Different schools of thought exist when it comes to cover letters for job applications. Back when I applied for legal jobs, I took a “do no harm” approach, using the cover letter merely to transmit my résumé, transcript, and writing sample. But jobs were more plentiful back then.
In a tougher legal job market, employers expect more from cover letters. For cover letter advice from an in-house perspective, see David Mowry’s post. For cover letter advice from a small-firm perspective, see Jay Shepherd’s post.
And for an example of how not to write a cover letter, keep reading….
This clerkship application letter went to a judge up in Alaska. It’s now making the rounds among Alaska law clerk circles.
We’ve removed the salutation line and the sign-off, but everything else is intact. And no, the salutation line did not read “DEAREST BELOVED” — which might come as a surprise, since the letter is more flowery than the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Here it is (click to enlarge):
“Law school reinforced my understanding that knowledge is a tool.” But it’s not the only “tool” out there.
Looking on the bright side, reading this cover letter while plowing through hundreds of clerkship applications must have given the judge a chuckle. It’s nothing if not… refreshing. “I sipped confidently from this hearty libation.”
That was my second-favorite line. My favorite: “I am extremely self aware.”
We might do more on epic cover letters for legal jobs. If you have a specimen you’d like to share, send it our way by email (subject line: “Cover Letter”). Thanks.
Earlier: Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Enclosed Please Find … No Reason to Hire Me
House Rules: Use Your Résumé and Cover Letter to Get Inside
Cover Letter Advice
The cover letter is a sample of your written work and should be brief (preferably one page), persuasive, well-reasoned, and grammatically perfect.
A good cover letter:
- Tells the employer who you are (e.g., a first-year student at YLS) and what you are seeking (e.g., a summer intern position);
- 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 and converys that you have something to contribute;
- 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.
Determine to whom you should address the cover letter. If you are applying to law firms, address your letter to the recruiting director. For NALP member firms, use the NALP Directory to obtain contact information. (NALP also provides a useful mail merge feature for generating multiple letters). For other employers, you can refer to their websites, or contact the office to determine to whom your materials should be directed.
Although there are many ways to write a cover letter, the following format has worked well for students in the past.
- In the first paragraph of your cover letter, explain why you are sending your resume to the employer: “I am a first-year student at Yale Law School and am seeking a position with your organization for the summer 20xx.” If you are applying to public interest employers and are eligible for SPIF funding, you can mention that here.
- 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. Elaborate on the qualifications that you possess that will make you an exceptional summer intern or attorney.
- The final paragraph should thank the employer for taking the time to review your application and tell them how to reach you. 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.