Resumes and the art of career management

Rachelle J. Canter, Ph.D.

What is the basic purpose of a resume?

To most lawyers, a resume is a document used to summarize educational and career history -- where you've been and what you've done.  This focus on academic and employment credentials and job descriptions does provide important information to prospective employers.  But the basic purpose of a resume is to serve as a marketing tool.  To do so, another type of information must be included.

What's missing in the traditional resume is information about performance and results.  Since the best predictor of future performance is past performance, this information is essential.  Academic credentials -- the caliber of your schools, class rank, Phi Beta Kappa, Law Review, etc. -- are indirect measures of performance.  But as the years pass after graduation and you accumulate more professional experience, these credentials mean less.  What you have accomplished in your career means correspondingly more.

What are accomplishments and why are they important tools  for career management?

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

An accomplishment is a specific and quantified contribution, as opposed to your job description which summarizes your general scope of responsibility.  Job description is an important part of any resume, but simply documenting responsibilities does not turn a resume into a marketing tool. By making specific contributions and results the centerpiece of your resume,  you not only document where you've been but market what you've contributed. They are invaluable to your efforts to market yourself into another job.

A resume that emphasizes accomplishments rather than job descriptions employs a non-traditional format for the legal industry, but one which has produced great results for lawyers for reasons we'll discuss.

Credentials Do Not Equal Performance

Everyone knows someone with outstanding credentials who cannot perform on the job.  As they say in Texas, "Big hat, no cattle."  Even candidates with identical credentials make different contributions and achieve different results.  Your job is to show you can perform -- and if you have sterling credentials, so much the better.  Your resume is your opportunity to display your unique contributions.

For example, it is one thing to have law review among one's credentials.  But consider the additional impact of an accomplishment such as:

  • Negotiated 11 promotional agreements with businesses in seven industries for a major credit card company in a three-month period.

This accomplishment illustrates negotiating abilities that cut across industries as well as an ability to produce a lot of results in a short period of time.

Consider, too, the impact of this accomplishment:

  • Drafted winning appellate brief to uphold judgment for Fortune 100 machine tools manufacturer on a $10-million product liability claim.

This accomplishment highlights the attorney's writing abilities, experience handling major cases for large companies, and ability to produce successful outcomes.  A job description outlining the nature of the candidate's practice and firm would not have the same impact as this accomplishment statement.

Job Descriptions and Credentials Do Not Sufficiently Differentiate Candidates

If you limit your resume to a description of employers and your practice area, how does a prospective employer decide to interview you rather than the 200 other candidates with similar employers and practice areas?

For example, a job description, such as "Associate in corporate securities practice, including public offerings of debt and equity securities; public and private real estate syndications; mergers and acquisitions." means that several associates in the same practice group would have fairly comparable job descriptions.  Then what basis does a prospective employer have for interviewing Candidate A  vs. Candidate B:   law school?  firm reputation?  class rank?  law review?&

Those things are important, but they do not necessarily differentiate one candidate from another.   Accomplishments do, by presenting distinctive contributions with quantified results or benefits.  This provides employers with much better information and gives candidates with less than stellar academic and employment credentials a chance to compete.

Accomplishments Quantify Contributions to Maximize Impact and Verifiability

For example, compare the impact of "Represented major investment banker in public offerings and private placements" in a job description, with:

  • Managed over 30 public and private securities offerings, involving approximately $1.6 billion in debt and equity securities.

The accomplishment gives the reader a specific understanding of the number and size of the transactions handled by this attorney.  It does so in a concise and hard-hitting fashion, as well as in an easily readable format.  Contrast this with the traditional resume that features dense fields of text detailing the nature of an individual's practice, firm, and specific cases.

Accomplishments Present Individual Contributions in an Easy-to-Read-and-Assimilate Format

A good accomplishment statement is a sentence long, is presented in the form of a bullet, and is preceded and followed by a double space.  This format maximizes its impact and readability.

