Overlong Resumes, Redux: What Would Alex Kozinski Do?

By way of seconding Gerard’s comments regarding resume (and CV) creep and its baneful effects, let me share with you the rather short resume of an incredibly well-accomplished person: Alex Kozinski, circa 1984, as he was applying for a position on the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Note that Judge Kozinski’s resume back then (as taken from the files of the Reagan Library) was all of two pages long, and that he didn’t go on and on explaining precisely what he did as a clerk for Chief Justice Burger, Judge Kennedy, or even as a judge on the Court of Claims. He didn’t even mention that he was once a contestant on “The Dating Game.”

Given that it’s interviewing season, this also might provide a good opportunity for me to offer a couple of resume tips to law students. I enjoy reviewing students’ resumes, and see a number of recurring errors along with what I consider to be poor judgment calls. I’ll offer a few suggestions, for what they’re worth, after the jump.

1) Know your degree. You’re paying $200,000 for a “juris doctor,” not a “juris doctorate.”

2) Appreciate the difference between a hyphen and an en-dash. En-dashes are wider than hyphens but shorter than em-dashes; they typically are used to signify spans of time, so that you should use them, and not hyphens, in describing how long you worked in a particular position.

3) Keep your formatting consistent across entries. This is probably the most common flat-out mistake that I see. Students often shift formatting several times across a resume, which makes their presentation seem sloppy. Commonly, for example, when listing the dates in which they held past positions, students shift from a space/en-dash/space format between the beginning and end dates (i.e., June 2007 — July 2008) to a no-space/en-dash/space format for other entries, to a no-space/hyphen/space format . . . you get the idea. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it will be, to at least one of your interviewers. A similar problem: switching back and forth between using the Oxford comma, and rejecting it.

4) Don’t sell yourself short. One student I recently advised had been told by someone else not to include on his resume a pre-law school job in which he built up a high-end, multinational, deep-sea fishing business from scratch. I thought that this advice was, in a word, insane. Of course most legal employers would be impressed that this student developed translatable talents such as managing demanding clients, handling  complex regulatory and business-planning issues, etc.

The larger point here is this: Just because a job isn’t “legal” doesn’t mean that it can’t bespeak your positive qualities. For example, if you worked at your University’s library, shelving books, for all four years of college, that might show prospective employers that you can stay with a dull job longer than other applicants might.

Plus, the lawyers with whom you’ll interview don’t always like asking about an interviewee’s prior law jobs. “How did you like it there?” and “What types of work did you do there?” are both dull questions to answer, and to ask.  If you have two prior jobs on your resume, one of which involved you working as a paralegal, and the other as a scooper at a Baskin-Robbins, 93 percent of attorneys with whom you interview are going to ask you about ice cream.  Trust me, it’s true. And if you anticipate this question, it’ll be a softball you can knock out of the park with a great story about your job–putting your oral communications skills (and enthusiasm) on display.

Of course, after a point, there’s an opportunity cost to each additional entry. (I am a strong believer in the one-page resume for most law students.)  But until you get there, err on the side of more, rather than less. If space is an issue, I would absolutely jettison extraneous, fourth or fifth bullet points for a particular law job that relate *meh* experience (here, I’m looking in your general direction, “[bullet] Observed court hearings”) in favor of adding an entry for an interesting, non-law job.  Also (see below), switching formats to a more narrative style can save space. Finally, appreciate that even if your resume relies mostly on 11 pt or 11.5 pt font, you can drop down to 8 pt or 9 pt for the spaces between entries, without it making your resume look squirrelly.

A related point: appreciate that in an interview, you’re looking for opportunities to engage in a pleasant, interesting conversation with the interviewer. Toward this purpose, more detail, rather than less, is also advisable (for the most part) for one’s descriptions of prior legal jobs. Many student resumes simply relate that in their most recent law job, the student “wrote legal memoranda and prepared drafts of court documents for (firm, agency, department) attorneys.” Yawn. Double yawn. What types of memoranda? On what areas of law? And what sorts of court documents? Wrestling with what kinds of issues? What were the results for your clients? These sorts of details give interviewers something to sink their teeth into, so that they can ask you more-specific questions that, again, you can better anticipate and use as a launching pad for a nice chat.

