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Cover letters are a necessary evil in all job searches—a necessary and critical evil. While many job searchers think a solid resume should speak for itself, the reality is it often does not. In fact, a poorly written or sloppy cover letter can detract from even the most impeccable of resumes. The first step in writing a cover letter is to appreciate the potential effect it can have on the decision maker and that it may be the only tool you have to separate yourself from all the other applicants. While there is no standard formula to follow, there are some things you should be sure to do, and there are some things you should never do when crafting your cover letter.
- Organize your letter in a reader-friendly and easily digestible format. The reader is most likely a very busy professional, and you have to capture his/her attention quickly. Also, the easier it is for the reader to get through the information, the more likely he/she will not just skim over the letter and miss your biggest selling points. For example, bullet points can be used to list important matters you have recently worked on, whether they are cases on which you have had significant case-management responsibility or transactions on which you played a large role. If you are a junior associate who may not have had primary responsibility on cases or transactions, be sure to summarize the issues involved in the litigation or the details of the deal and your specific role in the matter in one or two short sentences. Similar to resume writing, there is no bright-line rule in length; however, in general, you should aim to limit your letter to one page, unless there are specific circumstances that warrant a longer letter.
- Write in a confident, purposeful tone, and highlight your strengths. This is your chance to sell yourself, but temper your enthusiasm with a healthy dose of modesty. State clearly what you believe to be your strongest assets and those skills you have been complimented on by prior employers. Also, consider mentioning significant obstacles you have overcome or additional responsibilities you took on in your academic career, such as working to put yourself through law school or choosing to attend a particular school because of scholarship monies received. This is your chance to separate yourself from other applicants, and no detail may be too small. Also, back up your assertions with specific illustrations. For example, many young associates make the claim that they have great research and writing skills. While this is probably true, you should be able to back up such claim by citing either an example of a brief you wrote that garnered compliments from the partners or a successful dispositive motion you drafted.
- Individualize each letter. Address it by name to the hiring person, whether it is the hiring coordinator or the hiring partner. You may want to also consider sending your resume to an attorney within the practice group you are targeting with whom you have something in common, such as the same law school or undergrad institution. More important, show that you have done your research on the firm and the particular practice you are interested in joining. A mass-produced cover letter will not impress your audience; targeting a firm specifically in your cover letter adds sincerity to your application and will demonstrate to the reader your desire to work for that particular firm.
- Put your fate in your hands. End the letter with the responsibility for further action on your shoulders. Unless the job posting or firm website states otherwise (be sure to do your research, as some firms specifically request no phone calls from applicants), state in your letter that you will follow up to discuss a possible meeting regarding the position. While it may take some firms a few weeks to review resumes after they are received, follow up nonetheless about a week after you have sent in your resume to inquire about the status of the review, state that you are excited about discussing the position further, and ask if any additional information is needed to assist the decision maker in processing your application.
- Proofread, Proofread, Proofread. This is arguably the most important thing you can do when drafting a cover letter. No matter how persuasive the information contained within the letter, if the reader is distracted by misspellings, improper word usage, or sloppy punctuation, you will not be seriously considered for a position. As a funny example of how distracting sloppy work can be, a friend recently forwarded me a Motion for Continuance filed in a case in Florida. The plaintiff's counsel sought to continue the beginning of trial because he was recovering from painful disc surgery. However, in his request for the continuance, either he or his assistant confused disc, as in the spinal kind, with disk, as in the computer kind. To make matters much worse, he had misspelled "disk" in the motion by using a c instead of an s. Can you imagine the judge's face when he read the request? Obviously, this is a lesson that is particularly important throughout this profession; you will never get in the door if you send in shoddy and careless work. From the example above, you can see that using spell-check is not enough, so read the letter aloud or have a friend look it over to spot anything you may have missed.