Are You Setting Yourself Up For a Résumé Red Flag?

Trashed ResumeYou know how everyone says follow your passion? Well, what if following your passion results in a giant résumé red flag? What then?

Today, we’re thrilled to have Rebecca Shoom — a rising 3L at an Ontario law school who currently works in Toronto — here to explain the unexpected pitfalls she encountered after following a side interest that BigLaw firms didn’t fully appreciate.

Without further ado, here’s Rebecca:

“1L summer is your last taste of freedom — relax, explore an interest, have fun!”

This was the advice given by professors and students alike in my first week of law school. So, that’s exactly what I did.

I planned a summer exploring a side interest I may never have the chance to explore again: international law. I signed up for a spring international law study program abroad, and I scored an internship at a prominent international criminal law organization in The Hague for the two months after the program.

In September I started 2L, fresh from an incredible summer of learning about a fascinating area of law, traveling around Europe, and working in the global centre of international law. I still had every intention of going through the OCI process, expecting to charm my interviewers with exciting stories about my summer experience and land a cushy BigLaw summer associate position.

This naïveté quickly faded when, after several seemingly great OCIs and a résumé packed with work experience and extracurriculars, my phone was silent on call day.

Unintended Consequences of My Summer Away

What no one told me during 1L is that, when it comes to the strategy game that is OCIs, every piece of experience can have unanticipated connotations and repercussions. Law firms will look for any indication that you may not be the wisest investment for them (and really, with the huge number of applicants, who can blame them?).

I tracked down some of the interviewers with whom I thought I had connected particularly well, and they all said the same thing:

The international experience gave the impression that I was more interested in going abroad and doing international law than working at a domestic firm.

Essentially, I seemed to be a flight risk, despite my assertions to the contrary. It was devastating, and it felt like people were making judgments that were completely out of my control.

How could no one have warned me about this happening?

All is Not Lost!

As I write this, I am currently summering in a coveted corporate litigation-related position with the option to article. With a lot of self-reflection, research, and networking, and a tiny bit of desperation, I am happier than ever.

Do I regret my 1L summer choices? Not for a second.

Here are my tips for taking control of your job search and overcoming these potential roadblocks in your résumé:

  1. Identify possible warning signs early. Look through your résumé, and try to assess whether certain experiences could be a cause of concern for interviewers. Are you trying to work at a big private firm, but you have international experience? Are you expressing an interest in corporate law, but you have some involvement with criminal or family law-related activities? Are you trying to get a job in a city to which you have no real ties? All of these things could concern law firms, and knowing your “weaknesses” in advance is much better than being surprised later.
  2. Take the offensive in addressing any warning signs. Instead of playing the defensive and making excuses or rationalizations only when questioned on these experiences, address them head on in your cover letter and portray them in a positive light before any negative connotations can even be perceived. It’s better than waiting for interviewers to question you on them as a way of testing the waters.
  3. Don’t lie! There is a big difference between presenting a possibly troublesome experience in a positive light and trying to claim you have no interest in something when you really do (or vice versa). If you are interviewing at a full service firm and you have worked in a correctional law clinic and competed in a criminal law moot, claiming that you have no interest at all in criminal law will not be believable. These interviewers have seen dozens, if not hundreds, of students, and they know all the tricks — they will sense your lies immediately. If pressed, better to accept it but have a solid explanation for why you still do have interest in their firm.
  4. If you don’t get a job from OCIs, don’t panic! Research, talk to professors and career services resources, get in touch with any contacts, network like crazy. If you find a firm that interests you, look at their firm directory and find a lawyer that either went to your law school or practices in an area of interest, and contact them to set up an informational interview about the firm, their practice, and their path to where they are now (NOT to ask about any job opportunities!). If you get an interview at a firm, get in touch with one of their current students or junior associates to get more information on their experience. Making contacts, expressing interest, and showing ambition will go a long way.
  5. Learn something from every interview. If you interview and do not get the job, sit down and figure out what went wrong (sometimes it’s nothing — sometimes, there are just more great candidates than they can accept). Get in touch with your interviewer(s) or the student director and ask if they have any constructive feedback so that you may improve next time. Make a solid effort to practice and improve with each interview, and your hard work will pay off!

— – —

Thanks, Rebecca! As someone with a previous graduate degree in architecture, I definitely second the suggestion to be prepared in advance with a good explanation for weird things on your résumé…it’s not as if they won’t come up.

Read On:

More BigLaw job hunting advice ahead!

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  1. Oh gosh, this made me so sad. Sad that choosing to have an incredible mind-opening experience studying international law could EVER be held against an aspirant lawyer!

    I am a lawyer who believes law can change the world. I also believe lawyers are healers. After two years in a top firm I had to run very far away to reclaim my heart and soul and mind from the iron grip of law school thinking and big firm mindsets. I spent time in a tiny cottage on a farm teaching very poor students stuff about life. Then I taught law to students at hotel school who were terrified of law and so grateful to have it made accessible to them (and to be able to extend their learning about contracts etc to their families and friends). So I healed – for 6 years I did work to figure out who I really was and then I created the Centre for Integrative Law.

    It is more than POSSIBLE to do work that aligns with you you really are. I work with carefully selected experts in executive coaching, organisational development and psychological well-being to offer programmes, workshops and courses designed to actualise the highest potential of legal professionals. I help lawyers figure out why they were drawn to law and how they can practise law with integrity, being true to their own values. I LOVE what I do – it’s my dream job (I wrote on a vision board last year).

    Life on this beautiful planet is such a gift. Don’t choose to waste it playing resume games. If they don’t want you because of you who really are, it is NOT a place you want to work! You can wait until you’re 30 or 35 or 40 or 50, dissatisfied and hollow, burnt out with shadows under your eyes from endlessly climbing the law firm ladder – and THEN have an “Aha!” moment that takes you towards the Integrative Law Movement and the realisation that you can be YOU and still be an AMAZING lawyer earning a great salary!

    Or you can start the work now. Start figuring out what is really important to you and start living according to your values. And that may mean spending a few summers taking yodelling classes, meditating and doing yoga in Balinese ricefields (highly recommended); pony trekking across Nepal or teaching people how to access AIDS medication in South Africa. Or working at the Hague!

    Here is a free Personal Values Assessment you may find helpful – I use this as a starting point for many conversations with people around their values.

    And feel free to contact me if you want a shoulder to lean on while you learn how to be true to yourself. The cost of creating a life that looks good on a resume is ultimately very, very high. (been there)

    with love for your journey

    • I think a lot of us have been there! Thanks, Amanda, for sharing your insights. Love what you’re doing and hope it all goes really well.

  2. Kemi Adedokun says

    Hi Alison,
    Great perspective and writing style! I actually am interested in international law and interning at the Hague. What summer program did you participate in and how did you get the Hague intership? Your reply is much appreciated. So many law students and lawyers are so secretive wheb it comes to pratical advice about pathways for certain internships, etc. Or they politely refer you to someone else or ask if you’re sure you want to do this and tell you you might change your mind.I know that I want to practice this type of law so much so that I received a masters in international studies and was going to get a PH.D in that subject along wth my JD but don’t love school that much do stay that many years extra. So I’ll stop there but please comment back and if you need extra contact info I’m willing to give that as well.


    • Rebecca Shoom says

      Hi! I wrote this article, and I’d be happy to give you more specific information. If you want to give me your email, I can send you more details about the kind of work I did and how I got there.


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