Vol. 39 No. 3
By Erin Binns
Erin Binns is assistant director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.
Pair your résumé with a fabulous cover letter and employers will take note. Cover letters, or letters of interest, shoulder important responsibilities in a job search. Cover letters allow you to pique employer interest differently from résumés. Résumés are lists that tersely detail your professional and academic credentials. Cover letters are stories. Letters are where you tell a tale of your desire to work for the target employer and where you introduce how your experiences have readied you for success with the organization.
Think letters don’t matter? Employers say they do. A recruiter with a large law firm shared, “We’ve begun requesting cover letters during fall recruitment season. All of the applicants’ résumés we see are very similar: top of the class, moot court, and law review. The cover letters are where applicants distinguish themselves, making it easier for us to select students for screening interviews.”
Small firms echo a similar emphasis on cover letters. A hiring partner noted, “Writing is an essential tool of our trade. If a student can’t write three solid paragraphs about why they want to work for me and why I should hire them, I doubt their ability to convince a court of anything.”
Standing naked on a résumé, the value of your past experiences may not be obviously relevant to employers. Take advantage of letters to dress your achievements and experiences with a compelling case for your candidacy. Draft letters establishing your interest in and knowledge of the receiving employer and introduce your candidacy in terms that will resonate with the reader.
QUICK TIPS: Drafting Stand-Out Letters
• Write letters in your own voice. Select words and sentence structures that reflect your personality and writing style. Copying examples from your career services office guides means you’re likely to submit a plagiaristic letter too similar to someone else’s and not representative of you as a candidate.
• Avoid qualifying statements about your credentials with the phrases: I think; I feel; I believe. Using these phrases makes your statements subjective to your opinions and feelings, which weakens them. It’s more powerful to state: My many practical legal experiences position me to excel with your law firm; rather than, I feel that my many practical legal experiences position me to excel with your law firm.
• Make statements that connect you to the community when applying for positions where there’s no obvious evidence of your interest in or ties to the location. Employers know that people tend to stay in jobs longer when they’re personally connected to and/or enjoy the local area.
• Draft first paragraphs that don’t default to starting with “I am a (insert class year) at (insert law school)” unless you know that your status in these regards is critically important to the reader.
• Double- and triple-check that you’ve spelled the employer’s name correctly throughout the letter.
Draft employer-specific letters. If your letter is inundated with mail-merge fields, you’re on the wrong track. Legal employers expend much effort distinguishing themselves from their competitors. Take note of how they do this. Firms don’t want to know why you want to work for firms like theirs. They want to know why them. This is true for public interest employers as well. General statements about helping others aren’t going to award you an interview. Each organization wants to know why you’re committed to its mission and to the populations and communities it serves.
Effective letters require research and introspection. You need to state clearly and precisely what you like about the specific employer and why you want to work there. Visit employer websites, review marketing information, talk with individuals who are familiar with the organizations you’re pursuing, and assess why you really do want to work for the intended employer.
The first paragraph is prime real estate for expressing your genuine interest in and knowledge of a target employer.
Below is a first paragraph that was sent to me for review. The author wanted to recycle the paragraph for multiple employers by simply swapping firm names. She achieved her goal. The paragraph is absolutely generic—and highly unlikely to incite employer interest.
I am a May 2010 law school graduate, and I am familiar with Buelow Vetter’s reputation as an outstanding law firm. I would like to meet with you to discuss my interest in joining your firm as an associate attorney. My legal experiences and academic success position me to contribute immediately to your firm’s practice. I appreciate your consideration of the enclosed résumé, and I welcome the opportunity to introduce you to my qualifications and to learn more about Buelow Vetter.
Had the author taken time to explore the firm’s website, she could have written the following paragraph:
Congratulations on the recent opening of Buelow Vetter in Waukesha, Wisconsin. As a young attorney, I am excited by the opportunity to join a law firm with experienced lawyers who are redefining their practices in a newly established firm. I understand that Buelow Vetter is committed to counseling employers in the areas of labor, employment, employee benefits, and school law, which are practices that match my professional interests and experiences. I would like to meet with you at this time to discuss my on-point qualifications and to learn more about your law firm and how I can contribute meaningfully to the work of its clients as an associate attorney.
Market yourself in relevant terms. Letters provide an amazing opportunity for you to thoughtfully mix and package the ingredients listed on your résumé into a savory presentation that appeals directly to the reader.
Getting an interview and ultimately a job offer requires that you establish fit and benefits. You need to fit the specific employer’s expectations and be able to benefit the organization’s work and clients. To maximize your candidacy, identify the employer’s requirements and preferred qualifications and use them as the skeleton for the discussion in your cover letter.
Job postings make this easy as they announce the position description and describe the ideal candidate. You needn’t limit yourself to employer-stated preferences. If you have experiences you know to be highly relevant beyond the scope of employer-identified criteria, include them. Ultimately stick to a few areas where you can truly distinguish yourself.
Of course, your job search will need to extend beyond job postings and include proactively contacting employers with “cold” letters. Here you lose the luxury of employer-stated criteria, but you’re not left without clues. Consider the nature of the employer’s practice. Look to the organization’s history. Read the information on the employer’s website. Review the biographies of the lawyers and search for consistencies. Do all the firm’s intellectual property lawyers have electrical engineering backgrounds? Did most of the lawyers clerk for a judge after graduation? Are all the lawyers highly involved in their local communities? And don’t forget “human” resources when researching employers. Alumni, classmates, and your career services office staff may be able to offer great insights.
Essential to establishing fit is that you provide evidence of it. You can’t just tell the reader you’re a great communicator. You need to support the premise with facts. This is where résumé entries come into play. The key is to discuss your experiences in the framework of how they position you to benefit the target employer. For example, if the job posting states a preference for superior writing skills, your letter could read in part:I appreciate that Jones & Smith values hiring a law student with superior writing skills. My achievements in writing courses and practical legal experiences evidence my capacity to excel with your firm. I earned honors grades both semesters of Legal Analysis, Writing, and Research and am currently enrolled in an appellate writing course where I continue to refine my writing and research skills. Moreover, as a law clerk with a civil litigation firm, I was given significant responsibilities in drafting briefs in support of dispositive motions. I received positive feedback from the assigning attorneys both formally at my exit interview and informally throughout the summer. In many instances my initial drafts required few, if any, edits prior to being submitted to courts. I am excited to meet and exceed your firm’s expectations while preparing legal documents and conducting research that will advance clients’ goals.
A well-drafted cover letter can generate opportunities where none existed. Last spring a third-year law student I worked with sent out cold letters to firms of interest. She received an e-mail response from a lawyer noting that his firm wasn’t intending to hire a new lawyer, but the student’s letter was so well written, she earned herself a meeting. Several weeks later, the student had an offer in hand. The firm found “her person to be equally impressive to her letter” and decided to add her to the legal team.
Generate interest in your candidacy and motivate employers to invite you to interview with remarkable cover letters. Exploit the opportunity letters offer you to stand out as a candidate by establishing employer-specific connections and your capacity to excel as a member of its team.
For more information on drafting cover letters, check out “Construct impressive cover letters,” Student Lawyer, vol. 36, no. 6, February 2008, written by Erin Binns.
Erin Binns , is assistant director for career planning at Marquette University Law School.