Resume pitfalls for LL.M. students

Your resume can open a door, or it can keep it closed, and the line between the two can be slim. In the abstract, a resume isn’t good or bad, but rather it’s viewed in relation to the position offered and the competition.

A resume is only as good as it bridges the gap between the position offered and our skills.

For international lawyers and law students, it is important to have a resume that conforms to U.S. style. One of our greatest strengths in the job market is our ability to move fluidly between two cultures, two legal systems, and multiple languages. If our resume doesn’t, we are signaling that we are not well immersed in the U.S. culture.

Preparing a professional resume is not rocket science, but it does demand some effort and diligence. A resume is not drafted in an hour, but it’s also never fully completed, as it evolves alongside our career.

Rather than focusing on things to avoid, I like to focus on what the document should accomplish. But over the last five years, I have seen common mistakes that are easily avoidable and I believe they are worth mentioning.

Mistakes to Avoid

  • Do not use A4 page set up, but rather 8 ½ x 11 page size.

  • Do not use “J.D. equivalent.” Many LL.M. students state a U.S. equivalent to their degrees in the hopes of making their resumes more understandable, but often this creates confusion. In what way is your degree “equivalent”? Is it a three-year degree like the J.D. degree? Is it a graduate-level degree that requires completion of a bachelor’s degree? Does it fulfill a requirement for U.S. bar admission? To say that a degree is “equivalent” does not answer these questions. Rather than translating or trying to find a U.S. equivalent, we should explain or describe our foreign credentials in English terms. It is best to state our degree in our native language and use a parenthetical to describe the degree in English.

  • Do not use “etc.”

  • Be sure that you use the correct preposition (such as “in,” “on,” “of,” “for”). Prepositions are very tricky for non-native English speakers, so double-check all uses.  

  • Use U.S.-style capitalization. Different countries have different rules for when things should be capitalized. We should follow U.S. rules of capitalization.

  • Use U.S. spellings and be sure that the spell check feature on your computer is set to U.S. English, not British English or the language of your home country.

  • Do not shorten “memorandum” to “memo.” The plural of “memorandum” is “memoranda.”

  • The plural of “research” is “research” (not “researches”).

  • The plural of “due diligence” is “due diligence” (not “due diligences”).

  • Do not sign your resume.

  • A legal “opinion” in the U.S. is a specific type of document that attaches liability to the law firm issuing the opinion. When you draft a document for a client informing them of the law in a particular area, it is called a memorandum.  

  • Do not use active verbs that are non-specific such as “attended,” “assisted” or “participated in.” In what way did we assist? When we attended, did we sit silently in the back of the room or did we engage in the meeting?

Strong job descriptions

The job description is one of the resume’s most important elements. The job description must be precise and concise, and it must reflect excellent grammar as well as mastery of English legal terminology. At the same time, the job description must emphasize specific and transferrable skills.

Being specific and concise requires us to be selective about what skills, tasks and responsibilities we include. By drafting a focused resume, we not only improve our chances of being hired, but we also show the employer that we have an understanding of the demands of the job.

Every description should begin with an active verb (e.g., “advised,” “prepared,” “researched”). For prior jobs, the verbs will be in the past tense. For current jobs, the verbs will be in the present tense.

Choose a strong action verb to emphasize your specific experience and highlight your skills, “attending a meeting” does not highlight any skill. It is, also, more effective to write “researched and drafted legal briefs and memoranda” than to say “prepared legal briefs and memoranda” because preparation may involve tasks such as stapling, collating, or proofreading. Likewise, “participated in” is very vague and should not be used because both a paralegal and a partner would both “participate” in a transaction, but the nature of their participation would be very different.

Follow the active verb with a specific description of a responsibility or accomplishment. Be specific so that employers have a good sense of your skills and do not leave them guessing as to whether you possess these skills. The more relevant the past position is to the job for which you are applying, the more specific you should be. If your description raises more questions than it answers, you should rephrase it.

You should also be specific about your tasks and responsibilities. For example, “drafted legal documents” is a vague, unhelpful description that could refer to any number of things. A “legal document” could mean a shareholders’ agreement or it could mean a stock certificate — the level of skill involved in preparing each of these is very different and matters to an employer reviewing your resume. “Drafted various legal documents in connection with private equity transactions, including share and asset purchase agreements, due diligence reports, shareholder agreements, employment agreements, and corporate formation documents” is much more informative. Similarly, “performed legal research” is very vague; “Performed legal research and drafted memoranda on issues relating to bankruptcy law” provides more useful detail.  


Desiree Jaeger-Fine is principal of Jaeger-Fine Consulting, LLC, a career management firm for international attorneys in New York, and author of A Short & Happy Guide to Networking (West Academic Publishing) (forthcoming).