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Writing an Effective Cover Letter

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Reviewing a law student's cover letter.

As a legal writing instructor, many students bring me cover letters to review. Often after I help a student rework a letter, employers start to respond. Here’s the guidance I most frequently provide.

Say Goodbye to Generic

Never write a generic cover letter—not even as a template to revise for individual employers. A good cover letter presents a focused narrative of why you’re interested in this employer and why you’d be a good fit for this job. One time, a very good student brought me a generic cover letter to review. I gave it back. Without a real employer, I couldn’t begin to evaluate whether the cover letter was effective.

An effective cover letter’s first paragraph articulates why you’re interested in the employer. Too often students give this essential component short shrift. Writing “I am particularly attracted to your firm because of its reputation” is a nonstarter. You must marshal evidence demonstrating that you understand why this employer is different, and it’s that difference that attracts you.

Your ability to differentiate firms isn’t an academic exercise. One day, you may have to pitch your firm’s services to a potential client. How will you explain what makes your firm the best choice—even if your rates are higher?

Make a similar pitch in your cover letter. Experience, clients, practice areas, and niche expertise all differentiate a firm. (Similar factors also differentiate non-firms.) Law students have little in the way of relevant experience to sell themselves (if you do, you might have been engaged in the unauthorized practice of law). So law students must differentiate themselves by showing they’ve done their homework and understand what makes the employer unique.

Nothing shows that you haven’t done your homework more than addressing the letter “To whom it may concern.” Get a name. If you have to, call the employer and ask. Similarly, don’t write that you’re interested in a firm’s tax practice and then apply to the firm’s one office without a tax attorney in it. Do your homework.

And avoid anything that makes your letter sound like a mail merge. Don’t write “your firm”; use the firm’s name. If career services offers a sample cover letter, don’t use any part of it. Read it. Mine it for ideas. But use any part of it and it will look like you cut and pasted your cover letter.

Be Specific When Showing Why You’re a Good Fit

The next paragraph should show why you’re a good fit. Coherence is the key. You’ve shown you understand the employer. Have the discipline to list only experiences relevant to the employer. Your résumé can list more jobs and experiences.

When describing your experience, be specific. If you assisted a professor with research, explain what you researched. If you interned for a nonprofit, explain the nonprofit’s mission—even if you only played a minor roll. When your experience fits your narrative, it’s okay to geek-out on the details.

But don’t waste time emphasizing generic skills anyone could claim. Every 1L emphasizes legal research and writing skills. Why use valuable space to show that you’ve taken a required course?

Rather, show you’ve developed writing skills by writing a concise, coherent, targeted cover letter. Show you’ve developed research skills by figuring out the firm’s clients, practice areas, notable cases, office specialties, history, etc. If you want to emphasize your interest in contract law, articulate an aspect of your contracts class that resonated with you and that’s relevant.

Similarly, don’t just say what you got out of a past job—make it obvious. Don’t say you got client experience working in a clinic. Explain that you met with clients, interviewed them to determine their legal issues, and then researched those issues under the guidance of a supervising attorney.

If you think none of your experience is relevant, keep two things in mind: (1) no law student’s experience is that relevant—particularly as a 1L—you’re pitching your potential, not your direct experience; and (2) every job or experience can be relevant if you step back far enough to find the common denominator. Maybe an undergraduate class got you interested in intellectual property. Maybe working as a restaurant busser made you appreciate employment law.

Waste No Words

You don’t show respect for the reader’s time by saying “thank you for your time and consideration.” You show respect for her time by keeping the cover letter short. Waste no words. Don’t write, “I am writing” when “I write” will do. Don’t write “to express interest in,” write “apply for.” Don’t put your email address in the last paragraph if it’s already in the header.

Never Apologize—But Anticipate Your Reader’s Doubts

Never apologize. Show only your best attributes. Employers can ask about grades during the interview; don’t raise it in the cover letter.

But do anticipate your reader’s apprehensions. If you’re applying to an employer in a less desirable location, assure the reader that you’re indeed eager to work there. Frankly, the crummier the location, the more you should show your willingness to work there (family in the area generally works well). Similarly, if your grades make you seem overqualified for the position, persuade the reader that you do indeed want this job. Don’t be condescending, but explain what makes this particular employer desirable to you—even if ostensibly you could land a more lucrative job elsewhere.

Appearances Matter

If you’ve done the hard work, don’t sabotage your efforts with a poor appearance. Pick an attractive font. Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers is a godsend if you care about the appearance of your work product—and you should. Use technology to catch the inevitable typos. Use a screen reader to read the text of your letter back to you. Your ears will catch typos your eyes miss. And don’t email your cover letter. Your email will be buried between ads for CLEs and male enhancements. Print and sign your letter.

When you take the time to do it right, you’ll send far fewer cover letters and receive far more interviews. A good cover letter presents a focused narrative of why you’re interested in this employer and why you’d be a good fit for this job.

Angelo DeSantis (jadesantis@ucdavis.edu) is a lecturer at UC Davis School of Law in California.

Vol. 43 No. 7

Student Lawyer Student Lawyer magazine provides guidance on educational, career, and related issues for ABA Law Student Division members and other subscribers. It is published four times a year by the Law Student Division of the American Bar Association. Student Lawyer is available online to members of the ABA Law Student Division and to print subscribers.

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