The harsh reality is that most cover letters are not even read. Most recruiters and hiring partners flip to the résumé first and read your cover letter only if your credentials merit further consideration.
While your cover letter can’t make you, it certainly can break you. Thus, it should be perfect in terms of grammar, spelling, and format, answer any questions the résumé prompted, and state why you’re appropriate for the particular position sought. If the cover letter is sloppy or doesn’t do its job, even with a great résumé, you run the risk of losing the opportunity to interview. Spell check and proofread it thoroughly — at least twice!
Potential employers, especially in a tight market, receive numerous résumés for each opening. Therefore, you must stand out from the crowd in a positive way. The best way to distinguish yourself is to highlight in your cover letter one or two of your accomplishments or abilities which you believe make you a good fit for that particular position. This is your opportunity to sell yourself. Be honest, not boastful or negative; present the evidence accurately but in the best possible light. You want to let the prospective employer know who you are, what you accomplished, and how you can contribute to their organization.
Your cover letter should be short and straightforward. In most cases, keep it to three to four paragraphs and no more than one page long. Aim for a professional tone, neither overly familiar nor formal. Since covers letter are glanced at very quickly— if read at all—use a conservative and easily read font.
Address your cover letter to someone specific and make sure you have that person’s name, title, and firm name absolutely correct. You can research most firms on the Internet and, quite often, find the hiring partner or recruitment administrator’s name. If not, look up the phone number on their website or in the NALP Directory of Legal Employers (www.nalpdirectory.com) and call to ask the receptionist for the name of the person who receives lateral lawyer résumés. Confirm the spelling, whether it’s “Mr.” or “Ms.”, and that person’s title. If you absolutely cannot find a name, DO NOT use “Dear Sir” (your addressee may be a woman) or “To whom it may concern.” Rather, “Dear Hiring Partner” or “Dear Recruiter” is preferable.
Avoid stilted phraseology. “Attached please find” sounds as if the recipient needs to search carefully to find the hidden résumé. Also steer clear of such legalese as “attached herewith.” Much preferred is “attached is”. Avoid slang, clichés, too much jargon, and abbreviations. While your letter is written in the first person, don’t overuse the pronoun “I.”
You MUST tailor your cover letter for each résumé submission according to the position sought. The first paragraph of your cover letter should state the position for which you’re applying (e.g., litigation associate, corporate counsel, etc.) and the specific location if the firm or company has several offices. If a particular individual referred you to the firm, give that person’s name and make sure it’s spelled correctly. If you have a connection to someone in the firm, point that out. Mention, for example, if you attended college or law school with a current partner or associate, worked on a case or dealt with one or more of the firm’s lawyers, participated in bar association or community activities, or served on a committee or panel with someone in the firm. Even if your connection is personal rather than professional, such as through social activities, sports, or your children, go ahead and reference it.
The body of the letter should state why you’re seeking a new position and, most importantly, why this particular position. Emphasize why you believe you’re a good fit for the firm and the job and what you offer. Demonstrate your knowledge of the firm, such as “your strong financial services practice,” or “your expanding presence in Europe,” or whatever is most relevant. And, show how your background is appropriate. Also answer any questions that may arise from reading the résumé. For example, why are you applying for a position in a new locale? If there’s a gap between your law school graduation and bar admission, or in your job history, briefly explain it.
Your closing paragraph should thank the addressee for his or her consideration and request an interview, such as, “I look forward to meeting with you to discuss this opportunity further”. Inform the prospective employer of the best time and method to reach you (office, home, or cell phone, or e-mail). Use a standard business closing such as “Very truly yours,” or “Sincerely.”
You can attach the cover letter as a pdf document to an email, or you can cut and paste it into the body of the email itself. If attaching a pdf, avoid using your current firm’s letterhead unless you’re a sole practitioner. And don’t forget to date it. If applying via an online job portal, most include a place to upload a pdf of your cover letter. If not, upload it where there is an option for additional comments.
After all that, don’t forget to actually attach your résume!
* Compleat definition: complete, but more so; quintessential.
Archaic spelling of “complete” which, in the U.S., has developed the enhanced meaning. See: http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-com3.htm