Resume-writing tips

Over the last four-and-a-half years at Affirm, I’ve reviewed thousands of resumes from job candidates, ranging from entry-level attorneys to seasoned 25-year career veterans, applying to the dozens of job openings my team has filled over the years. Nobody, then, should be shocked to learn that I spend, on average, 30 seconds reviewing a resume the first time it hits the proverbial desk. Of course, I’ll spend much more time with a resume if I’ve decided to follow-up with a candidate, but the initial review process is shockingly swift. And while my recruiting colleagues might spend a bit more time with a resume during an initial review, I doubt it’s materially more time.  

Given these constraints, the best resumes are those that allow me to scan quickly and efficiently. If I cannot consume your grock your candidacy for a role in roughly 30 seconds, your resume gets set aside. It’s worth, then, understanding what makes a better resume.  

Here’s a quick & dirty resume-writing guide I wrote for law students and young lawyers. I’ve organized my thoughts into two main buckets: (1) resume content, and (2) resume format.

Resume Content: You can overcome poor formatting with strong content, but not the other way around. Here is where you should spend 80% of your time when writing a resume.

– Go slow. Start with pen and paper and list your schools and employers in reverse chronological order. List corresponding dates of attendance/employment next to each school/employer. List your degrees under each school, and your positions under each employer. You may have multiple degrees with each school, or multiple positions with a single employer, as the case may be. Under each position, write all of the (1) recurring responsibilities, and (2) notable projects you executed in a given position. The reason I like to start with pen and paper is because it helps jog my memory in a way a keyboard cannot. Once you have everything on a page, then you can proceed to refine in a word processor.

– Describe prior responsibilities with punchy action words. For prior positions, I start each sentence/bullet with a past-tense verb. For current positions, use the present tense. For example: “Drafted/draft legal memoranda assessing claims and defenses of XYZ client” and NOT “Responsible for performing legal research…”

– Specify and Quantify. Specify your accomplishments by identifying specific results or milestones. How did your project or initiative advance your employer’s objectives? Did your successful motion to dismiss defeat a claim for breach of contract? Or, did it defeat a $100mm claim for breach of contract?

– Edit for specific audience. It’s fine to have one master resume, but, before you send a resume to a prospective employer, you should tailor it based on the audience. For instance, if you know you share a particular interest with someone who’ll be reading your resume, highlight that.

– Maintain integrity. Don’t embellish, and certainly never lie. If you were part of a team, say so. Don’t claim credit for yourself when it should be shared. Some of the worst resume-offenses I’ve ever seen involved gross embellishment of a person’s responsibilities on an assignment or project. Such matters are easy to spot and verify through back-channel references. (And, yes, employers often do back-channel references on a candidate.)

Format: Remember, most first-level resume reviewers will read your resume very quickly because they’re battling through a stack of other candidates. The format of your resume must help a reader scan its content quickly and efficiently.

– Font: Use a clean sans serif typeface like Arial in a font size of at least 11. (Truthfully, I can make do with font size 10, but that is becoming less and less true as eyeglass prescription changes.) The point is, this is not the time to get cute with fonts. While you’re at it, just forget that Comic Sans was ever a thing…

– Sections: Generally speaking, include (1) education, (2) professional experience, (3) honors & awards, and (4) activities & interests. (Quick note on “activities & interests,” omit this section at your peril! Here’s where you convey more of your personality outside of academics or work. An employer needs to believe that you’re both qualified and they’ll want to work with you.)

Feel free to include additional sections if you believe warranted by the prospective audience or position, or if you think there is something categorically unique about you. For example, if you are an accomplished speaker or writer, that may merit its own section.

– Sequencing: If you are a new or recent grad (i.e., graduated w/in the last three years), stat with the education section and follow it with your experience section. If you’ve been out of school for three years or longer, consider leading with your experience, particularly as it becomes more relevant to a prospective job opportunity. 

– Length: If you’re a new or recent grad, there’s little reason that your resume should be longer than a page.

Personal Lessons About Team-Building

Over four years ago, I was tasked with the enviable project of building from ground zero an in-house legal and compliance team at Affirm. Given my dearth of prior experience, I had no business managing such a project, and each hiring decision was fraught with self-doubt: could I successfully harness this person’s talents and experience without outing myself as a fraud?

Four years and dozens hires later, I’ve grown more confident in my team-building role though I find it no less challenging — and certainly no less critical — today than it was on day one. With typical year-end reflection, I thought now would be good time to reflect on and share three lessons learned.

Get over yourself: Your new team members in many ways will, and should, be more talented and forward-thinking than you. After all, this is precisely why you’re hiring them. One person alone cannot possibly have perfect knowledge and judgment, and it is unreasonable (and potentially stupid) to think oneself master arbiter of all questions. Healthy dialogue with a talented team will always yield better results.

Share information early and often: Think about the onboarding process and how you might best set up your new teammates for success. Transfer your knowledge about the business to each new hire in digestible, actionable bites. Who will be their primary points-of-contact for the lines of business they’ll support? What are those personalities like? What are the organization’s communication channels? The more efficient this knowledge transference, the better your new teammates will be able to bring their unique expertise to bear.

