Law Firm Cover Letter Summer Associate Interview
Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.
As the owner of a small law firm, I’m always surprised at how many blind résumés I receive in the mail. First of all, who even uses mail anymore? Does anyone seriously think that I’m going take them more seriously because they used cream-colored, 100% cloth, 24-pound bond paper? I’m not.
But forget the résumés for a minute; for me, it’s the cover letter that tells me whether I want to interview this person. Over the years, I’ve received thousands of cover letters from lawyers and law students. I’ve gotten to the point where I really don’t need to read the résumé before I’ve made my decision.
So with that in mind, here are 11 tips for writing cover letters to potential employers.
1. Spell my frikkin’ name right. You’d be astounded at how many times candidates blow this one.…
People are determined to put an a in my name (damn you, Alan B. Shepard). Common mistake? Sure. (I’ve even had people spell my name one way and my firm name another way. It’s the same name.) But this tells me that you can’t be bothered to get it right before you get a job. Why would I think you’d bother trying to get it right after you were hired? My simple rule: Spell my name wrong — you don’t even get a ding letter.
2. Don’t say “Enclosed please find my current résumé.” In fact, don’t ever write “Enclosed please find …” in any letter. What the hell kind of English is that? Does the lady at Dunkin’ hand you a bag and say, “Enclosed please find the donut you ordered”? Plain-English guru Bryan Garner describes this phrase as “archaic deadwood” and points out that business-writing guides have blasted it and similar phrases since 1880. Say instead: “Here is my résumé.” I’ll know what you mean right away, and I’ll think more highly of you.
While we’re at it, you should absolutely have a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage on your desk. If you don’t, you probably don’t care that much about your writing (and it will show).
And as I mentioned in my informational-intervew post, don’t spell résumé without both accents. People who tell you that it’s acceptable to drop the accents don’t belong in a career that involves, you know, words.
3. Don’t tell me how great you are. That’s what your résumé is for. Besides, I’ll decide if you’re really that great, and I won’t base my decision on your opinion. Too many cover letters try to convince me how great it would be for Shepherd Law Group if only I would let the writers come work here. Color me doubtful. I recently had a guy tell me how my firm would be helped by his “tremendous amount of litigation experience.” He graduated from law school in 2009. Seriously?
4. Instead, tell me how great it would be for you to work here. If you don’t know it already, let me clue you in on a poorly kept secret: Most lawyers are egomaniacs. Big firms, small firms: doesn’t matter. I want to hear that you think working for my firm will be the greatest honor you could ever have. It doesn’t matter that I know deep down that that can’t possibly be true. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t really believe it. I still want you to try. But it’s a fine line: don’t sound obsequious.
5. Make sure you know what I do for a living. I keep getting cover letters from people who express an interest in IP law or tax or admiralty (not sure that’s a real field) or corporate law (ditto). That’s swell, but why are you telling me? Like most lawyers, I work pretty hard at telling the world what it is I do in my day job. If you can’t be bothered to Google me, or check out my websites or the three blogs I write for, then please don’t send me your résumé.
6. Speaking of which, mention something you learned when you Googled me. It’s the egomaniac thing again: I’m a sucker for faint praise. Even false faint praise. Tell me you liked something I wrote about the billable hour sucking on The Client Revolution. Or tell me that you like how I use the word “douche” in most of my ATL post titles. Or that you read something about a case I handled back in ’aughty-aught. If you convince me that you actually did do that, your chances of getting an interview rise sharply.
7. I know what you did last summer. That is, if you tell me that you were a summer associate. I don’t need you to give me a laundry list of the different menial activities you did there; I already know what a summer associate does. Same for a junior associate. Telling me that you “participated in a planning session for a mediation” or “research a multifaceted problem to assist a junior associate on an office memorandum” or “attended court for a procedural court hearing in court (although I sat in the back next to a homeless dude)” does not further my understanding. In fact, I’ll never read that, so don’t bother.
8. Ignore well-meaning but dumb advice from your law school. The career-services people want you to get a good job; they really do. And they want to help. But sometimes their advice is really … well, not helpful. For example, over the years I’ve noticed that nearly every cover letter from a Northeastern University School of Law student or graduate contains the same paragraph explaining that school’s unusual (and excellent) co-op program. I don’t mean “similar” paragraphs; I mean exactly the same. I’ve been told that the school advises students to use this paragraph so that would-be employers won’t be put off by the strange schedule and lack of grades. A good thought, I guess. But don’t you think I’m going to notice the same stupid paragraph over and over? Plus, if you get your Google on, you’ll find that I’ve hired four different NU lawyers in the past. And I’m here in Boston, two miles away from the school. In other words, I know how your funky co-op system works.
The lesson here: Don’t ever use stock language in a cover letter.
9. Don’t recite your résumé in your cover letter. I see it attached (“enclosed please find”). If your cover letter reads like a prose version of your résumé, I’m not going to read it. In fact, I probably won’t read either.
10. Tell me how you’re different. Don’t tell me how your interests are travel and reading and foreign-language films and … *nods off* I just don’t care about that, and it’s like job-candidate camouflage; you’re practically invisible with those interests. Instead, tell me the most interesting things about you. I was talking to an informational interview a couple of weeks ago, and his résumé had the usual somnolent interests and activities. Then he told me that he had written three screenplays. Now that’s interesting. Now he’s Screenplay Guy. I’ll remember Screenplay Guy; I’ll never remember Travel and Reading Guy.
