Writing a Cover Letter

Law students must avail themselves of every possible opportunity to distinguish their credentials, attributes, and experience. In today's highly competitive job market, a creative, thoughtfully composed, well-written cover letter can make a significant impact on hiring manager to move your resume from the tottering stack of many to the well-balanced stack of a few. The cover letter is, in fact, your first writing sample read by a potential employer.

Therefore, as with any other writing sample, your cover letter should be all of the following:

  • concise
  • well-structured
  • persuasive
  • well-reasoned, and
  • grammatically perfect

The desired effects of your cover letter are two-fold: first, to provide the reader with information regarding your career-related intentions; and second, to identify and attract attention to something about you which is unique, interesting, and desirable in the context of potential employment as an attorney.

The Format

Most importantly, your cover letter should be absolutely perfect, with no typographical errors or misspellings. Your cover letter should be written in the style of a business letter. It is increasingly common, and sometimes preferable, to email a cover letter and resume. Each letter mailed should be a signed original, printed on bond paper by a letter quality printer. The color of your cover letter (e.g., white, ivory, bone... never a color of the rainbow) should match the color of your resume and envelope. At this stage of your career, your cover letter should not exceed one page.

Text of the Letter

We encourage every student to write to potential employers until he or she secures a position of interest. This can be a time-consuming and laborious endeavor, but is well-worth it if it leads to securing the optimal position for you. You should develop a standard but flexible letter, which can be adjusted to suit the particular employer and the particular city or geographic region. You may also need to stress certain skills or qualifications that you feel will benefit a specific employer. It is possible that you will need to develop several different cover letters. Generally speaking, an effective cover letter needs to establish the following five basic points in three or four paragraphs:

  1. The reason you are contacting a particular employer;
  2. The interest you have in the geographical location of the employer;
  3. The reasons for your interest in the legal practice of the particular employer;
  4. The strengths, attributes, and skills you will contribute to the position for which you are applying; and
  5. Your availability for a personal interview.

To Whom Should You Write

You should never write a letter addressed to "To Whom It May Concern," but rather should direct your letter to a specific person. The salutation should read: "Dear Mr. or Ms. Jones:". A judge would be greeted, "Dear Judge Smith:". Unless given a specific contact person to which to send correspondence, you should send your letters to the recruiting coordinator at a particular employer. However, depending on the situation, you might instead direct your letter to a Duke alumnus, the head of a particular department, a hiring partner or manager, or even the former tennis partner of an attorney who is a family friend. While it is best to consult with CPDC to determine to whom you should apply, regardless of the primary recipient, it is also wise to "cc" or send a copy of your letter to the employer's recruiting coordinator. This person will ensure that your application receives prompt attention.

The NALP Directory will identify the hiring partner or recruitment professional for a particular firm, but only for NALP member employers. For non-NALP employers, you may need to check the employer's website or pick up the telephone and inquire. Don't forget to verify the spelling (and sometimes gender) of the individual's name.

The Introduction

Your first paragraph serves as your introduction. Do not start the letter with "My name is Mary Powaga," but rather, give a solid indication of your educational status ("I am a first-year student at Duke University School of Law...") and explain briefly why you are writing (....and am interested in being considered for a summer associate position for the summer of 2008.") If you have a particular contact with the employer, this should be noted here, saying, "Stephanie Wormser, an attorney in your Charlotte office, suggested that I write to you." The last sentence of this paragraph should serve as your thesis sentence for the remainder of the letter, possibly identifying 2-3 traits or interests you will discuss in the body of the letter.

There is not a lot of room for creativity here (especially for 1L's and 2L's). However, the first paragraph should be a real attention getter since many who will read your letter and who may view the cover letter as a "mere formality" may not get past the first paragraph. Thus, if you have a way of creating an immediate and positive first impression (e.g., "having decided to attend Duke Law School following my receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize, I am..."), you might consider this approach.

Second Paragraph - Interest in the Employer

Why are you interested in this employer? The following two points must be conveyed:

  1. The employer is in a city or geographic area that appeals to you, and
  2. The employer offers an employment opportunity that is compatible with your career interests.

Let's look at each of these factors:

Geography:

If possible, identify your connection to an area or a city through your own roots, family ties, college, previous work experience, or previous travel to the city. Some locations are melting pots and employers are not as concerned with your prior ties to the community (e.g. New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles) while employers in other cities may favor law students with a demonstrable link to the city or region (e.g. Raleigh, Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, Texas). If you have no ties to a city, you will need to establish somewhat convincingly your commitment to living and working in that city -- however this can be readily accomplished. Please speak with one of us in CPDC if you have questions in this regard.

One way to show your interest in a particular geographic area is by making an effort to travel to that city. The reason employers may focus on geography is that it typically takes several years for them to earn back their investment in a new lawyer, so they want to ensure that you are both committed to starting your career in their city, and that you will in fact enjoy living in their city. The following are examples of language helpful in establishing your ties or your interest in a particular city or region.

"Having been raised in Seattle, I intend to return to the Northwest to practice law following my graduation from Duke."

"I spent four years as an undergraduate at Georgetown and I intend to practice law in Washington, D.C. following my graduation from Duke."

"Although I have not lived in Atlanta, I have visited there several times and am attracted to both the professional and personal opportunities that your city offers. I am very interested in relocating to Atlanta following my graduation from Duke."

Note: Be careful of using the passive voice in your cover letter. The language of your cover letter should be engaging, and demonstrate action and intent.

