Corporate HR Still Has No Idea How To Read a Lawyer Resume

HR Interviewer Tip #42: If you don't understand what the candidate is talking about, keep eye contact and look interested.

BOSTON — Denise Jackson is Human Resources Director at a Fortune 500 company and considered one of the best in her field.  Having worked at several corporations across the United States, her experiences makes her a popular guru at meetings of the Society for Human Resource Management.  However, like many of her peers, she has no idea how to read a lawyer’s resume.

“I wouldn’t say I don’t know how to read a lawyer resume,” laughed Jackson, who gave an extended and candid interview for this article, “It’s just that they’re a pain compared to just about every other candidate we deal with.”

Jackson, like many of her colleagues, hides her complete lack of familiarity with legal practice and education behind the complaint that lawyers “don’t understand the corporate hiring process.”

Added Jackson: “Whenever we hire for IT, we get candidates who clearly identify their training, expertise and fluency in various programming languages; when we hire sale staff, we get years of experience and total sales.  But attorneys just start going on about legal work that we’re not looking for –like candidates who go on and on about contract drafting when all we’re looking for is a corporate counsel.”

In her career she has helped hire two general counsels and dozens of other in-house counsel and feels candidates rarely show the right qualifications to meet a position’s requirements.

She cited the most recent open legal position at her large medical device company: The listing for Associate General Counsel requires a J.D. holder with 5+ years of legal experience and prior experience with medical devices, life sciences or biotech industries in addition to what she describes as “the other filler we place at the end of legal positions” such as excellent written and verbal communications skills, self-starter and the ability to communicate complex concepts.

“You’d think candidates would read this description and at least tailor their resume for it, but no!” exclaimed Jackson with a sigh, “This one goes on and on about drafting laws –to that person I say try applying to work for someone in Congress!”

Upon viewing the resume in question, the candidate she dismissed had helped draft proposed rules governing medical device regulation in the United States and would have made a solid candidate had Jackson understood what was clearly conveyed under the heading “relevant experience”.  The incident illustrates the limitations of the HR technique of focusing on resume buzzwords.

Professor Prashant Johri, who specializes in human resource management at Harvard Business School, sees the tension between the traditional style of corporate hiring and the attention to detail needed in hiring lawyers.

“HR departments over the years have tended to be bastions for excessive buzzwords and simplistic thinking,” explained Johri, “The less talented departments will try and create the illusion of deep thinking when all they really need to do is read for relevant experience, make sure the person isn’t a criminal, and forward it on to the relevant manager within the department actually making the hire.  This is especially true in high specialization fields such as law when the best reviewers are those already in the field.  Thus, of potential legal employers, law firms tend to operate closer to the ideal scenario.”

Indeed, many of the law firm HR staff interviewed for this article described their roles as more logistical.  The director of one major Boston law firm, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained that his hiring work was, at best, a support role: “A lot of times the partners come in and place a lateral candidate’s resume on my desk and tell me to ‘make it work’ because of the book of business they’re bringing in.  The rest of my time on hiring is spent planning the logistics for the summer program and post-program offers.” Harmon sighed, “My entire work philosophy is boiled into the motto ‘don’t piss off the partners.'”

Back at Jackson’s department, Prof. Johri’s remarks on self-aggrandizing buzzwords were especially evident when reading the internal guidance for HR employees tasked with reading incoming resumes, which included the passage “check if the candidate’s metrics provide the correct value-add proposal and synergize with the department’s paradigm to allow for proper employee engagement.” Of the everyone interviewed, no two could give the same explanation for what the particular passage meant.

For her part, in the actual hiring process Jackson instructs her staff, made up of a number of young graduates of various communication and business undergraduate programs, to circle the words in candidate resumes that match the words found in the job listing.  Those candidates with ten or more circles are forwarded on for a phone interview, again handled by HR.  Candidates who make the phone interview stage are asked to talk about their previous work.  While the department encourages interviewers to try and draw out relevant experiences, most of the staff interviewed indicated that, for attorney positions, they only paid attention to the words in the actual listing.

Their experiences were best summarized by phone interviewer Kelsey McLean, who noted, “A lot of times I can’t understand what they’re talking about.  If they say something and I’m not sure what that means, I just ignore it.”

Despite these issues, Jackson remains confident that her company will continue to hire the most qualified legal candidates.  As for the opening for Associate General Counsel, the job went to James L. Younger, a third year associate out of Halls & Bakken who had worked on several employment contracts for the company and appeared to have “the right combination of flawless presentation, correct spelling and grammar.” 

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