Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.
As the owner of a small law firm, I’m always surprised at how many blind résumés I receive in the mail. First of all, who even uses mail anymore? Does anyone seriously think that I’m going take them more seriously because they used cream-colored, 100% cloth, 24-pound bond paper? I’m not.
But forget the résumés for a minute; for me, it’s the cover letter that tells me whether I want to interview this person. Over the years, I’ve received thousands of cover letters from lawyers and law students. I’ve gotten to the point where I really don’t need to read the résumé before I’ve made my decision.
So with that in mind, here are 11 tips for writing cover letters to potential employers.
1. Spell my frikkin’ name right. You’d be astounded at how many times candidates blow this one.…
People are determined to put an a in my name (damn you, Alan B. Shepard). Common mistake? Sure. (I’ve even had people spell my name one way and my firm name another way. It’s the same name.) But this tells me that you can’t be bothered to get it right before you get a job. Why would I think you’d bother trying to get it right after you were hired? My simple rule: Spell my name wrong — you don’t even get a ding letter.
2. Don’t say “Enclosed please find my current résumé.” In fact, don’t ever write “Enclosed please find …” in any letter. What the hell kind of English is that? Does the lady at Dunkin’ hand you a bag and say, “Enclosed please find the donut you ordered”? Plain-English guru Bryan Garner describes this phrase as “archaic deadwood” and points out that business-writing guides have blasted it and similar phrases since 1880. Say instead: “Here is my résumé.” I’ll know what you mean right away, and I’ll think more highly of you.
While we’re at it, you should absolutely have a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage on your desk. If you don’t, you probably don’t care that much about your writing (and it will show).
And as I mentioned in my informational-intervew post, don’t spell résumé without both accents. People who tell you that it’s acceptable to drop the accents don’t belong in a career that involves, you know, words.
3. Don’t tell me how great you are. That’s what your résumé is for. Besides, I’ll decide if you’re really that great, and I won’t base my decision on your opinion. Too many cover letters try to convince me how great it would be for Shepherd Law Group if only I would let the writers come work here. Color me doubtful. I recently had a guy tell me how my firm would be helped by his “tremendous amount of litigation experience.” He graduated from law school in 2009. Seriously?
4. Instead, tell me how great it would be for you to work here. If you don’t know it already, let me clue you in on a poorly kept secret: Most lawyers are egomaniacs. Big firms, small firms: doesn’t matter. I want to hear that you think working for my firm will be the greatest honor you could ever have. It doesn’t matter that I know deep down that that can’t possibly be true. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t really believe it. I still want you to try. But it’s a fine line: don’t sound obsequious.
5. Make sure you know what I do for a living. I keep getting cover letters from people who express an interest in IP law or tax or admiralty (not sure that’s a real field) or corporate law (ditto). That’s swell, but why are you telling me? Like most lawyers, I work pretty hard at telling the world what it is I do in my day job. If you can’t be bothered to Google me, or check out my websites or the three blogs I write for, then please don’t send me your résumé.
6. Speaking of which, mention something you learned when you Googled me. It’s the egomaniac thing again: I’m a sucker for faint praise. Even false faint praise. Tell me you liked something I wrote about the billable hour sucking on The Client Revolution. Or tell me that you like how I use the word “douche” in most of my ATL post titles. Or that you read something about a case I handled back in ’aughty-aught. If you convince me that you actually did do that, your chances of getting an interview rise sharply.
7. I know what you did last summer. That is, if you tell me that you were a summer associate. I don’t need you to give me a laundry list of the different menial activities you did there; I already know what a summer associate does. Same for a junior associate. Telling me that you “participated in a planning session for a mediation” or “research a multifaceted problem to assist a junior associate on an office memorandum” or “attended court for a procedural court hearing in court (although I sat in the back next to a homeless dude)” does not further my understanding. In fact, I’ll never read that, so don’t bother.
8. Ignore well-meaning but dumb advice from your law school. The career-services people want you to get a good job; they really do. And they want to help. But sometimes their advice is really … well, not helpful. For example, over the years I’ve noticed that nearly every cover letter from a Northeastern University School of Law student or graduate contains the same paragraph explaining that school’s unusual (and excellent) co-op program. I don’t mean “similar” paragraphs; I mean exactly the same. I’ve been told that the school advises students to use this paragraph so that would-be employers won’t be put off by the strange schedule and lack of grades. A good thought, I guess. But don’t you think I’m going to notice the same stupid paragraph over and over? Plus, if you get your Google on, you’ll find that I’ve hired four different NU lawyers in the past. And I’m here in Boston, two miles away from the school. In other words, I know how your funky co-op system works.
The lesson here: Don’t ever use stock language in a cover letter.
9. Don’t recite your résumé in your cover letter. I see it attached (“enclosed please find”). If your cover letter reads like a prose version of your résumé, I’m not going to read it. In fact, I probably won’t read either.
10. Tell me how you’re different. Don’t tell me how your interests are travel and reading and foreign-language films and … *nods off* I just don’t care about that, and it’s like job-candidate camouflage; you’re practically invisible with those interests. Instead, tell me the most interesting things about you. I was talking to an informational interview a couple of weeks ago, and his résumé had the usual somnolent interests and activities. Then he told me that he had written three screenplays. Now that’s interesting. Now he’s Screenplay Guy. I’ll remember Screenplay Guy; I’ll never remember Travel and Reading Guy.
11. Finally, write like yourself. Remember that the cover letter is usually the one chance you have to show me how you write. Don’t write how you think lawyers should sound, and for Pete’s sake don’t write like everyone else. Write the way you talk, and then you’ll sound more like you. Because isn’t that what your cover letter is for: to introduce you to me?
Jay Shepherd has run the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group for the past 13 years. Jay also runs Prefix, LLC, which helps lawyers and clients value and price legal services. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.