Biglaw, In-House Counsel, Job Searches

Inside Straight: Thoughts On Résumé Strategy

We’ve done some hiring recently, and people seem to have three types of résumés.

Some résumés start with an “Executive Summary” that consists largely of the applicant explaining that the applicant believes that he (or she) is a great guy (or gal). I’m not quite sure how that distinguishes the applicant from the seven billion other folks who share this planet with us:

“A fast-paced, fast-track, high-falutin’ individual with exceptional interpersonal, communication, and persuasive skills, as well as boyish good looks and a toothy grin; who leads by example and coaches and develops others to deliver high performance; blah, blah, blah.”

To my eye, this is “telling, not showing.” You think you’re great? Wonderful. But, other than your own say-so, is there anything about you that might objectively indicate that you’re correct? Have you ever, for example, achieved something that’s worth talking about? If so, perhaps your résumé should find an excuse to lead with that.

Other résumés also start with an “Executive Summary,” but of a different type . . .

This second type of “Executive Summary” provides a condensed version of the applicant’s experience (rather than the applicant’s perception of his or her own skills). This type of summary might read, for example:

“Jane Smith has substantial public company in-house and major law firm experience. She has advised committees of the board of directors on transaction and risk management issues, and she has partnered with senior management to negotiate both domestic and international transactions.”

I guess those don’t bother me as much as the first type of summary, because this at least describes the candidates’ experiences, rather than the candidate’s self-perception.

The last type of résumé that I’ve recently encountered doesn’t bother with the summary at all, but instead jumps into biographical information. After the applicant’s name and contact information, that type of résumé might say:

“General Counsel, Business Unit — New York, NY

2009 to present

Advised senior management about whatever the heck senior management cared about, yadda, yadda, yadda.”

I don’t know what the professionals — headhunters, or career services offices, or outplacement people — are recommending these days, but the first type of summary strikes me as a waste of precious space. You think you’re great? I don’t doubt it, but that’s not news to anyone. Unless you’re extremely creative in what you say in that type of summary, it’s hard to imagine that you’re setting yourself apart.

The second type of summary might be helpful if your background provides the ammunition needed to make it work. The summary section of a résumé might catch my attention if it said, for example: “Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008, Joe Smith . . . ” Or: “After finishing his career in professional baseball, Joe Smith returned to law school, graduating summa cum laude from . . . ”

But the usual stuff that appears in one of these summaries — worked at a firm, or worked at a firm and then in-house for a while — is not sufficiently gripping to justify the precious space that it occupies. This is particularly true for folks just out of law school; for recent graduates, [at least big law firm] employers will be reading your résumé primarily in search of the answers to two questions: Where did you go to law school? How did you do?

Unless you have something truly striking in your background, you might as well either flaunt what you have or find some clever way to conceal (or try to justify) your performance.

I suspect that many people don’t react to these “Executive Summaries” the same way that I do, because someone is obviously encouraging job applicants to include the summaries. I’ll be interested to read (either in the comments below or e-mails sent to me) why so many people think that including these summaries is a good idea.

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law (affiliate link) and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide. You can reach him by email at

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