Monday, October 6, 2014

Cover Letters for Legal Job Applications

As on-campus interviews slow down, a lot of students now are coming to me looking for cover letter advice.  Since co-blogger Haskell Murray more-or-less asked me to write on this topic in response to a comment on his super post on resumes and interviews, I thought I would take the bait.  My principal thoughts on the subject are set forth below the fold.  Some of my observations and elements of my advice are conservative and anally compulsive, I know.  But consider the source:  I worked in Big Law for fifteen years before I started teaching law and served on a number of office hiring committees over that time. 

Thee are many good websites out there on cover letter drafting.  Most of the advice they give is good, but it is somewhat varied.  There are some things common and traditional in law job cover letters that may help students sift through the Internet prattle and settle on specific approaches.  That's the overlay I hope to offer here.

I start with the address blocks, date, and reference line.  Put your name and address front-and-center on the page.  If you have an address local to the employer, you may want to use it here (or you may prefer to refer to local ties/a local address in the first paragraph of the letter, as indicated below).  Some people like the sender's name and address flush right, but I think it looks odd/non-normative to write the letter that way.  Those who do not indent paragraphs in the body of the letter (see below) often like to put their name and address flush left (like everything else in the letter).  This is OK in my view, but it creates a very left-weighted letter. 

The date comes next, typically flush right (but often flush left if you are not indenting paragraphs in the body of the letter). 

Put the addressee's name and address on the left.  Most conservative lawyers frown on the use of "[Name], Attorney-at-law" in the recipient address block where the recipient is a licensed lawyer.  Clearly acceptable/appropriate for licensed lawyers: "[Name], Esq."  So, "Joan Heminway, Esq." not "Joan Heminway, Attorney-at-Law."  And for judges, you should use "The Honorable [Name]," not "Judge [Name]." 

[Sidebar on that:  In East Tennessee, most practitioners use "Judge" when addressing the judiciary in person at, e.g., bar association events.  But it is more appropriate in New York and New England and probably other parts of the country to use "Your Honor" in these circumstances.  Just something to be sensitive to in personal encounters . . . .]

The reference (or "re") line includes information to highlight the purpose of the letter.  I recommend something simple:  the position title, followed by a dash, followed by your name, all underscored.  So, for me, the re line might look like this:

Re:   Summer Associate - Joan M. Heminway

If the letter responds to a job posting and the employer has listed a position title, use that.  (By the way, always follow the instructions given in a job posting.  Applicants who fail to do so may be screened out automatically as a matter of policy.  Plus, compliance indicates you have good reading skills and know how to follow written instructions.)

Then, there's the salutation.  Hopefully, you have the name of someone to whom the letter is to be directed.  In that case, you would begin the letter "Dear [insert appropriate personal or, as and if applicable, professional title] [insert last name of person]" followed by a colon.  So, the typical letter to a hiring partner or hiring coordinator would begin with

Dear Ms. Heminway:


Dear Dr. Heminway:

(if, e.g., the employer representative has a Ph.D. as some hiring coordinators do).  Unless you know that it is normative, do not use the salutation "Dear Attorney [last name]."  Although accepted by some, it is considered too informal or otherwise inappropriate by others. 

If you do not have the name of a person to whom the letter should be sent, I advise beginning the letter with the salutation "Ladies and Gentlemen" (again followed by a colon).  I am not a fan of "To Whom It May Concern," although many think it's fine.

Next, there's the introductory paragraph.   The first paragraph is your summary and should provide a bit of a road map.  It's critical to get this right.  It is the first chance you have to communicate efficiently and effectively.  Here's what I typically recommend.  Focus the first paragraph on briefly telling the recipient who you are (in a way that’s relevant), indicating the position you are applying for, and summarizing why you’d be a good fit for the position.  Three sentences, one on each matter, should do it.  The summary in the last sentence should be targeted specifically to the job description and ordered in the way you intend to address those same points in the body of the letter (subsequent paragraphs that demonstrate your suitability for the position).  This is also a good place to mention local ties and, if you have one, a referral source (e.g., "Joan Heminway suggested that I contact you about this opening.")