Practice of the Employer:

This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you are an informed consumer. In no more than two sentences, explain what it is about the employer that generated your interest (practice areas, reputation, a recent matter handled by the firm, acquaintance with members of the firm, firm size). If possible, express your interest with some enthusiasm. An employer should feel that you devoted some thought to your selection process. Expressing your interest in and passion for the work the employer does is especially important if you are applying for public interest and government jobs. For public interest and government jobs, the cover letter is often a much more critical part of your full application.

Here are a few examples of how others have expressed their interest in a particular employer:

"My immediate goal is to obtain a summer associate position in a firm with an outstanding reputation for its litigation practice."

"I have decided to pursue a legal career in an organization which will offer me an opportunity to work in the areas of employment discrimination and civil rights."

"Because I have not yet determined the area of law in which I will practice, I am interested in working in a firm where I will be exposed to a variety of practice areas."

But not

"My goal is to work in a firm which does not have a reputation for working its associates extremely hard. My personal life, especially the assorted annual charitable events I organize, requires a significant time commitment."

"I am interested in your firm because of the training it can provide me in the area of entertainment law. I expect to become a Hollywood agent in a couple of years."

Moreover, while it is important to highlight particular attributes of the employer that attract you ("I am particularly interested in your newly established intellectual property group"), do not waste time with puffery about the firm's overall strength, prestige, or size. Attorneys know their firms are attractive to law students for these reasons, and these overt compliments are unimpressive.

Third Paragraph - What You Bring to the Table

Your goal here should not be to reiterate facts obvious from your resume but rather to:

  1. Establish those traits which an employer expects from an employable law student, such as excellent legal writing and research skills; and
  2. Set forth something about you which, in the eyes of the reader, separates you from the masses in a very positive way.

Such a unique qualification may be derived from a practical work experience, an academic experience as an undergraduate or in another graduate school or from an extracurricular activity. Whatever the experience has been, it should portray a personal attribute that is highly desirable in a young lawyer. You may demonstrate your dedication, diligence, creativity, energy, perseverance, commitment, attention to detail, ability to assume responsibility, or work ethic through a very personal experience. If possible, be compelling, show some passion, and put a part of yourself on the page. Compose something that the reader will remember one hour later.

Do not be discouraged if you feel you do not have a particular experience that jumps off the page. Although you may not have played at Carnegie Hall, been a military officer, run a marathon or written a play, you attend Duke Law School because you are a talented and gifted individual. Here is another chance to show it. So invest some time in this process. It is worth it. Make sure to apply your skills or accomplishments to the practice of law. For example, if you have worked in retail, you might say that your "customer service experience has prepared you for the challenge of dealing with attorneys and clients with diverse backgrounds and goals." After you have completed this paragraph, test it out on a friend or bring it to the CPDC.

Conclusion

State your interest in a personal interview. If you plan on being in the employer's city on a certain date, you should indicate this fact. You may say that you will telephone to arrange an interview time. Offer to provide any additional information and express your thanks for his or her consideration.

Contacting Employers

After meeting with a career counselor and taking advantage of other available resources including faculty, alumni, internet and print materials, you will hopefully have a sense of the type of employer that you would like to contact. Now that you are ready to send those resumes out the door, here are some tips to help you organize your outreach efforts.

How Many Letters Should You Send?

While no one knows this magic number, we do know that you should not send so many that they cannot be personalized. Firms are disinclined to interview those who have clearly sent generic letters as a result of a mass mailing. It is better to write personal letters to a few employers you have researched thoroughly than to send a less
thoughtful mass mailing.

There are certainly some schools of thought that suggest that a mass mailing is a good idea. This may make sense in some circumstances if you keep the point above in mind. Circumstances where it might be worth sending more letters include:

  • If you are applying in a small market it might be wise to broadly target employers so that you have a greater likelihood of getting an interview with one or more employers;

or

  • If you are applying in a very large market, like New York or Washington, D.C., and there is a great deal of competition (this may not be effective if there are limited 1L summer jobs).

Email or Regular Mail

Regular mail is the traditional method of sending your cover letter, resume and other correspondence to a potential employer. However, emailing correspondence is common and acceptable for many employers. If you are not certain which to do, you can certainly send your materials by both email and regular mail. One general rule is that for larger employers, email is now the preferred way to apply.

Note that when using email, it is imperative that cover letters, resumes, and all other "formal letters" be sent as individual attachments written and appearing as if you were mailing it. Do not write your full letter in the body of the email. This format is important because your materials will likely be printed out at some point and they should appear as formal documents.

The subject line of your email should indicate the purpose of your contact, such as "Duke Law School Student Seeking Summer Internship". In the body of your email, you may want to insert a modified version of the first paragraph of your cover letter so the recipient has an idea why you are contacting him or her.

You do not need to include your mailing address and the date in the body of your email. You can begin with "Dear Ms. Smith:" (See Sample Email)

Since it is easy to make mistakes when sending emails, here are a few suggestions to ensure that you send what you intend:

  • Do not put in the address of the recipient until you are ready to send.
  • Open attached files to confirm that you are sending the correct version of your cover letter and resume.
  • Send a blind copy to yourself to confirm what was sent and make it easy to resend it if necessary.
  • It is critical that resumes and cover letters be sent in a format where the recipient cannot see various edits you have made to the document - you should attempt to view it with "showing markups" to confirm that they will only get a clean copy.

Your Follow-Up After Sending an Application or Networking Letter

The most important step in writing letters is not the writing - but the follow-up. Calling and/or emailing to confirm receipt of your materials and then to remind the employer that you will be in his or her town in two weeks is an excellent way to have your information pulled from the file and acted upon. It doesn't always lead to immediate results, but this additional contact can increase your chances significantly. Such a call is appropriate 7-10 days after mailing.

For more information on conducting a job search, resumes, networking, interviewing, etc., see our other Professional Development resources.