Something about drafting 2-3 short paragraphs for a cover letter causes law students to a) start using legalese and passive voice; b) engage in avoidance techniques whereby they spend 18 hours perfecting their résumé and 2.2 minutes preparing and editing a cover letter; or c) curl up in a fetal position. As if that weren’t enough, more than one employer has joked that a decent cover may not get you the job, but even the smallest typos can make an employer dismiss you—just like a résumé! On the bright side, like a résumé, once you put some effort into draft a good cover letter, it can be altered and edited to submit to a variety of employers. This article briefly reviews the purposes of cover letters and a few “do’s” and “don’t’s.” For more helpful information, review your PDO Handbook (1L’s—you will get a Handbook in your Gibby file if you attend both your orientations this week), and PDO handouts on the subject (some links at the end of this article).
The basic purposes of a cover letter are to 1) briefly introduce yourself to the prospective employer; 2) identify the position in which you are interested; and 3) show particularized interest in the employer you are applying to and the things that they do. Cover letters can also serve other functions, including to refer to a helpful personal connection you have with the prospective employer, or to “overcome” a potential problem raised by your résumé. Here, typical issues are whether you are truly interested in living in the place where the employer is located (employers care a lot about geography) and whether you are truly interested in doing the employer’s type of work.
Some Basic Do’s:
Before you draft it, think about what you would say to this employer if you had only a few minutes to talk about yourself and explain why you want to work for them.
Have no typos.
Write well, in active voice, plain English, and brief sentences.
Show that you have researched the employer, and consider highlighting a practice area of interest or a personal trait which will fit in well with the employer. Summarize your experience, or explain something which is not evident from the résumé.
Highlight a helpful personal connection. If you have a real “in” with the employer, you might mention it. But, be careful to avoid looking like you are simply name dropping.
Some Basic Don’ts:
DON’T state your name in the letter’s first paragraph. (“My name is Chuck Wu.”) An employer can read your name in your letterhead and signature.
DON’T submit cover letters which are more than a few paragraphs. Lawyers are busy.
DON’T have typos in your cover letter. Have two people read them carefully.
DON’T mention inaccurate research on the employer. Be sure any information you include is up to date. You may wish to check multiple sources—websites, PDO, and classmates.
Simply restate your résumé.
Come off as arrogant.