.

Professional/Community Affiliations

The work section is followed by an optional professional (and community, if appropriate) affiliations section.  Affiliations are important only if you occupied leadership positions, membership itself was an honor, or your membership alone is an asset to a prospective employer.  Otherwise, they should be omitted. 


Education

Education (and credentials, if appropriate) should include major degrees and fields, but are not places to pad with lists of in-house or outside seminars unless they have substantive relevance to the case you are building.


Resume Length

What is the appropriate length of a resume, from a marketing standpoint?   Perhaps no other issue has generated more definitive opinions, from a resume should be one page long, to a resume should document your career experience exhaustively, regardless of length.  Working in a law firm and being exposed to firm resumes may lead you to assume that more is more.  However, when it comes to using a resume as a marketing tool, limiting a resume to no more than two pages is essential. 

Managing partners do not have the time or desire to read more than two pages. Your inability to limit yourself to two pages can implicitly suggest that you are not bottom-line-oriented.  Is there an employer who is not seeking an administrator with a strong bottom-line orientation?  At the same time, a one-page resume is unlikely to provide sufficient space to delineate your most impressive accomplishments, along with a brief description of job scope and firm size and practice focus.

Unless you've had only one job, it is unlikely you can limit yourself to one page without undermining your marketing message.  A resume is generally more than one page but no more than two.  The exact length is dictated by your marketing messages for employers.


Summary

Based on the experience of hundreds of successful job-seekers, the resume can be the key to your ability to market yourself successfully to a new employer.   Using a streamlined, chronological format, a career summary that makes a strong first impression, a brief and employer-focused presentation of responsibilities and results, and above all, a set of hard-hitting and quantified accomplishments, you can make an employer sit up and take notice with a resume that works.


This article originally appeared in the December/January 1997-98 issue of ALA News (Volume 16, Issue 6), a publication of the Association of Legal Administrators.  Copyright © 1997 Association of Legal Administrators.  All rights reserved.  This information of any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association.