Why write a cover letter? Aren’t employers just going to turn to the resume right away, since they don’t have time to read cover letters? While it may be true that some employers do not read cover letters, most not only read them, but also consider them important. Many view it as your first writing sample. And, since the vast majority of legal work is written work, it is a good idea to present your best work up front.
There are two opposite, yet equally wrong, myths about cover letters. First: “A cover letter is just a rehashing of the resume.” Wrong – that would be a waste of time. A cover letter that repeats one’s experience is a duplication of the resume and does not add value to your application. Second: “You shouldn’t use anything from your resume in a cover letter.” Wrong again – your cover letter qualitatively expands the information that is in your resume. A cover letter which is completely unconnected to the resume may do you a disservice if the letter and resume are ever separated.
You should strive for a middle ground: a strong cover letter introduces your resume by highlighting the components which are most relevant to the job and supplements the resume with important information which does not easily fit on the resume. For example, say that you are applying to work for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. On your resume, you have indicated that you belong to the law school’s environmental law society and that you volunteered for Earth Justice last summer. Obviously, those two pieces of information should be included in the cover letter in the context of what you skills and experience you have to offer. In addition, you would add connections to the area, e.g., you were born in Mississippi; you plan to sit for the MS bar, etc.
Remember, your cover letter is more than a transmittal sheet. It provides the employer with a glimpse of you as a person and potential colleague.
Cover Letter Tips
Keep the following points in mind as your write and rewrite your cover letters:
- Write to a specific person.
- Use the person’s name and title.
- Make sure the spelling is correct.
- Cover letters should never include the salutations “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Hiring Partner,” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” But do include a salutation; never put “Jane Doe:” as your salutation.
Include the following information:
- Position you are applying for and how you learned of the opening.
- Why you are applying for the position, i.e., level of interest.
- Explanation of your qualifications and how you can contribute to the organization.
- Make reference to your resume; but don’t repeat the same information.
- State what action you want from them: an interview.
- Indicate what follow-up action you will take.
- Every resume should be accompanied by a cover letter, unless the employer indicates otherwise.
- Limit your cover letter to one page.
- Check and recheck for accurate spelling and grammar. Do not rely on spell-check. This procedure is especially important when you are sending out multiple letters—make sure the name in the salutation and the addressee match.
Some common attributes of bad cover letters:
- Poor overall appearance
- Poor grammar, punctuation and spelling
- Rambling, lack of focus
- Self-focused instead of employer-focused
- Bland, boring text
- Embellished qualifications, bragging
View the “Winning Cover Letters” presentation
Cover Letter Tips
Like the resume, the cover letter is a sample of your written work and should be brief (preferably one page), persuasive, well reasoned, and grammatically perfect. Before crafting your cover letters, review the following tips.
A good cover letter
- Tells the employer who you are and what you are seeking;
- Shows that you know about the particular employer and the kind of work the employer does (i.e., civil or criminal work, direct client service, “impact” cases, antitrust litigation);
- Demonstrates your writing skills;
- Demonstrates your commitment to the work of that particular employer;
- Conveys that you have something to contribute to the employer;
- Shows that you and that employer are a good “fit;” and
- Tells the employer how to get in touch with you by email, telephone, and mail.
Hiring attorneys and recruiting administrators use cover letters to
- Eliminate applicants whose letters contain misspellings (especially of the firm name and the name of the contact person) or other errors;
- Eliminate applicants whose letters show a lack of research, knowledge about, or interest in the employer’s work;
- Eliminate applicants who are unable to exhibit the value they will bring to the employer; and
- See if there are geographic ties or other information to explain the applicant’s interest in that city or employer.
Cover Letter Format
Your current address should be aligned with the center of the page or the left margin. Under your address you should include a telephone number where you can most easily be reached (i.e., your cell phone) and email address. The date is included under that contact information.
Determine to whom you should address the cover letter. If you are applying to law firms, address your letter to the recruiting director, unless you have reason to do otherwise—for example, if you have been instructed to address the letter to a particular attorney at the firm. For NALP member firms, use www.nalpdirectory.com to obtain that contact information. For other firms and public interest employers, you can refer to their websites, or contact the office to determine to whom your materials should be directed. The name of the person to whom the letter is addressed, his or her title, the employer’s name, and address follow the date and are aligned with the left margin. If writing to an attorney, include Esq. after the person’s name. The greeting appears two lines below the employer’s address and should be “Dear Mr.,” “Dear Ms.,” or “Dear Judge.” Avoid addressing your letter generally, such as Dear Sir or Madam; instead take the time to find the contact person and address the letter to that individual.
The body of the cover letter ought to be single-spaced with a line between each paragraph. The closing of the letter (“Sincerely” and your signature) should be two lines below the last line of the letter and either in the center of the page or aligned with the left margin, consistent with how you set up the top of your letter.
Cover Letter Body
Although there are many ways to write a cover letter, the following general format has worked well for candidates in the past.
- In the first paragraph of your cover letter, explain why you are sending your application to the employer: “I am an experienced attorney admitted in New York and am seeking a position with the Trusts and Estates practice group at your organization.” Mention your education background very briefly. In addition, if you have been referred by a mutual contact, you should mention that contact in the first paragraph.
- Use the second paragraph to explain your interest in the employer, including your interest in the employer’s geographic location, reputation, specialty area, or public service.
- In the third paragraph, stress why this employer should hire you. Try not to reiterate what is already included on your resume. Elaborate on the qualifications and experience you have that make you an exceptional attorney. As a lateral candidate it is particularly important to show the value you will bring to the organization.
- The final paragraph should thank the employer for taking the time to review your application and inform the employer of how you can be reached to set up an interview. You may wish to state that you will contact the employer in a couple of weeks to follow up and then actually do so. This is especially true with public interest employers who are often understaffed and will appreciate your extra effort.
For additional general cover letter advice, consult CDO's Introduction to Career Development. You are welcome to schedule an appointment with a CDO counselor to review and discuss your cover letter draft.