11. Finally, write like yourself. Remember that the cover letter is usually the one chance you have to show me how you write. Don’t write how you think lawyers should sound, and for Pete’s sake don’t write like everyone else. Write the way you talk, and then you’ll sound more like you. Because isn’t that what your cover letter is for: to introduce you to me?
Jay Shepherd has run the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group for the past 13 years. Jay also runs Prefix, LLC, which helps lawyers and clients value and price legal services. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Click here to view a collection of attorney resume and cover letter resources written by experienced legal recruiters.
Cover letters can be tricky, especially for someone who has been off the market for some time. You want to show yourself in the best possible light, but many cover letters focus on the wrong elements and can easily lose the attention of the decision-makers that are reviewing your submission package.
The best use of the cover letter is not to re-state your resume in paragraph form, but to anticipate questions that the recruitment coordinator or partners may have and to provide these answers in a concise, yet comprehensive way.
Here's what the law firms will want to know:
What you offer them:
Why should they hire you? Firms are interviewing attorneys because they have a problem. They have a need to fill. You have to be their solution. Yes, you went to an excellent law school and have terrific experience. You should state this concisely in the cover letter, but employers will already have seen this on your resume. In addition to your law school and the title of your firm, think about accomplishments that may not be on your resume (or something listed that you can expand upon, briefly). This can be something from law school or during your practice as an attorney.
What are your best legal attributes? The best way to tackle this issue is by quoting what third parties have said about you. If you have a quote from recent review that you feel illustrates your positive qualities as an attorney, include it in the letter. Did you receive specific praise from a client? Include it in the letter. You may truly believe that you are an exceptional attorney and you may be (let's face it, everyone states his or her greatness in a cover letter), but when your best qualities are represented by comments from third party, your assertions are validated.
Why you are interested in other opportunities:
Sometimes you just want "a change," right? Well, that explanation is not going to cut it from the law firm perspective. Employers want to know that you have solid career objectives and a good "head on your shoulders." They tend to not hire attorneys that don't have a reasonable explanation for their job search, since this can reflect a lack of judgment. However, you need to be sure that this explanation reflects positively upon you. It's NOT a good idea to bash your current firm or come off as complaining or negative. The best reasons for seeking new opportunities should always be to better yourself as an attorney and take a step closer to your overall career objective.
Here are some good explanations for wanting to lateral to a new firm:
Geography: You needed to relocate. Perhaps your significant other obtained a position in a different city. Maybe you are seeking to be closer to family/friends, or returning to a place you once lived. If the firm you are applying to is in a different location, it is essential that you establish your connection to the area.
Practice Area: You are interested in expanding or narrowing your practice area. Your current firm is staffing you on a variety of matters, but you seek to specify your practice so that you can become an expert in one area. Conversely, if your firm is limiting the type of work that you're handling, you might be seeking to broaden your practice gain a greater exposure to more areas.
Growth: You feel that you have reached a plateau in a certain position and need to make a lateral move to enhance your growth as an attorney. Perhaps you are seeking a position that would allow you to conduct depositions or give you first or second-chair experience. Maybe you are interested in running your own cases or having greater client contact.
Platform: This is a particularly crucial area for Partners and for associates that are interested in developing business (which, honestly, should be the majority of you). Perhaps, you are currently at a regional law firm, but have opportunities to develop business from another state and are looking to lateral to a firm with a national presence. Or, you are at a specialty tax boutique and your clients have additional labor/employment matters that they would like to send your way, but cannot because your current firm does not support that type of business. In essence, you are seeking to lateral to a firm that has a platform that can better suit your clients and be more conducive to you developing business.
Your PAST Moves - Why you previously moved from XXX LLP to YYY LLP:
Again, employers want to see that you have good judgment. Every one of your lateral moves should make logical sense according to your career objective. All of the reasons mentioned above can also be used as explanations for past moves. Even if you have a number of lateral moves on your resume, the proper narrative can help your cause immensely.
However, if you previously transitioned to a new firm with a partner or group, this should be made abundantly clear in the cover letter (and on the resume, for that matter). If the partner you were primarily working for invited you along to his or her new firm, this speaks volumes about your value as an attorney.
What you are seeking in a new position:
Prior to the interview, firms will want to be certain that what you are seeking in a new position is something in line with what they can offer you. You can keep this concise, but you will want to reflect why a position with their firm will help you meet your career objective. Firms do not want to bring on a new attorney, spend a few months acclimating this attorney, and then have that individual realize they are not happy. You know what you want - and they are the type of firm you want.
Many recruitment coordinators will not read your entire cover letter. They will review your resume and transcript and see if those documents inspire any questions. Then, they will go to the cover. Anticipate the questions and make the answers easy to find. A great way to do this is by piecing the cover letter together in sections and giving each section a heading. Feel free to BOLD or underline section headings and important information.
See 6 Things Attorneys and Law Students Need to Remove from Their Resumes ASAP If They Want to Get Jobs with the Most Prestigious Law Firms for more information.
Employers can have a tendency to assume the worst. Law firms are continually inundated with solid resumes and gatekeepers are trained to look for flaws in the applications. If you can anticipate the questions they may have about your submission and use the cover letter to answer the "holes" on your resume in an efficient way, you prevent them from contriving their own explanations and give yourself the opportunity to be seen in the best possible light, and the best chance at securing an interview!
Learn why attorneys usually fail law firm phone-screening interviews in this article: