It's OCI season for law students, many recent graduates are looking for positions, and firms and other employers are looking to hire before the end of the year. So what better time to talk about cover letters?
Disclosure: I am not a career services professional. As a lawyer, though, I read many cover letters and resumes from new and young lawyers seeking employment.
The law-practice economy has been and continues to be a hirer’s market. This means as an applicant, you have to put your best foot forward and catch your reader’s attention quickly. Based on my experience on the hiring side, below are some tips to make your cover letters stand out.
Use an introductory paragraph. In cover letters, space is at a premium, so you’ve got to make the most of what you’ve got. Start off with a bang by telling the reader how you learned of the position and why you’d be a good fit. If an employee of the potential employer or someone well-known to it (like a local judge) recommended you apply, put that person’s name in the first paragraph as well.
Tailor your cover letter to the position and employer. Many applicants use the same cover letter over and over. While you should feel free to use certain passages in multiple letters, always tailor your letter to the position and employer. I saw many a form cover letter that referenced practice areas my firm didn’t have (like entertainment law) or geographic areas where my firm didn’t have an office. Make sure you’ve spent a couple of minutes learning about the position and the employer and tailor your letter as appropriate.
For example, if you’re applying for a litigation position, don’t use your cover letter to talk about contract-drafting or transactional experience. Highlight your in-court experience, membership on an award-winning moot court team, or STLA presidency. Use the position announcement to see what skills the employer is looking for and use your cover letter as an opportunity to highlight times when you’ve exhibited those traits. If the employer is looking for a self-starter, talk about specific times when you took and ran with a file at your previous employer or when you identified a need for an outline bank in one of your law school clubs and single-handedly made that happen. And remember—saying “I’m a self-starter” isn’t convincing. But using specific instances of past conduct to show you’re a self-starter is.
Focus on your value to the employer.
Many cover-letter writers focus on how the employer or position will help them, rather than the opposite. I’ve seen this sentence or some variant too many times:
I believe this would be an excellent opportunity for me to further my legal career.
The employer wants to know what you can do for it.
My experience in insurance defense work will enable me to step in and start handling cases from day one.
Again, review the position announcement to see what type of experience or personality traits the employer is looking for, and focus on drafting a cover letter that highlights that experience and the value you’d bring to your potential employer.
Use active voice and strong verbs and avoid nominalizations. The good writing practices that apply elsewhere apply to cover letters as well. Use active voice and strong verbs. Avoid less-powerful nominalizatons, abstractions, and imprecise words that take up space but don’t add value:
As I student I had the opportunity to participate in a clinic. During my second year, we took the case of a client who we believed had been wrongfully arrested and jailed for several months. With the supervision of our advising attorney, other students and I participated in every aspect of preparing the client’s case. A trial, the jury decided to believe our client’s testimony, decided not to believe the arresting officer’s testimony, and reached the conclusion that our client had been wrongfully arrested and issued an award of $100,000. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my law school career. I know I want to be a criminal defense lawyer.
That passage isn't particularly illuminating. The paragraph below is about the same length but exponentially more persuasive. It tells a compelling story that highlights the student’s success, shows the student has real-world experience, and explains why the student wants to be a criminal defense lawyer.
As a law student, I gained real-world legal experience by enrolling in a clinic. During my second year, our clinic took what we believed was a viable wrongful arrest case. Under the eye of our supervising attorney, my fellow students and I prepared every aspect of our client’s case, from interviewing her to filing the complaint to trying the case under the third-year practice act. After a three-day trial, the jury concluded that our client was wrongfully arrested and awarded her $100,000. Handling her case from start to finish over a two-year span showed me what a difference lawyers can make in people’s lives and confirmed that I have the drive and passion to be a successful criminal defense lawyer.
Proofread. Proofread. Proofread. Your cover letter must be perfect—even a single typo can prevent you from getting an interview for the job of your dreams. Once you've written your letter, proofread it until you just can’t look at it anymore. Start by spell-checking your letter. Then review for misused words and typos that Word want catch (See what I did there?). Read your letter out loud to yourself. Read it to a friend or family member. And have someone knowledgeable about the legal professional review it as well.