I read a lot of cover letters. And I have never once heard someone say how much they enjoyed writing one.
In fact, I think the cover letter might be the most misunderstood and disliked document of of all of the documents used in applying for jobs. The hatred directed towards cover letters seems to stem from a belief that the resume already tells the employer everything they need to know so the cover letter is needlessly duplicative. But that is not true.
A cover letter is not supposed to be just a repetition of your resume in paragraph form yet a large majority of the cover letters I receive do just that. If an employer wanted you to repeat your resume in paragraph form, they would not ask for a cover letter and would save themselves time by just asking for a resume. An idea that will forever change the way you look at cover letters is this:
Your resume states the things you did in your jobs while your cover letter explains why those things make you qualified for the job you’re applying for.
Let me illustrate this. My experience as an attorney at the Institute for Justice is presented, in part, on my resume as:
Institute for Justice, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Constitutional Litigator, June 2011 – June 2014
-Lead attorney in constitutional challenge to Minnesota law requiring every funeral home to have an embalming room, which culminated in a successful two-day trial and favorable statute change
-Wrote summary judgment, post-trial, and appellate briefs; prepared records and affidavits
-Took and defended both party and expert depositions; drafted discovery requests and responses
So if I were to say in a cover letter applying for a position with a trial firm:
“My background has positioned me to be an especially effective attorney at [Name of Firm I am applying to]. I worked as an attorney at the Institute for Justice for three years, where I lead a constitutional challenge to a Minnesota law requiring every funeral home to have an embalming room. The challenge was ultimately successful and resulted in a favorable statute change after a two-day trial.”
I would not be serving the purpose of a cover letter. That paragraph is just a recitation of what already appears on my resume. The employer knows from reading my resume that I litigated a successful challenge to the Minnesota law. They want to know why that experience makes me qualified to work for them and it is my job to explain that to them very clearly.
This means that before you even start writing a cover letter, you need to decide what your personal brand is. What core theme are you trying to convey to the employer about why they should hire you?
If I was applying to that same trial firm, instead of repeating my resume, I could say:
“My background has positioned me to be an especially effective attorney at [Name of firm I am applying to]. Throughout my legal career, I have focused on building courtroom skills. While working as an attorney at the Institute for Justice, I not only lead a successful two-day trial and took and defended party and expert depositions, I also argued several motions, attended as many arguments as I could, seized every opportunity available to engage in moot argument opportunities with other attorneys at the firm, and asked attorneys for feedback on how to improve my courtroom skills.
In that cover letter paragraph, I have created a theme for myself as a courtroom attorney and I have shown how my experience proves that theme to be true.
So as you turn to writing your cover letter, ask yourself if you are repeating your resume or showing how the experiences that appear on your resume make you qualified for the job. If your cover letter is too long, that is a strong sign that you are repeating your resume.
How can you create a theme when you have only been in law school for one year?
Your theme might not be as specific as courtroom skills but it doesn’t have to be. Do you want to litigate? Focus on how you have seized opportunities to build upon your legal research and writing skills in law school and at your summer job. Show how the activities and classes you have participated in and your summer job have helped you build those skills. Did you write six different memos on various topics at your summer job? That goes a long way toward showing your research and writing theme.
Do you have relevant work experience before law school? If so, use it. If you want to work as a labor and employment lawyer, it is extremely relevant that you worked in HR before law school.
Don’t dismiss an experience as irrelevant to legal work. Any experience, no matter how far afield it may seem, can be extremely relevant to an employer. Did you work as a bartender or waitress? Many students might think that doesn’t matter to a legal employer and will just cross it of their resume. But this experience is actually quite valuable. In fact, I have interviewed employers for this blog that consider it a very strong plus and actively look for it in resumes.
Experiences like bartending and waitressing say to me that you have interacted with a wide variety of different types of people and had extensive interaction with the public. You have people skills. You know how to relate to others. You can keep your cool. When it comes to interacting positively with clients and coworkers, these skills are very valuable.
If you are really at a loss, reach out to a CDO counselor. We love helping students create themes.
Your cover letter must also explain why you are applying to the particular employer
When you are applying to a lot of employers at the same time come public interest career fair or OCI season, I know how hard this rule is to follow but you must think of cover letters from the employer’s perspective. If they do not see why you are excited about them, in particular, they will not be excited about interviewing you.
The easiest way to convincingly explain to an employer why you have singled them out is to have spoken to someone working for them. This is especially true when you are applying to multiple big firms through OCI or multiple public defenders through the Equal Justice Works conference. As you wade through multiple websites, employers can start to look very similar so to have something tangible to grasp on to, you need to meet someone working for the employer and then invoke that conversation in your cover letter. Accomplishing this, of course, requires a well-planned out networking strategy.
Do your research on the employer. What do they do? If you are applying for the Antitrust Division of the DOJ, why did you select that division? What about antitrust work appeals to you? What experiences have you had that are consistent with antitrust work? If there are none, networking becomes extra important because you can talk to antitrust lawyers and reference those discussions in your cover letter.
Remember, a cover letter is not a resume. They serve entirely different functions. Your resume explains where you have worked and the things you did while working there. Your cover letter explains why those things make you qualified for the job you’re applying for.
Send your cover letter to the CDO and we will teach you how to do this!