However, accomplishments are more than format.  Their content should be limited to a brief statement of a specific contribution and its quantified result.

Increasing numbers of job-seekers have jumped on the bandwagon and are using bullets in their resumes.  In many cases, they simply reformat paragraphs of job description into bullets,  leaving a prospective employer with the task of sorting through a mixture of job description and accomplishment.  This does not present a tightly organized, coherent case for one's candidacy.

For example, the following list is a mix of job description (bullets 1, 3, and 5) and specific accomplishments (bullets 2 and 4):

  • Negotiated and closed transactions including loan workouts, restructuring, lender liability claims, and foreclosures.
  • Drafted sophisticated anti-takeover measures as part of $100-million merger of two publicly-held Internet companies.
  • Participated in legal due diligence for corporate acquisitions in 10 Western states; handled mergers among subsidiaries; prepared resolutions and other corporate documents.
  • Structured $10-million joint venture between U.S. biotechnology company and European pharmaceutical conglomerate which led to the development of the first AIDS vaccine.
  • Developed standard documents for company-wide commercial real estate lending program with an estimated $3-billion portfolio.

A better way is to separate job description from accomplishment, leaving job description to a paragraph following title, and accomplishments to the bullets which follow, as in the following example:

NAME OF LAW FIRM                     Location

Associate Attorney

Experience in all phases of complex civil litigation, including pleadings, depositions, written discovery, pretrial motions, hearings, and trials for this 500-attorney general  business and litigation firm.

  • Achieved favorable judgment or dismissal in 90% of 50 cases in one year.
  • Negotiated a favorable settlement of a hazardous waste case, avoiding $3M in potential penalties to a consumer products manufacturer.

Another common mistake is to adopt a bullet format without correspondingly honing the detail and impact.   An accomplishment is not a lumbering paragraph put into bullet form.  Accomplishments depend on brevity and quantification for their impact.  For example, compare the following two examples:

  • Second-chaired and won a defense verdict in a $500,000 premises liability case on two weeks notice.
  • Represented US manufacturer of computer workstations in policy-setting approval of sale of one of its subsidiaries to a German conglomerate; developed strategy, prepared and coordinated formal and informal responses in filing and at hearings before representatives of numerous US governmental departments and agencies.  Case established limitation of scope of review of technology sales.

The first accomplishment showcases several things in one sentence:  level of responsibility, size of the case and result, and time to produce the result --  all contributing to its impact.  The second accomplishment provides an overwhelming and unnecessary level of detail.

Accomplishments Build a Strong Case for a Target Job

Writing a resume is about building a case for your target job, not documenting where you've been.  Accomplishments are the bricks and mortar of a strong case.  This means being selective about the facts or contributions you emphasize, putting them in compelling terms and demonstrating value to your audience (in this case, prospective employers) in terms they can understand and appreciate.

For example, a candidate seeking a position in Russia setting up business transactions with the West included the following accomplishment in a resume that helped land the target job:

  • Coordinated $40-million sale of domestic and foreign assets by bankrupt biotechnology company.

This accomplishment showcases several things: an ability to handle domestic and international transactions, experience with a technology-based company, and a track record of dealing with poorly performing companies -- all relevant to the target job.

A candidate for a job with an international corporate practice might use the following accomplishment to build his or her case, citing language fluency, international experience, and complex transactional experience:

  • Negotiated and documented in Italian a $30 million leveraged sale and leaseback of a vineyard and winery for a major Italian winery with a Fortune 500 conglomerate.

Accomplishments can translate your unique contributions into statements that demonstrate value to prospective employers in terms that are meaningful to them. And this is the essence of a successful marketing effort.  The appropriate incorporation of accomplishments into your resume results in the creation of a powerful tool for making successful career transitions

This article originally appeared in the March 1998 issue of Law Practice Management (Volume 24, Issue 2), a publication of the American Bar Association.  Copyright © 1998 American Bar Association.  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.