The Cover Letter: Often a Deal-breaker but Rarely a Deal-maker

The First Job: A Look into Entry Level Positions in the Legal Profession
Assembled and edited by Ashley Akers, co-editor-in-chief

For law students entering the job market, drafting a cover letter is often the most arduous part of the application process. Questions circulate among law students regarding cover letter etiquette: Should the cover letter be long or short? Should it be personalized or generic? Should it explain a resume or provide new information? How should it begin?

These are important questions. After all, a cover letter is the first opportunity to convey a sense of who you are and why you would be a perfect candidate for the job.

To help law students avoid drafting a deal-breaking cover letter, The Lounge asked federal judges, career services directors, and law firm recruiters how top-notch candidates draft interview-worthy cover letters.

Tips on how to Draft a Deal-making Cover Letter:

  • 1. Read and edit your cover letter, re-read and re-edit your cover letter, have two other people read and edit your cover letter, then re-read and re-edit your cover letter. In other words, there should not be a single typographical error contained within your cover letter. You are, after all, applying for a writing position. If you have an error in your cover letter – especially if it is a serious error – the employer may not even read your resume.
  • 2. Use unique, action-type phrases to describe yourself. First, using effective phrases gives the reader a sense about you. Second, using effective phrases shows the employer that you have a good vocabulary, and you're not afraid to use it. Phrases such as "well equipped and eager to contribute to the chambers," "endless patience for detailed tasks," "self driven to learn and excel," and "impressive writer and communicator." Hone in your best attributes, and find creative verbiage to express those attributes.
  • 3. In an application for a judicial clerkship, for example, research the judge so you can find a commonality to reference in your cover letter. Phrases like "as a fellow Jayhawker," or "like you, I grew up in a small town." Use this sparingly – one reference is plenty. Don't try to pretend you and the judge go way back. But in the end, people hire people they like, and people like people who are similar to them, so find one similarity to "connect" with the hiring judge in your cover letter.
  • 4. Follow the “show don’t tell” mantra. Don’t merely state your positive traits as conclusive facts. You should show employers what traits you possess by describing concrete examples of work projects, classroom and clinical experience, and client management opportunities. It’s far more persuasive than simply telling them you’re a hard worker.
  • 5. Start out with a strong first sentence. Ninety-five percent of cover letters begin with “I am a second year law student at the University of…” Instead, make your cover letter stand out with a first line that grabs their attention and gives them an idea of who you are as a person.
  • 6. Don’t forget to tell the employer who you are and what you want. In your first paragraph (not your first sentence, see tip 5), identify yourself (“I am a first-year law student at the University of Chicago Law School”) and clearly state what you want (“writing to apply for the [job title] in summer 2016”). There is no need to write “My name is John Smith” in the text of your letter. Your name will appear at the top of your cover letter, and will also appear in your signature.
  • 7. In your final paragraph, make sure to thank the employer for his or her time and consideration.
  • 8. Keep it short – well within the confines of one page. It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, you need to be respectful of the process (and cognizant of the time it takes for recruiters to read through hundreds of cover letters).
  • 9. Include particular achievements, skills, and experience you have accomplished which are relevant to the employer. Provide focused examples of these relevant skills or experiences.
  • 10. Refer to your resume, but don’t repeat the same information.
Tips on how to Avoid a Deal-breaking Cover Letter:

  • 1. Never include vague salutations (i.e. To Whom It May Concern; Dear Hiring Partner). Take the time to find out who that individual is and always address it to a person, unless specifically instructed otherwise. Take the initiative to research and find the name and title of the person in charge of hiring (hiring partner, recruiting coordinator, or human resources manager).
  • 2. Don’t focus on your weakness or shortcomings. There’s no need to highlight a low GPA or lack of relevant work experience. Instead focus on all the qualities about yourself that make those weaknesses surmountable (without ever mentioning them!).
  • 3. Avoid beginning all sentences with I and avoid overuse of personal pronouns.
  • 4. Do not focus on how the employer or job will help your career. Instead, explain how your talents, skills, and training will contribute to the employer.
  • 5. Do not write an overly long letter. Your cover letter should be well organized and concise. It should never be longer that one page.
The Lounge would like to thank Judge Carlos Murguia; the University of Kansas School of Law Career Services Center; the University of Chicago Law School Office of Career Services; the Directors of Legal Recruiting at Shook, Hardy & Bacon; and other contributors for this helpful and practical advice.


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