(One caveat: If you have any concerns about the sensitivity of this information, make sure to check with your prior employer, so that you don’t divulge client confidences. I’m not saying you should relate within your resume the guts of that memo on whether your client violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.)

5) Reconsider whether to use bullet points. Bullet points in a resume present some tricky issues. On the one hand, they’re common, and offer a simple way to communicate a lot of information. On the other, I often spot parallelism problems across bullet points, they place a lot of strain on resume writers to come up with different verbs that say basically the same thing, they create a lot of useless white space on a resume (some white space = good; lots of white space = bad), and, most important of all, they normally don’t put your (good) writing skills on display.

A resume is a writing sample. And what’s more, most readers come to resumes with pretty low expectations. If you can demonstrate your writing skills in the course of a one-page resume, you’ve distanced yourself from eighty percent of the pack. This intuition leads me to prefer resumes in which, for each past position, the writer relates in narrative form what he or she did in that job, in an appropriate level of detail (see above), instead of relying upon bullet points.  One distinct advantage of this approach is that it accommodates an opening blurb in which the applicant explains what the heck the company or organization that he or she worked for actually does (e.g., “Responsibilities on behalf of a leading construction-law  firm included . . . “). With bullet points, either the reader is forced to guess what type of law is practiced by the firm of Dewey, Cheatem & Howe, or the writer has to create a parallelism problem within their bullets. A narrative approach also accommodates a little more bounded creativity in describing one’s prior positions and accomplishments.

6) “Additional Information.” Consider grouping your odd and awesome stuff in an “Additional Information” section at the bottom of your resume. If you have a prior job that (notwithstanding the advice above) you have some misgivings about placing on an equal plane with your earlier law-job positions or other core experience, remember that you can always put your two years working retail at a magic store in the mall at the bottom of your resume, along with your interests (backpacking, photography, etc.) and talents (spoken or computer languages, etc.).

One advantage of this approach is that it’s a space-saver; you don’t have to have several separate lines for each entry in this section. “Additional Information” is also the perfect spot to place something that reflects well on you, but can’t be shoehorned into your Education or Experience sections — e.g., community service, leadership positions, your title as Southern California Disco Competition Champion (2011), etc. Again, don’t be shy, but don’t be frivolous. (I’m not a fan of people who list “drinking beer” as one of their “hobbies.”) To repeat what I said earlier, you are looking for opportunities to put one of your positive, relevant qualities on display, and one way to do that is to tee up a great story about how you won the competition even though your sequined vest ripped during the opening bars of “Boogie Shoes.”

Good luck!

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7 Responses

  1. Paul Gowder says:

    I really hope that employers aren’t judging students on the details of typography to the point of inspecting their en-dashes…

  2. Your advice is great, but your reference to Kozinski is just silly. Do you really think that the committee making decisions about judicial candidates recommended him based solely his CV? I’m pretty sure most employers, including law school hiring committees, don’t have legions of people examining the backgrounds of their candidates.

  3. Kyle Graham says:

    Kevin: I am guilty as charged of using a very, very small aperture as an excuse to post the Kozinski resume. Happily, I take “just silly” as a high compliment.

  4. You left out the most important point: How did he do on The Dating Game?

  5. Thanks. So he’s just not another pretty face

  6. Jordan J. Paust says:

    I once had a student who came to me somewhat distraught — he was only in the middle of his class, how could he get a job? I asked if he did well in any particular area or cluster of courses and seminars. “Yes,” he replied, in the business area. I told him that he should mention such in his resume — under J.D. at U of H. he did, and as I recall, he was hired partly because of his accomplishments in the business area.