“Gaps” or “holes” in a resume are popular terms used by law firms and other employers to describe an employment record that is not entirely smooth and uniform. That is, there are unexplained “gaps” in the chronological dates of employment set form in the resume that suggest periods of unemployment or underemployment (such as less prestigious employment outside of the law profession). Gaps are another form of “red flag” to law firms. Candidates with red flags – especially multiple ones – typically do not get hired.
In my prior article, I discussed “hopping,” which is another common red flag. Hopping describes attorney candidates who have worked at a relatively large number of firms in a relatively short period of time. The two types of red flags are similar because law firms usually make negative assumptions – often unfounded – about the candidate. In the case of hopping, the popular assumptions are that they are either always unhappy wherever they go, or that they always create problems causing their firms to push them out. Similarly, the common assumptions with “gappers” is that when they lose a job, it must have been their fault (because they are either a poor worker or a problem worker); that when it takes them a while to find another job, it again must be entirely their own fault (ditto); and that any other gap can only be explained by something bad (they were in jail, goofing off, etc.). Of course, while there are undoubtedly some instances where these assumptions may be true, there are many other instances where they are not. Yet the innocent often get lumped in with the guilty, and otherwise great candidates lose their ability to even be seriously considered.
So what can be done to combat this kind of red flag? The defense strategy is to use aggressive, up front means to explain each gap and why it is the result of something beyond the candidate’s control, or is otherwise excusable. The gaps should not be hidden in the resume, but rather made plain with as much explanation as can be comfortably placed in the resume. Additional detail goes in the cover letter. Common explanation for gaps include unemployment due to broad lay-offs, bad economy, lack of work, firm collapsing, etc.; while long periods of unemployment can also be explained by negative economic and market conditions. In addition, it is important to stay busy during unemployment and other “gap” times. Law firms are more likely to accept candidates who were busy caring for sick family members or young children, volunteering, networking, building skills, etc. rather than sitting on the couch watching TV. If needed, a candidate may use references up front to help combat assumptions that they are either poor or problem workers, or that they had good reasons to leave a certain firm or to be unemployed for a full year. In sum, the key is getting the firm to focus on the facts of the candidate’s individual situation rather than lazily rely on unwarranted assumptions.