The body of the letter is the most important as a matter of content.  It is where you get to show that you have what the employer needs and wants for the position.  You should rely on any position announcement you have to write this part of the letter.  If there is no announcement or other position description, seek information about or rely on your knowledge of the position to identify the employer's needs and wants.  Summarize for yourself from those needs and wants the specific skills and experience being sought by the employer.  Then, demonstrate, preferably by example, how you fill these needs and satisfy these wants in a few (no more than three) short paragraphs.  Avoid repeating what's on your resume and refrain from using characterizing adjectives and adverbs.  Show the reader that you are a good fit and among the most qualified folks for the job.  Don't just say it.

The final paragraph is the last chance you have to make a positive impression as a written communicator and potential colleague.  Indicate (if you have not already) any materials that are being sent along with the letter (resume, unofficial transcript, etc.).  Express appreciation for the review of your materials.  If you are not then living in the same city/town as the employer but plan to be in town in the near future, you might want to note that, in case an in-person meeting may be productive.  Alternatively, you may want to suggest a phone call or even a Skype or other video conference for remote employers.  Express your willingness to have that meeting, call, or video conference and offer additional information should it be helpful to the employer in assessing your suitability for the position.  Finally, reference/re-state your contact information for that purpose. 

Closings are a matter of some debate.  I always was taught to sign off in a business letter using 'Very truly yours," "Truly yours," or "Yours truly."  These closings are supposed to be less "familiar" than, say, "Sincerely."  Some hiring partners and other law employers are, like me, somewhat old-school.  So, I stand by that old-school approach.

Other niceties, like paper choice (for hard copy submissions, rare these days), formatting, and fonts also deserve some attention.

There's nothing that beats a nice white or light ivory bond paper for a cover letter (and resume--the paper ideally should match).  I personally favor cotton rag bond of a slightly heavier weight than normal printer paper.  Nothing too textured, but a subtle texture can be nice.  I am advised that (among other things) grey-colored paper and paper with significant background textures photocopies poorly--making the cover letter look muddy.

Keep the letter to one page.  It's an introduction and executive summary.  Employers do not want to read long cover letters, and you run the risk that all the effort you've put in will be for naught if yours is too long.

The standard formal cover letter has indented paragraphs, in my experience.  Regardless, if you start off indenting paragraphs, then do it the whole way through.  If you start off drafting the letter without indented paragraphs, then be consistent with that approach.

Set margins to at least one inch and add a line of space between paragraphs.  Both of these measures add white space that makes the letter easier to read.  But you may want to avoid double-spacing between sentences.  A colleague informs me that double-spacing between sentences is a sign that the letter comes from someone of a certain age (like, uh, my age).  Apparently, younger applicants are taught to keyboard (which we used to refer to as typing) with one space in between sentences.  Take that for what it's worth if you are an older applicant (or want to look/avoid looking like one!).

That same colleague who noted the single-space-between-sentences effect informed me that he will not give up his sacred Times New Roman 12-point typeface.  And I will not ask him to!  I think that's a fine choice for conservative lawyer-types.  But many commentators prefer the sans serif typefaces (e.g., Arial, Calibri) to the sarif fonts (e.g., Times new Roman or Garamond).  Really, any simple, open font will do, and I am OK with going down to 11-point type in some of them.  Ultimately, keep the text clean, open, and (at the risk of repetition of this point ad nauseam) easy to read.

Don't overuse bolding, underscoring, or italics.  Carefully choose which elements of your resume use which typeface style, then use that style consistently.  Too many different styles in a one-page cover letter or resume look too busy.  So, stick to two or three style conventions in a single-page document.

Of course, the last observation should go without saying.  There should be no misspellings, grammatical or typographical errors, or internal inconsistencies in your letter.  Show your attention to detail!

The bottom line? Haskell advised that he thought employers want to know whether interviewees are capable, likable, and dedicated.  I don't disagree, and employers use cover letters as well as resumes and interviews to screen for those three things.  When it comes to cover letters, however, employers also use them as early screening devices to determine written communication capabilities, including document and sentences structure, grammar, punctuation, word choice and usage, editing skill, and attention to detail.  An employer may not even look at your resume or invite you in for an interview if the cover letter makes the wrong impression.  So, have someone (preferably, more than one person) read your cover letter to help make it error-free and effective.  Most of us can spot errors easier in someone else's work than we can in our own.

