Cover letters can be tricky, especially for someone who has been off the market for some time. You want to show yourself in the best possible light, but many cover letters focus on the wrong elements and can easily lose the attention of the decision-makers that are reviewing your submission package.
The best use of the cover letter is not to re-state your resume in paragraph form, but to anticipate questions that the recruitment coordinator or partners may have and to provide these answers in a concise, yet comprehensive way.
Here's what the law firms will want to know:
What you offer them:
Why should they hire you? Firms are interviewing attorneys because they have a problem. They have a need to fill. You have to be their solution. Yes, you went to an excellent law school and have terrific experience. You should state this concisely in the cover letter, but employers will already have seen this on your resume. In addition to your law school and the title of your firm, think about accomplishments that may not be on your resume (or something listed that you can expand upon, briefly). This can be something from law school or during your practice as an attorney.
What are your best legal attributes? The best way to tackle this issue is by quoting what third parties have said about you. If you have a quote from recent review that you feel illustrates your positive qualities as an attorney, include it in the letter. Did you receive specific praise from a client? Include it in the letter. You may truly believe that you are an exceptional attorney and you may be (let's face it, everyone states his or her greatness in a cover letter), but when your best qualities are represented by comments from third party, your assertions are validated.
Why you are interested in other opportunities:
Sometimes you just want "a change," right? Well, that explanation is not going to cut it from the law firm perspective. Employers want to know that you have solid career objectives and a good "head on your shoulders." They tend to not hire attorneys that don't have a reasonable explanation for their job search, since this can reflect a lack of judgment. However, you need to be sure that this explanation reflects positively upon you. It's NOT a good idea to bash your current firm or come off as complaining or negative. The best reasons for seeking new opportunities should always be to better yourself as an attorney and take a step closer to your overall career objective.
Here are some good explanations for wanting to lateral to a new firm:
Geography: You needed to relocate. Perhaps your significant other obtained a position in a different city. Maybe you are seeking to be closer to family/friends, or returning to a place you once lived. If the firm you are applying to is in a different location, it is essential that you establish your connection to the area.
Practice Area: You are interested in expanding or narrowing your practice area. Your current firm is staffing you on a variety of matters, but you seek to specify your practice so that you can become an expert in one area. Conversely, if your firm is limiting the type of work that you're handling, you might be seeking to broaden your practice gain a greater exposure to more areas.
Growth: You feel that you have reached a plateau in a certain position and need to make a lateral move to enhance your growth as an attorney. Perhaps you are seeking a position that would allow you to conduct depositions or give you first or second-chair experience. Maybe you are interested in running your own cases or having greater client contact.
Platform: This is a particularly crucial area for Partners and for associates that are interested in developing business (which, honestly, should be the majority of you). Perhaps, you are currently at a regional law firm, but have opportunities to develop business from another state and are looking to lateral to a firm with a national presence. Or, you are at a specialty tax boutique and your clients have additional labor/employment matters that they would like to send your way, but cannot because your current firm does not support that type of business. In essence, you are seeking to lateral to a firm that has a platform that can better suit your clients and be more conducive to you developing business.
Your PAST Moves - Why you previously moved from XXX LLP to YYY LLP:
Again, employers want to see that you have good judgment. Every one of your lateral moves should make logical sense according to your career objective. All of the reasons mentioned above can also be used as explanations for past moves. Even if you have a number of lateral moves on your resume, the proper narrative can help your cause immensely.
However, if you previously transitioned to a new firm with a partner or group, this should be made abundantly clear in the cover letter (and on the resume, for that matter). If the partner you were primarily working for invited you along to his or her new firm, this speaks volumes about your value as an attorney.
What you are seeking in a new position:
Prior to the interview, firms will want to be certain that what you are seeking in a new position is something in line with what they can offer you. You can keep this concise, but you will want to reflect why a position with their firm will help you meet your career objective. Firms do not want to bring on a new attorney, spend a few months acclimating this attorney, and then have that individual realize they are not happy. You know what you want - and they are the type of firm you want.
Many recruitment coordinators will not read your entire cover letter. They will review your resume and transcript and see if those documents inspire any questions. Then, they will go to the cover. Anticipate the questions and make the answers easy to find. A great way to do this is by piecing the cover letter together in sections and giving each section a heading. Feel free to BOLD or underline section headings and important information.
Employers can have a tendency to assume the worst. Law firms are continually inundated with solid resumes and gatekeepers are trained to look for flaws in the applications. If you can anticipate the questions they may have about your submission and use the cover letter to answer the "holes" on your resume in an efficient way, you prevent them from contriving their own explanations and give yourself the opportunity to be seen in the best possible light, and the best chance at securing an interview!
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