For those of you with short memories or who spend Sunday afternoons at High Tea instead of in front of your TV, Jerry Rice was the greatest wide receiver in National Football League history. This despite not being particularly fast, or big, strong or heralded while in college at obscure Mississippi Valley State.
So how did he come to set records that are the NFL equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak or Cal Ripken’s consecutive games played streak? Simple, but not so simple. Rice was the master of “separation,” the ability to distance himself from defensive backs plagued with trying to cover him.
Separation is a winning strategy that is not the exclusive preserve of NFL wide receivers. It is equally valuable for legal job seekers and career changers. Why? Because it is the best way to imprint yourself favorably on a prospective employer. Your goal should be to make yourself memorable when it comes to (1) culling interesting resumes that resonate and get you invited to job interviews, and (2) hiring decisions.
What is “Separation?”
As we all know, competition for legal jobs is fierce. Employers are overwhelmed with resumes whenever a job opportunity arises. In order for yours to stand out, you need to distance yourself from your competitors in a positive way. You need to make it clear to prospective employers that you are different from your competitors in as many important ways as possible. Putting some distance (separation) between you and other candidates elevates your candidacy and makes you special in the eyes of employers.
How to Separate Yourself
The following separation techniques are ones that experience and history show impress employers:
First impressions are critically important in any interaction with anyone about anything, whether you are: submitting a resume and cover letter or transmittal email, face-to-face, speaking on the telephone, emailing, tweeting, Facebooking or otherwise communicating. This is even more the case with respect to prospective employers, references or potential networking contacts.
Separation Via Your Resume
Resumes are often the very first impression that a prospective employer will get of you. Naturally, you want your first impression to be the best one possible because it sets the tone for everything else that follows.
This is one area where separating yourself from the norm can have a decidedly negative effect.
Your most important objective here needs to be getting the reader through this top-most information without leaving a bad taste. If you fail to do that, it is highly likely that the employer will obsess about your faux pas to the exclusion of processing the key selling information in your resume about you that you want him or her to notice, focus on and remember.
Don’t be cute. No nicknames. No witty, goofball or snarky email addresses. No over-the-top voicemail recording on your mobile or home phones. Cuteness is a major hiring turn-off.
Don’t be gender-ambiguous. If your name does not clearly identify your gender, add “Mr.” or “Ms.” Employers don’t like to guess. Moreover, they get annoyed easily by the little things. No point in starting their journey through your application with one strike against you.
Don’t be “incomplete.” Make it easy for the employer to contact you. Include your mailing address, phone numbers, and email address.
Don’t go overboard. Provide only one email address. Omit social network addresses, CB handles and ham radio call signs. If the employer wants to view your Facebook, Linkedin or Twitter pages, s/he will locate them without your help.
Don’t embarrass yourself or reveal too much. Employers increasingly look at social media websites to see what you have posted and what others post and say about you. Be discreet and professional about what you post about yourself. Be vigilant with respect to what others post on your social media pages and “cleanse” them frequently, to the extent possible.
While getting the employer through your identifying information without a glitch or hitch, there is something that you can add to it to enhance your competitive advantage. If you have a credential (an interesting or relevant undergraduate major, advanced degree or certificate, for example) in addition to your law degree that bolsters your candidacy, include it after your name and law degree, e.g., “Jane Doe, JD, LLM (Tax)” or “Jane Doe, JD, CPA,” for example. You will earn immediate positive points for separating yourself from your competition using this device.
The Early Separation Effect
Once you have managed to (1) avoid trouble and (2) distinguish yourself up top, an employer reading your resume will be more enthused to focus on what you have to say in the rest of the document.
Deciding What Comes Next
Your opportunity to make great a first impression does not end with the identifying information at the top of your resume. Once finished with this section, your next step is to decide what comes next. You have three options:
- Moving directly to Education or Experience
- A Career Objective
- A Profile or Summary of Qualifications
Moving Directly to Education or Experience
Don’t. Moving immediately to the heart of your resume misses the chance to gain some extra points and exploit an opportunity to impress an employer and differentiate yourself some more. You give up a great deal if you do not take advantage of this particular “separation opportunity,” especially one so close to the top of the resume when the employer is still alert and paying attention.
A Career Objective
You rarely need one.
Sticking with our football analogy, Woody Hayes, the legendary Ohio State coach, used to rage against the forward pass for reasons similar to the concerns you should have about a Career Objective: “When you pass the ball, only three things can happen (a catch, an incompletion or an interception); two of them are bad.” Here also, three things could occur, and two of them are negative: (1) it could be completely irrelevant and unnecessary, just take up valuable space and clutter your resume; (2) it could be so meaningless as to be off-putting to the employer and become one of those distractions that obsess him or her to the point where what you want to get across is lost in the process.
Many legal employers view a Career Objective with disdain bordering on contempt. Because they are usually unnecessary, most are just empty, inconsequential blather such as:
“To work for a dynamic, forward-looking organization where I can apply my talents to help it achieve its goals.”
Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Employers come away from reading this nonsense angry that you wasted their time and skeptical of your candidacy, precisely the opposite of the impression you are striving to make.
There is one exception: If you are going in a new career direction, it is a good idea to inform the employer of that goal up front. You don’t want an employer reading your resume to wonder: “Why is this person applying to us?” If you are embarking on a major career change from mainstream law, your Career Objective should indicate your change of direction.
“After several years of honing my analytical skills as an attorney, I am now seeking to apply them to my new career goal of becoming a lion tamer.”
Profile or Qualifications Summary
Unless you are redirecting from mainstream law, what comes next should be a Profile or Qualifications Summary. This can do much to advance your cause. It is an extremely flexible device. You can use it to—
- grab the employer’s attention immediately and entice him or her to read on.
- bring key points that may be buried deep down in your resume up close to the beginning of the document where they will be seen early on in the examination process. Foreign language skills, for example. Or, announcing early that you attended prestigious academic institutions and/or performed brilliantly in school. This enables you to assure that the employer sees your important selling points at the outset.
- imprint your distinctive qualifications on the reader, setting the scene for what follows.
Keep your Profile succinct. A few lines and sentences will do.
Avoid subjective statements that are difficult to verify. Employers demand that you “prove it.”