Employers want to hire bright, interesting people who can communicate well. The cover letter is often a law student’s first written communication with a potential employer. It is always the first writing sample they see. And lawyers are supposed to be great writers, right? So it has to be great.
Think of it this way ... your résumé and cover letter are basic marketing tools, and their combined purpose is to interest the employer in inviting you to interview. Consider your cover letter an opportunity to explain to a particular employer why you should be invited for an interview. Cover letters also allow you to provide descriptive information about particularly relevant experiences that might not appear in your résumé for space-saving reasons.
The structure basics
Your introductory paragraph should indicate what you are applying for and why you are genuinely interested in the employer and/or position. You need to be able to explain, in one to two sentences, why you want this job, not just any job. It is important for employers to feel that you have an understanding of who they are and what they do; you must demonstrate enthusiasm for an opportunity to work there. What about this employer or position caused you to decide to apply? Try to avoid providing generic reasons for your interest. If what you write can apply to a large number of potential employers, you need to make it more specific to the employer.
Your body paragraph(s) should focus on discussing what you’ve done that’s interesting or relevant, and would make you a great hire. Each body paragraph should start with a topic sentence, which serves to make the argument or claim about your strengths as a candidate that you will support in the rest of the paragraph. Include a few targeted and relevant stories/examples in each paragraph as support. It is extremely important to avoid simply making conclusory statements. Employers are looking for you to relate what you have done to the development of the skills and strengths you possess. For public sector cover letters, you should also try to demonstrate commitment to the employer’s mission where at all possible.
Whether you have years of experience or went straight to law school after college, you have already developed skills that will help you be a great lawyer. A good cover letter requires you to think carefully about your strengths as a candidate and find ways to effectively communicate those strengths to the employer. These are some examples to help you start thinking about your strengths and how you might tell your story:
• Worked hard to meet a challenge (driven, dedicated)
• Led a group project or initiative to a successful result (team player, leader, responsible)
• Brought people with diverse opinions together and helped them agree on a plan (collaborator, consensus builder, people person)
• Wrote and analyzed in prior settings, such as a school newspaper (excel in written communications)
• Became comfortable making presentations to groups (excel in oral communication)
• Researched and analyzed an issue that mattered to you and then took some action as a consequence (applied critical thinking, analysis and research skills)
The closing paragraph should be relatively short and simple. You want to reiterate your interest in the position and, if space permits, summarize the reasons you are a strong candidate. You can also indicate that you would appreciate the opportunity to speak with them further about position. If you are applying to a position out of town and will be in that city in the near future, you should certainly indicate that in your closing paragraph as well. Finally, be sure to thank them for their time and consideration.
The technique tips
There is no surer way to lose the interest of a potential employer than by writing a canned “one size fits all” cover letter. Research the firm or organization. Think about what they seek in a candidate. Then take the time to articulate why you are applying for this particular position. Emphasize your transferable skills and experiences, rather than simply dwelling on what the firm or organization can offer you. This time investment will pay off; a dozen well-written and thoughtfully targeted letters will do you more good in your search than hundreds of form letters mailed out in a blitz.
This may seem simple, but it is important to address the letter to a specific individual if at all possible. Follow any instructions provided in the online posting, as most will include the name of an attorney, recruiter or other contact. If that information is not provided, you should check the employer’s website or call the office directly and ask if someone can provide you the name of the appropriate contact for the position. For large law firms, you can consult the NALP Directory (www.nalpdirectory.org), and for nonprofits, you can try to find an employer profile on PSJD.org. You generally want to avoid addressing your letter generically, such as “To Whom It May Concern,” “Hiring Partner” or “Recruitment Coordinator,” unless the employer specifically requests that or you have exhausted every method of trying to obtain the information.
As with all other aspects of your application materials, you must carefully proofread the address section of your cover letter. Letters are tossed when the name is wrong or misspelled, or when they contain other errors (wrong firm, title, gender, etc.). This is the first rule of a good cover letter: make no typos or grammatical errors!
It is also critical to personalize the text. You should have a clear idea of why you are sending your résumé to this place and express it. Mass form letters sent in a legal job search can give the impression of laziness and/or lack of focus or sophistication. Remember to include reasons why the employer should choose you, and not just reasons why you have chosen the employer, though that is also important.
What are some other things that help your writing technically? A good writer will review his or her draft and ensure that the letter is written in an active voice, avoids legalese and makes good transitions throughout. Do too many sentences start with “I”? Is your sentence structure varied enough? Don’t be afraid to use some simple sentences!
The last step in editing and revising your letter is to check that you are using the appropriate tone. There is a fine line between professional self-confidence and arrogance. If you are at all uncertain how the tone of your letter will be received, have your Career Services office take a look at your text before you send the letter.
To sum it up, there is no surer way to lose the interest of a potential employer than by writing a canned “one size fits all” cover letter. Research the firm or organization. Think about what they seek in a candidate. Then take the time to articulate why you are applying for this particular position. This time investment will pay off!
Doug Saphire is associate director of the Office of Career Services at Boston College Law School, and Heather Hayes is assistant dean for career services at Boston College Law School.