Updated: Apr 16, 2021
Click this link for an audio recording of Kristy Foreman reading her blog post: https://soundcloud.com/user-381880794/how-to-efficiently-write-a-custom-cover-letter-a-step-by-step-guide-for-law-students-lawyers
Once you have finalized your legal resume, you get to graduate to the most painful part of the application process…the dreaded cover letter. If only the cover letter was true to its name and was merely a letter enclosing your resume. If only you could generate one standard letter, plug in the employer’s address and call it a day. If only…but you can't.
The legal cover letter is much more than just the opening act to your resume. Your cover letter is the only opportunity that employers have to assess your written communication skills, arguably the most valuable skills that a law student bring to the table. Lawyers reviewing applications sometimes never even read the resume because the cover letter was poorly written or contained errors. The more well-written your cover letter is, the more likely you are to get an interview.
In addition to being well-written, the cover letter should also be unique to each legal employer. Lawyers with experience reviewing applications can pick out a stock cover letter a mile away and will draw an adverse inference as to your interest and effort. But if you’re applying to over 20 employers, starting from scratch to customize every letter just isn’t realistic. So what is the best approach?
The most efficient and effective way to create customized cover letters is to create a template with a consistent framework, and then write content specific to each employer in certain sections. The following is a step-by-step guide to creating your custom cover letter framework:
Other than the employer’s name, the first paragraph can be a consistent part of your cover letter framework. It is critical to insert the correct employer’s name, so triple-check this detail for each letter. A copy-and-paste error of this nature is guaranteed to put your application in the “no” pile.
The first paragraph should:
identify which law school you attend, what year you are in and what position you are applying for; and
state your interest in the employer, including your intention to establish your career in their market
The second paragraph should be customized to each employer. It should:
reference any personal connection that you previously made with the employer (i.e. conversations with firm members or attendance at a virtual firm event); and
express why you are interested in a way that demonstrates that you did your homework by referencing employer-specific details
Paragraph 3 (and 4)
The next section of your cover letter can be split into 2 shorter paragraphs or 1 longer paragraph. Keep in mind that a cover letter paragraph should never contain more than 6 sentences. This section is a combination of the framework content and customized content.
This section should:
link to the most relevant experiences in your resume in a way that will persuade the employer that you have the skills and qualities they are looking for in a student; and
contain some personal information to give the employer some insight into your personality and/or your background, i.e. something that you are passionate about or how you overcame adversity
The Last Paragraph
The final paragraph is brief (3 sentences) and can be part of the cover letter framework. It should:
re-state your interest in the employer and/or express your desire for an interview
thank the employer for their time and consideration
invite them to contact you if they have any questions
Here are a few more cover letter tips from an employer’s perspective:
1) Don’t waste valuable real estate on “fluffy” sentences – You only have 1-page, so make sure that every word has forward momentum and sells who you are as a candidate;
2) Don’t rely on over-used resume jargon that tends to annoy experienced application reviewers – i.e. “I honed my skills”, “I was the go-to person” or “I’m an outside-the-box thinker”; and
3) Don’t leave the signature line blank - Demonstrate that you understand the significance of signing an important document by taking the extra step of printing out the letter, signing and scanning it, or by inserting an electronic signature (a far easier method if you have Adobe)
Proofreading to make sure that your cover letter is 100% error-free cannot be over-stressed. One typo can derail your candidacy, especially if it is contained within the cover letter framework and reproduced in every one of your applications. Be sure to ask someone else to review your cover letter before pulling together your application package.
Once you have submitted your application packages, there is one more step that you can take before your fate is entirely in the hands of the employer. Optimizing your LinkedIn profile can boost your credibility and corroborate the information contained in your application package. In my next blog post, I will share tips with law students and lawyers on how to create a professional LinkedIn profile and how to use it to expand their network.
For strategic tips on how to write a legal resume, check out this blog post: https://www.forereachconsulting.com/post/3-common-mistakes-that-law-students-make-on-their-resumes-that-they-may-never-know-they-made