Along those lines, I invite others to fill gaps in my observations/advice, offer counterpoints, and add their wisdom.  This post just covers my top-level advice.  I am sure you have more to say on the subject.  Let's help make sure that our qualified students are not rejected in job applications because they present their qualifications poorly.  Although our placement/career services professionals do work with our students on these issues, I have found that some law students do not take advantage of these services or are more receptive to faculty advice on these matters (even in difficult employment times, where you would think any and all advice would be sought and used . . .).

Joan Heminway, Law School | Permalink


This is excellent. Thank you, Joan. I sent your post to my entire Business Associations class. I haven’t seen the “Ladies and Gentleman” salutation, and I have used “To Whom It May Concern” before, but I agree that you want to try to find the appropriate individual instead, if at all possible. At most decent sized firms, this person can be located on the law firm’s website.

Hard to believe that I am “of a certain age” already, but I was taught to double-space between sentences as well. That said, I have started to move to one-space because some legal publications seem to prefer the single space between sentences.

The attention to detail in your post – concerning each part of the cover letter – confirms what I have been telling my students: most good attorneys care about details and attention to detail is an important skill for lawyers. I am not sure whether people in other professions examine the cover letters and resumes quite as closely as those in law, but I know I paid close attention to the details when evaluating candidates.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Oct 6, 2014 2:16:16 PM

Thanks for the support, Haskell--and the cattle prod in the butt! Let me know if your students have any questions, OK?

Posted by: joanheminway | Oct 6, 2014 2:20:27 PM

Here are some thoughts from two of my FB friends that I think are relevant to readers.

One friend, after endorsing my advice to refrain from repeating in the cover letter what's on your resume, comments that it's "amazing how many people miss a chance to showcase writing and reasoning abilities" by choosing to write a transmittal letter rather than a formal cover letter. He also advises readers to "make your case, but do not oversell your abilities or experiences. It's obvious when someone is stretching, and it's especially frustrating when someone oversells, gets an interview, and is plainly not who she or he claimed to be. A related pet peeve of mine is when someone tries to take all the credit for something that was done as a team or with a group -- really shows a lack of judgment. The opposite would be true too -- doling out undue credit to others looks like someone is trying too hard."

Another friend adds: “I have seen a lot of people who send a resume and also a transcript. It is amazing how many people round off their GPA and it accidentally gets rounded up instead of rounded down. In fact, I have yet to see a GPA that was improperly rounded down.” He goes on to observe that “the impression that you leave is this: you are either careless or dishonest. Neither is a good quality.”

All good points, imho.

Posted by: joanheminway | Oct 6, 2014 10:10:48 PM

Another worthy comment from a FB friend (and former student) emphasizes the need to proofread and write about your "fit" for the job with specificity:

"I am having my first experience right now wading through resumes and cover letters for a new attorney position for a grant I just got. What an interesting experience! I am stunned at the amount of typos and grammatical errors. I guess I thought that was a given. And . . . at least tell me in your cover letter why you're interested in THIS type of work! It's in a very specific area . . . so just saying "my attention to detail and excellent writing skills as shown by my work on law review/my summer job/etc."... is not enough for me."

A good cover letter is written to be specific to the job. It's OK to standardize certain things in a cover letter, but the letter should speak to qualifications--knowledge and experience--relevant to the specific position for which the sender is applying.

Posted by: joanheminway | Oct 8, 2014 8:43:00 AM

Hi Joan - I realize I'm commenting on a very old post but I thought you might be interested in this, if you hadn't already seen it:

Posted by: Ann Lipton | Mar 12, 2015 11:36:33 AM

Ann, that link is precious. And being an NYU School of Law alum, I appreciate the author's references to the career services folks there, too. Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: joanheminway | Mar 12, 2015 11:47:37 AM

There are a few things normal and conventional in law work introductory letters that may enable understudies to filter through the Internet drivel and settle on explicit methodologies. understudies currently are coming to me searching for introductory letter counsel.

Posted by: Ryan Winner | May 18, 2019 1:09:38 AM

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