Am I wrong to be suspicious?
I knew a defense lawyer whose online bio said that he had “spent more than a year of his life in trial.” But I also knew the facts: He had tried precisely one case in his life; it lasted more than a year; at the end of the year, the jury awarded more than the plaintiff demanded in closing argument.
Despite having spent “more than a year of his life in trial,” I’m not certain he was a proven trial lawyer.
Google the words “consummate trial lawyer” or “quintessential trial lawyer” or the like. (The actual bio may use a synonym to those superlatives; I’m concealing my victim here.) One bio will pop up from a guy who has, in fact, tried a few cases. But he lost them all. He hasn’t secured a defense verdict at a jury trial since the early 1980’s. (He did manage to reverse on appeal several of his trial-level defeats, but I’m not sure that’s too comforting to someone who’s looking to retain trial counsel.)
These examples, of course, come from the guys who are being honest: The words contained in their bios are technically true. I’m not even talking about the folks who brazenly lie.
Given the skepticism that puffery breeds, how can you write an online bio that actually persuades a reader?
Some in-house lawyers know the game (because they played it for years or decades before moving in-house). If your bio says that you were “part of a trial team” that secured a verdict, then there’s a chance that you flew out to the trial site, but it’s unlikely that you actually examined a witness at trial. Your reader knows this.
If you “represented” BigCo in a class action and are proud of the fact that the court denied certification, what role did you play? Did you argue the class certification motion? Or brief it? Or take some of the depositions? Or review and code documents that others on the team put to use? If you have something real to say, say it. If you use the fudge words, readers will assume that you’re fudging.
I love the guys who have “defended more than 400 class actions.” What does that mean? The first MDL probably involved 250 putative class actions that were consolidated before one court. You were part of the team that briefed class certification once for all of the cases combined. Presto! That’s 250 of the 400 class actions that you defended. The second MDL embraced 150 class actions that went through the same procedural machinations, so you’ve managed to add one plus one and get “more than 400”! If I were you, I’d stick to law; the Department of Arithmetic ain’t giving you tenure.
You’ve written “numerous publications” in your life? Absent specifics, this tells me that on two occasions you had associates slap together mediocre course handouts that you distributed at a CLE course you gave for the local bar association. If the “numerous publications” actually qualify as either “numerous” or “publications,” then show me the citations, and let me draw the conclusions.
Give me the citations to your books, book chapters, law review articles, and shorter articles in the legal and popular press. I may not read all the titles, but by the time I’ve skimmed the third page of your list (and seen citations to major publications), you’ve proven your point. Until I saw that list, your bio was just adjectives, all the way down.
If you’re posting your résumé online, then take advantage of what the web offers: Provide links to the articles that you’ve written or to opinions in the cases that you cite. If you’re not bluffing, then provide some evidence; it can’t hurt.
Being a “frequent speaker” on a topic is nice, but what’s the frequency, and to whom are you speaking? If you gave the keynote talk at Davos, I’m all ears; if you bored the associates in your Pittsburgh office over lunch last Wednesday, I’m “hear no evil.”
I can be persuaded, but not by your adjectives. Everyone has “extensive” — indeed, “vast” — experience in “significant” “multijurisdictional disputes” and has handled “complex” litigation “throughout the United States.” I read those words to mean a pair of slip-and-falls, one on each side of your state’s border. If you mean something other than that, show me.
If you’ve tried cases, provide the case names and cites (after securing your clients’ consent, of course), your role (“lead trial counsel” means something), whether it was a bench or jury trial, the general subject matter, and the result. If you have a sufficiently impressive list of those, then you really have the goods; if you can’t assemble that list, then you’re bluffing.
There’s a flip side to this, of course: Most people are bluffing (about at least some aspect of their experience). If you have to bluff, then bluff. You’d be a fool to reveal that “I’ve never actually argued a motion in my life, but I’m confident that, if given the chance, I could try a significant case to a jury. Please pay my fees to give me that opportunity.”
Just don’t think you’re fooling anyone when you bluff.
When you’re writing a résumé, remember that the usual pablum reads like a bluff. If you’re not bluffing, then write a bio that actually persuades: List things. Provide specifics. Give yourself a chance to stand out from the vast, experienced, consummate, quintessential crowd.
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 and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.