By Jane E. Edited by Lemon Law School
A good cover letter for a law firm job includes a few informational paragraphs that demonstrate your writing skills. When I recruited for law firms, it took me a little while to learn how to approach cover letters. I spent longer time than I should have thinking about whether to include certain information and reviewing my word choice.
While my law school provided a printed cover letter writing guide with example cover letters, I still felt very uncertain about my first cover letter. After scouring the internet for law firm cover letter writing guides, I compiled all the information I could find on how to write a cover letter for law firms below.
First, to ease into the writing process, let’s start with some simple things you should do to make your cover letter look professional. Here are some global formatting tips:
- Length: one page and one page only.
- Paragraphs: 4-5 paragraphs. If you can convey all you want with fewer paragraphs, feel free to do so
- Fonts: usual fonts for business correspondences such as Arial, Times New Roman and Garamond. Font of the cover letter should match that of your resume
- Font Size: no less than 11pt
- Margin: 1 inch all around
Normally, law firms list on their websites the contacts of recruiting partners or recruiting coordinators. In such cases, finding the right recipients is simple. Note that the larger firms may have more than one recruiting professional, often split by region. Some firms may also have different points of contact for law students and for professionals. Make sure you also write down the recruiter’s correct title as you research for the information.
You may be unsure as to whom you should send your letter even after searching through the firm’s website. In this case, it is okay to address the recipient with a generic title such as “Recruiting Coordinator.” When the individual’s name is unknown, the proper salutation should be “Dear Sir or Madam” or “Dear Recruiters”. Do not use “To Whom It May Concern.”
One tricky problem has to do with the gendered prefix as you may be uncertain of how the person wants to be identified. For example, someone may identify as gender nonconforming and may be offended by both “Mr.” and “Mrs.” Checking the recipient’s online presence will be helpful.
An alternative approach is to address the person by the full name (e.g. Dear [First Name] [Last Name]). However, such an approach sacrifices professional etiquette. I recommend you stick with the old-fashioned Mr./Mrs. honorifics. As suggested by Berkeley Law’s career resources, a small number of recruiting professionals and attorneys at law firms are attuned to thinking about gender inclusivity.
The first paragraph should be straightforward and include the following items:
- Who you are
- What you want
- Briefly, give the recipient reasons to continue reading. These may include:
- Personal contact (name dropping)
- Interest in particular area and your connection with the practice
- Why fit for the position
- (Tip: an easy attention-getter sentence formula: “As a… with…”)
After reading through all the sample cover letters from Harvard Law School’s office of career services, I developed this formulaic approach to the first paragraph:
First sentence: I am a [first or second year] student at [name of law school] interested in applying for [position] with [employer] at [city].
Second sentence: I (first) learned about your organization/firm from… OR I was excited to learn about the opportunity to … due to my background/interest/experience in …
Third sentence: [establish a more meaningful nexus between the candidate and the employer (e.g., name-drop if appropriate, refer to a relevant past work experience or your connection to the city, etc.) + conclude by stating that this nexus makes the firm attractive to you]
Remember to personalize the approach above. This formula only provides the bare skeleton of your first paragraph. You can certainly add more relevant information concisely.
On the matter of name-dropping in a cover letter, some people may feel unsure about what degree of interaction with an attorney is worthy of name-dropping. If you only had a 10-minute conversation with someone from the firm in a networking event, without following up with a coffee chat or even an email expressing your interests, I’d advise against bringing up the person’s name in a cover letter as if you were family friends.
Name-dropping may backfire even when you are not explicit about your relatively shallow connection with the individual. The risk of exaggerating your network is that the person doesn’t remember you when he/she is asked about you.
If you want to include the name of an attorney that you met only once at a networking event, state that you talked to them during that specific networking event on your cover letter.
The body of the cover letter, consisting of 2-3 paragraphs) are the defining parts of your cover letter. In this section, you should focus on selling your experiences, skills, and other potential contributions you can make to the employer. The purpose of these paragraphs is to give the employer reasons to believe that meeting you will be worth their time and energy.
For example, one way to approach this section is to break it into two parts – one paragraph accounts for your connections/interest in the particular legal market and reasons why you are passionate about the specific employer; another paragraph highlights your personal characteristics/strengths and what you can bring to the position.
Another way to formulate the body is to write about one relevant work/past experience per paragraph.
When trying to weave in your relevant legal skills, consider including the following:
- Negotiation skills
- Client counseling experience
- Interviewing skills
- Legal writing skills
- Research skills
- Litigation skills
As you are highlighting your skills, remember to back them up with personal experiences. You should be showcasing your relevant skills rather than just listing them.
For law students without much practical experience, the employers generally do not expect you to bring highly developed legal skills to the workplace. I’d say that for summer associate and entry level positions, demonstrating strong interest and relevant experience (including courses taken and experience before law school) is more relevant than listing skill sets that you likely have not fully acquired yet.
However, if you are an expert in a particular field or skill, you should say so. Keep in mind that you want to present your experiences while drawing connections to the specific employer and the position you are applying for.
A common mistake by law students is overly focusing on what you would learn from the job. While being passionate about learning sheds positive light on your interest, it does not help the employers to further their institutional goals. Interviews are only offered to candidates who can potentially contribute to the employers something they need. Therefore, focus on what value you can deliver to the firm and how your background can be an asset to their team.
One function of a cover letter is to elaborate upon your experiences listed in the resume. However, do not regurgitate your resume. You should not feel obligated to account for everything on your resume, nor should you attempt to write the cover letter completely independently of the resume. These two documents are meant to be complementary. In the end, your cover letter should further elaborate upon the most pertinent and relevant points from your resume to paint a fuller picture of you for the recruiters.
Closing Paragraph and Structure
There are some standard practices for writing the last paragraph of cover letters. Generally, you should include the following points:
- Thank reader for his/her time and consideration
- Reference enclosed materials
- Express a desire to meet for an interview
- For out-of-town employers, indicate your plan to be in their geographic area (if you actually plan on doing so) and state your availability for interview
- State that you hope to hear back from them soon and to reach out for any further questions
For the signature line, you don’t need to overthink it. A simple “Sincerely,” followed by your name and signature is perfectly fine.
Lastly, proofread your cover letter. Even outstanding cover letters do not guarantee interview opportunities, but careless ones can certainly close doors.
My biggest advice is to be patient and to check to make sure that you have avoided abbreviations, contractions and shortcuts (e.g. “b/f” instead of “before”, or “/” instead of “or”). You should also check certain word choices (e.g., resume is “enclosed,” not “attached,” which suggests physical attachment).
Cover letters can be an important part of your application, but they aren’t determinative. Each firm will value your cover letter somewhat differently, and fewer firms now require a cover letter during OCI. Although your cover letter may not be critical, it is important that it is free of errors and communicates a clear and compelling message about your interests in the firm along with your employability.