Think ahead 2-3 years: When we started building the legal and compliance team, it was very tempting to hire for more immediate and discrete needs. Luckily, several friends and colleagues advised against this temptation and urged me to think about higher potential candidates that could grow a job function instead of just “keep up” with a job function. This is admittedly challenging particularly when staring at a mountain of immediate work. Still, it is well worth taking the step back and thinking about what the needs might look like 2-3 years out.

Accept change: The team you build today will not be the team you keep. I’ve been struggling with this a lot lately because of some recent “regrettable attrition.” Change is a fact of life, and it can be quite healthy by forcing a hiring manager to constantly consider retention. But even when your team inevitably loses a high performer, it could be because of the opportunity you, the hiring manager, afforded them. That has to be worth something. Besides, people can always decide to return.

Building the legan and compliance team at Affirm remains the most rewarding and challenging experience of my career, and I am thankful for the opportunity to have “learned on the job.” In sum, I suppose the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that it’s okay to not have all the answers. But it is important to ask the right questions even at the risk of revealing ignorance. After all, teamwork makes the dream work.

A Very Belated “Thank You”

I started my legal career as an associate at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal LLP in San Francisco, which, at the time, had one of the only big firm Latino equity partners in the country. Gary Hernandez was at least 80% of the reason I joined Sonnenschein SF. He was funny and charismatic. And he was influential within the firm and beyond. Above all else, he was a good person whose background was similar to my own, and he took an interest in my professional development.

During my first year of practice, Gary was often the only firm partner who invited me to work on special projects with unique value to a young associate. There was the time he asked me create a PowerPoint deck responding to an insurance examiner’s pointed letter inquiring about a client’s advertising practices. While the request itself wasn’t so novel, subsequent events sure were: when the insurance examiner met us to discuss, I loaded the deck and handed Gary the clicker. Without fanfare, Gary handed it right back to me and told the examiner that I’d be walking through the presentation. There was also the time he had me lead a client call involving a new business inquiry. And the time Gary handed me an impressive list of friends and clients and asked me to call and invite everyone to a fundraiser he was hosting for Darrell Steinberg, one of Gary’s law school chums. These are not the only examples.

Gary also took an interest in my personal life. He always invited me to grab time on his calendar and discuss whatever was on my mind. He always asked if I were getting quality work assignments from others. He asked if I were enjoying the experience and if there were anything else I wanted from it. And he always asked about my mom and whether I was saving enough money to send to her.

Above all, Gary encouraged me in ways that no other lawyer has since. He’d laud me with unconditional praise, saying things like, “you’re doing a great job,” and “you’re going to make one hell of a lawyer.” Now, I don’t easily accept praise, and I think Gary often sensed this. In one exchange that I still remember vividly, Gary pressed on with praise until I acknowledged it: “I know you don’t believe me, but you should. You’re going to be one hell of a lawyer someday.” I managed a timid, “thank you,” but of course, Gary was right. I didn’t believe him.

Gary passed in 2011 at a fairly young age. I had already left Sonnenschein and was living in LA. Gary and I hadn’t talked since I’d left Sonnenschein over a year earlier. I was sad to hear the news, and sadder still that I couldn’t pay my respects in person. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t think much more about it for some time.

Recently, my career has developed in ways I could never have guessed when I was a first year sitting dumbly on Gary’s leather chair. At some point, not sure when, I started feeling confident in my ability to advise and counsel. At some point, not sure when, I started feeling confident in my ability to mentor and train other lawyers. And at some point, not sure when, I started asking myself the question, “would Gary now think of me as a helluva lawyer?”

An In-House Lawyer’s View on Business Development

Before anything else, it’s important to understand that I’ve never been in the position of having to develop business. My career so far has taken me from the lowly rungs of big-firm associate-hood, to government lawyer, and to in-house counsel. Given that admittedly unorthodox trajectory, I’m the first to acknowledge that I should not be dispensing business development advice.

But I can’t help myself.

I can’t help myself because I’m now often on the receiving end of many pitches by other lawyers. And, more often than not, I cringe at the attempted pitch.

Here are three common missteps I find most offensive:

  • The out-of-the-blue contact from a “friend” – I don’t pretend to be everyone’s friend and you shouldn’t either. I also share many libations and business cards with many lawyers, which should be an invitation to start developing a relationship, nothing more. A business card exchange is not an invitation for you and your partners to pitch me before you learn anything about my business. There’s a fine line between assiduous follow-up and aloofness. When in doubt, here’s a general rule of thumb: if we only just met, or if the last time we spoke was over a year ago, I’m probably not going to want to listen to a pitch. Let’s start with coffee.
  • The resume recitation – once you’re in front of a prospective client, there’s really no need to recite your CV or past accomplishments. That stuff is readily accessible (at least it should be) online. Instead, use this time to ask questions about my business and listen. I do not want to have to issue spot for you. That’s your job.
  • The presumptuous alternative fee letter – this one should be fairly straight forward. Simply put, don’t send a proposed engagement letter unless expressly requested. I don’t much care if it’s an “alternative fee arrangement” that is “drastically reduced” from your normal rates. For all I know, your normal rates are unreasonable to start, especially if you’ve yet to establish a concrete value proposition. I’ll tell you if I ever want to kick the tires on your services.

From what I can tell, the lawyers that are best at business development are those that are focused on building relationships over the long term, take time to understand a business and its pain-points, and give value long before they take.