How to Make an ATS Friendly Legal Resume

Harrison Barnes

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You’ve heard of search engine optimization: when keywords are used on a website so the site appears at the top of search results for those keywords.” Keywords are no longer exclusive to search engines. They are now being used in legal resumes. Whether you are creating or updating an attorney resume or a legal support staff resume, the use of keywords for the purpose of impressing an algorithm to get your resume in front of a real person is now here. It may sound scary, but it doesn’t have to be. We’re going to explain how you can make an ATS friendly legal resume to help you find the right law firm job for you.

What Is ATS?

ATS is an acronym that stands for applicant tracking system. An applicant tracking system is an app or software that does what it sounds like: tracks applicants who apply for jobs. For our purposes, it tracks legal applicants, whether they are associate attorneys, paralegals, or other legal support staff, applying for a law firm position.

An applicant tracking system is part of recruiting software. It is designed to make the entire hiring process easier for the hiring partner or manager. Instead of manually sorting through dozens, hundreds, or thousands of applicants and their resumes, the ATS reads the resume of each applicant and determines whether or not that personshould be considered for the law firm job. If so, it will then be forwarded or saved for the hiring partner. According to the ATS, the legal resumes that do not meet the criteria of the law firm position are not looked at by a human. That’s why it is important for you to create an ATS friendly legal resume – to ensure that your stellar qualifications are noticed by the system.

What Is the Best Format for an ATS Friendly Legal Resume?

Not too long ago, the most popular way to submit a legal resume for a law firm job was a PDF. That’s no longer the case. When you’re preparing to submit your resume for an associate attorney job or any other law firm position, carefully read the application instruction to note the formatting requirements for the resume. Follow those instructions. While some ATS systems can accept and read a PDF, many cannot. Instead, it treats your legal resume like a giant picture. Even if you use the best possible keywords to stand out from the other legal talent, it won’t matter if the ATS can’t read it.

A Word document is the most commonly accepted applicant tracking system format. It is much easier for most ATS systems to properly read a Word document to note its keywords and your amazing qualifications and later on being redirected to the hiring manager.

It’s important that your attorney resume is formatted in a way that makes it easy for both the ATS and the hiring manager to scan. The ATS follows the same pattern as the hiring manager when it “reads.” It goes from left to right and from top to bottom. So, put your name and contact information at the top. Then, either use a chronological resume or a combination format because ATS seem to like them better than a functional resume. If you choose a chronological format, start with you most recent work.

Avoid fancy formatting tricks. The ATS does not care. At worse, it could miss important keywords you placed inside of your document. At best, it strips the formatting out. Avoid the use of tables, logos, images (including your photo), graphics, columns, hyperlinks, and headers and footers. The ATS will likely drop off or ignore anything placed in the header or footer altogether. Also, don’t bother using different colors. The ATS will likely change your entire legal resume into just one color.

With that said, you can still use certain types of formatting to get the attention of a human if the ATS decides you have all of the criteria necessary for the law firm position. You can still use bold text, italics, and bullet points. If you are including web addresses to writing samples, you can choose to underline them.

How to Choose the Best Keywords for Your Legal Resume

The good news is that choosing the best keywords for an ATS friendly legal resume isn’t nearly as hard as search engine optimization. They do have one thing in common, though. There’s absolutely no reason for you to overstuff it. A keyword for a legal resume moving through recruitment software isn’t quite the same thing as a keyword used on a website. Actually, it’s not that different from updating your resume to catch the eye of a hiring manager. You want to use action words that are descriptive in your current and previous employment history, which best identify your core competencies andcritical skills as they relate to the open law firm job.

Since it relates to the open law firm position, the first thing you must do is read the job description. Next, review your existing resume. Look at your experience and skills and consider exactly how they play into the needs of the open position. To get the attention of the ATS and have it direct your resume to the hiring partner, you want to use keywords for the opening andavoid nonspecific keywords. If the position includes a requirement of legal research for a paralegal job opening, ensure that you highlight that skill by using a keyword. If the opening for a contracts associate attorney requires the use of repository software and you have three years of experience managing contracts through such a system, highlight it with the use of a keyword.

After you add your ATS keywords, read over your legal resume and not just to proofread it, but also ensure it flows well. While you are initially writing for recruitment software, once your legal resume is sorted, it could very well end up in front of the hiring partner. And you definitely need your writing to make a good impression. Of course, that’s also where your cover letter comes in handy (which, by the way, should never, ever be a summarization of your legal experience and education; the ATS does not read your cover letter).

Then, save your legal resume with a unique file name. Much like any other legal job search, you will not send one resume out to every single law firm position opening to which you apply. It’s bad form…and we promise that you cannot “beat the bot” by doing so because every law firm will have their own requirements in their job description. You must read the requirements of each law firm and rework the keywords, review your work for typos and flow, and resave your document with a slightly different name before you send it off. It really does not take that much time to update the keywords and resave your legal resume. Remember to update your cover letter (including updating the law firm name and contact person) before you submit your application materials. We know it may not seem important, but it is since it helps improve the odds that your application materials will make it to the hiring manager and that is who you most certainly need to impress…and to get there to begin with, an ATS friendly legal resume is absolutely necessary!

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company, LawCrossing, has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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