Writing a Cover Letter

The cover letter is an important marketing tool in the job search process. The cover letter serves two purposes: first, it provides the reader with information regarding your career-related intentions; second, it identifies and attracts attention to something about you which is unique, interesting and desirable in the context of potential employment as an attorney. Often LLM students feel as if they are bragging by advancing their qualifications in an American-style cover letter, but this type of "self-promotion" is expected by U.S. employers. Remember, just like the resume, a cover should be viewed as a marketing device with you as the "product."

The cover letter will enclose your resume and allows you to explain your qualifications in more detail. A strong cover letter can make the difference between getting your resume noticed (and getting an interview) and having your resume rejected. The cover letter is typically your first contact with a legal employer. It is, in fact, your first writing sample that the potential employer will read. Therefore, as with any other writing sample, your cover letter should be concise, clear, and persuasive.

Finally, before you can write a good cover letter, you must have specific information about the employer's work and understand what you have to offer to this employer.

Format

A. Typeface and Font

Use the same typeface and 10-12 point font for your cover letters and resumes.

B. Your Address

Your home address in North Carolina will be positioned six lines from the top edge of the page and aligned tobegin at the center of the page. The date you mail the letter will appear two lines below your city, state and zip code.

C. Recipient

You should always direct your cover letter to a specific person. Deciding whom to write will take some research on your part. The most common choices are an employer's recruiting coordinator, a firm's hiring partner, the head of a practice group in which you are interested, someone you know who works for the employer, a Duke alumnus, or a lawyer from your home country working in the firm.

Check on employers' websites to see if they have a preferred procedure for employment applications. You should follow that procedure, but you may also want to send your resume to someone who will take a personal interest in it. If you decide to send your resume to two people at the same employer - for example, the recruiting coordinator and a Duke alumnus - indicate in your cover letter that you are also submitting your resume to the other person.

American lawyers admitted to a state bar are referred to in the heading as "Esq."(see below), without "Mr." Or "Ms." The recipient's name, title (if applicable), employer (firm, agency or company), and address will be blocked four lines below the date and aligned with the left margin.

D. Greeting

The greeting should appear two lines below the addressee block and should always be as follows: "Dear Mr. [or Ms.] Jones:". Use the recipient's title (Mr. For men; Ms. For women) with only the recipient's last (or family) name, not the first name. Do not use "Esq." in the greeting.

E. Body

The body of the letter should be single-spaced and may be printed in either block-style with no indentations for each paragraph or in semi-block style with each paragraph indented five spaces. It should be left- but not right- justified. A double space should separate the paragraphs.

F. Closing

The closing is positioned two lines below the last line of the body and should be aligned with the center of the page. Either "Sincerely," or "Very truly yours" is usually the best closing. The signature line is aligned with the closing and should be positioned four lines below it. You may note an "Enclosure" two lines below the signature line, flush with the left margin. Note "cc.s," if any, below that.

Content

A. Introductory Paragraph

This should define your current status ("I am a student in the LL.M. degree program at Duke University School of Law...") and explain briefly why you are writing ("...and am interested in being considered for a 6-12 month internship firm beginning . . . "). If you want to be considered for a longer-term, say that you are applying for a position as an associate. There is not a lot of room for creativity here. However, if you have an extraordinary 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. Also, if you have a particular contact at the firm, it should be noted in the first sentence, for example, "Jacques Doyenne, an attorney in your Paris office, suggested I contact you."

At the end of this paragraph, you should include a "thesis" sentence where you summarize the reasons the employer may wish to hire you. You will expand on these strengths and qualities in paragraphs three and four.

B. Second Paragraph - Interest In the Employer

The second paragraph should highlight why you are writing to this particular employer. See "researching firm" and "marketing yourself". This paragraph should make clear that the employer's practice is somehow connected to your country or your skills. With regard to the firm's practice, this is an opportunity for you to demonstrate that you are an informed lawyer. 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). The more specific you can be, the better. If possible, express your interest with some enthusiasm. An employer should feel that you devoted some thought to your selection process.

C. Third Paragraph - What You Bring to the Position

The third paragraph is where you will "sell yourself," describing those skills and personal attributes that you identified in step 1 above. This paragraph should emphasize how you can help the employer rather than how the employer can help you. 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 LL.M., such as Duke grades (if they are strong) as well as excellent legal writing and research skills;
  2. set forth something about you which, in the eyes of the reader, separates you from others in a very positive way. Such a unique qualification may be derived from a practical work experience in your country, leadership activities while at Duke, an academic experience as an undergraduate or in another graduate school or from an extracurricular activity.
  3. Whatever the experience has been, it should portray a professional young lawyer.

You may also demonstrate your dedication, diligence, creativity, energy, perseverance, commitment, attention to detail, ability to assume responsibility or work ethic by a personal experience. If possible, be compelling, show some passion; put part of yourself on the page. Compose something that the reader will remember one hour later.

D. Concluding Paragraph

State your interest in a personal interview at a mutually convenient time and place. If you plan on traveling to the reader'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/her consideration. You might conclude with "I look forward to hearing from you soon."

Form Letters

If you plan to contact a large number of potential employers, you may be tempted to write one letter to send to all. This would be a mistake, because a generic "form letter" is bland and conveys a low level of interest in the particular employer. A good compromise is to create a strong format and general letter that you can particularize for each employer, using some information about the employer that you found during your research in part 1 above.

Printing your Cover Letter

Your cover letter should be written in the style of a business letter. Each letter mailed should be a signed original and 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.

E-mailing your cover letter

Many employers now prefer to receive resumes by e-mail, so you may need to e-mail your cover letter and resume. If so, you must decide whether to send the letter as an attachment or make it the body of the e-mail. Probably the best choice is to send the cover letter as an email attachment that can be printed by the recipient.

If you attach the letter, the e-mail still must explain why you're writing and what the attachment is. In addition, your e-mail must allow the recipient to forward it to someone else without further explanation. Include an abbreviated version of the cover letter in the body of the e-mail, or simply cut and paste the first paragraph of your cover letter into the body of the email, and state that your cover letter and resume are attached.