Improving Your Resume & Cover Letter

Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

I recently received a request from a stranger to review his resume and cover letter and provide feedback to him.  I don’t really hold myself out as an expert in reviewing resumes, but I do sometimes give clients my reaction to theirs. Frankly, however, my interest in reading resumes ranks just slightly above reading my homeowner’s insurance policy. I think I already read more than my quota of resumes back in my law firm days.

I have empathy for law students, recent grads and laid-off lawyers who hope to find a job in this challenging economy. So from time to time, I write articles and give talks that provide tips that may help make their job search more successful.  I decline, however, to read unsolicited resumes unless I get paid to do it, or until I determine that I owe penance for some crime against humanity.

Although I did not read that lawyer’s resume or cover letter, I did take the time to respond to his email with some general advice on the subject of resumes for jobs in the legal industry. In service to other such attorney job seekers, I’ll share my thoughts and advice below. Please feel free to pass this on to people you know who might benefit.

Debra’s Resume & Cover Letter Advice 

  1. Look at the websites of some legal recruiters in your area, in search of articles about resumes and cover letters. I recommend that because there might be some regional differences in expectations. If you don’t find any, has many excellent articles with job hunting tips.
  2. Include up front the stuff that relates most closely to what your potential employer is looking for. They’ll get bored and move on to the next resume if yours doesn’t appear relevant pretty quickly.
  3. In your resume use the words that match what they say they are looking for. Especially if you submit the resume online, they may have a filter that discards the resumes that don’t have the requisite words.
  4. Use action verbs instead of passive language to give your resume more punch and power.
  5. Use bullet points and don’t have a bunch of paragraphs or multi-line descriptions. Busy people don’t have the patience for detailed reading today. Most just skim over the resume and even one paragraph of prose can be annoying.
  6. If there is something interesting and unusual about you or your experience, try to find a way to include it. It can make conversation flow more easily during an interview, and it can make you more memorable.
  7. Spell check and proofread your resume several times. (If it’s too boring for you to do that…maybe you should rewrite it!) If you are dyslexic, ask someone who cares about your success to help you.
  8. Respecting the cover letter, I highly recommend that you pay attention to Kevin Houchin’s advice at

 Debra’s Articles That May Be Helpful in a Legal Job Search:

How New or Re-tooling Lawyers Can Get Experience They Need

Unusual Tips for Laid-Off Lawyers

It’s Never Too Early to Raise Your Profile

4 Tips for Reluctant Networkers

A Free Webcast That Can Help Job Seekers:

Jumpstart Your Practice with Social Media – Debra’s tips in a State Bar of Texas webcast that can be used to make connections that lead to new clients or new job opportunities

Do you have some additional advice about optimizing a resume or cover letter? Please share your tips in the comments below.

Update: Here is a good article in the August 9, 2011 Wall Street Journal about what NOT to put in your cover letter.