Wednesday, January 20, 2016

More on the Cover Letter as an Important Link in the Law Placement Chain

Employers and hiring coordinators are busy people.  Like law review editorial boards, they get many more qualified submissions than they need for the openings they have.  One of our challenges in advising students in the job search game is making their submissions stand out.  Of course, personal connections and timing are very helpful in this regard.  But résumés and cover letters also are important and may make a real difference in obtaining interviews and getting desired offers of employment.  

As we settle into the new semester, my unemployed 3L students have begun to seek help from me in their quest to launch their careers post-graduation. One resource I highlight is the BLPB.  Co-blogger Haskell Murray earlier posted some super information about résumés and interviews.  I followed, at his suggestion, with a post on cover letters (and then one on following up with firms that have not initially extended an interview invitation).  This post adds some new details on cover letters that respond to common mistakes I see and questions I have been asked about my earlier post on that topic.

Specifically, I want to describe better the key personalized part of the cover letter--the body of the letter between the introductory and closing paragraphs.  This is the segment of the letter that, if everything else looks and sounds right, calls the applicant out on an individualized basis and holds the promise of positively distinguishing her or him from other applicants.  Here's what I said about this section of the cover letter in my original post:

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.

There's a lot in that passage!  Note also that the comments to that original post add a bit more on some of these (and other) matters.  Critical embedded messages in the quoted paragraph include the desirability of:

  • presenting customized information that directly addressees the job requirements set forth in the position announcement (or any other manifestations of the prospective employer's needs and wants);
  • demonstrating, rather than characterizing, the applicant's "fit" through the information provided;
  • avoiding mere repetition of information included in your résumé; and
  • avoiding the use of unnecessary adjectives and adverbs.

I address each in turn below.

Many first-draft cover letters sent to me for review are generic, one-size-fits-all propositions.  They typically evidence a solid knowledge of the employer's business and refer generally to a title or position but do not indicate a clear understanding of the related job requirements or offer a summary of the student's relevant knowledge, skills, or experience (i.e., information showing that the student satisfies those requirements).  As a result, these early drafts tend to focus more on why the student would like to work for the employer (sometimes rather cloyingly) than why the employer would want to hire the student to achieve its goals.  Don't get me wrong.  Most places want to hire folks who genuinely want to work there.  But first and foremost, employers want to hire people who can satisfy their labor requirements.

Once the student has identified and can articulate the job requirements for the open position with some specificity, the student needs to demonstrate her or his ability to meet those requirements.  One way to do this that I suggest to students (and it's also a good way to prepare for interviews) is through the PAR method.  Essentially, the method involves creating and relating stories (involving a problem that the student resolved with her or his actions) that show the relevance of the student's knowledge, skills, or experience to the requirements of the open position.  This is hard to do well, but it's worth the effort in the long run.

Advisors on cover letter and résumé drafting always seem to mention that applicants should not waste the time of the reader and the space in a one-page cover letter by repeating information from their résumés in the cover letter.  Students often complain to me that this is an impossible bit of advice to follow since everything important they have done is on their résumés.  Right.  Check.  But in every case, a PAR story will take an experience (which may include one mentioned in a résumé) and offer significant contextualized information about it that goes beyond a typical résumé notation.  The key is to not simply highlight résumé data by mentioning it in your cover letter.  (E.g., "Last summer, I worked for the District Attorney General for Knox County, Tennessee researching and writing briefs on various criminal law topics.")  Show the reader why your experiences are relevant.

Finally, I see a significant number of cover letters that use strident adjectives and adverbs to help make their points.  The sentences in these letters tend to smack of over-claiming.  Also, in many cases, these adjectives and adverbs represent poor substitutes for well-chosen PAR stories.  Most employers are likely to be more favorably disposed to the documentation of specific facts substantiating an applicant's suitability for an open position than they would be to sentences consisting of self-selected (and sometimes over-blown) characterizations of the applicant's suitability for that position.

For example, if a student determines that strong writing skills are important to a particular position, the student may be tempted to merely note in the cover letter that she or he is a compelling writer.  It would be more useful and persuasive, however, to draft a short factual description of a context in which the student's ability to communicate in writing solved a particular problem--maybe one from a past job (sanitized to prevent the disclosure of client confidences, of course) or maybe one arising out of a course or extracurricular activity.  An illustration involving a specific type of writing required for the position being sought (e.g., contract drafting, disclosure drafting, memo drafting, etc.)--or a problem potentially relevant to the position--is likely to be most effective.

I realize that my approach to drafting the body of the cover letter is more difficult to implement in practice than it is to describe.  But (as with most skills), experience over time improves the quality of the work product and allows for the generation of increasingly efficient drafts.  It also seems worth noting that, by working with students to create these PAR stories, I learn a lot more about the students' strengths and weaknesses, better enabling me to advise them in identifying appropriate employment prospects and networking connections.  It's a win-win-win situation.  Job-seeking students, prospective employers, and advising faculty or staff members all get something out of this process.

Let me know in the comments if you have additional questions or advice on this aspect of cover letter drafting.  Qualified applicants should make sure that they identify and capitalize on every advantage available to them in the job search process.  I know all of us at the BLPB understand that and want to support our students in finding suitable positions from which they can launch their careers.  Maybe this post will prompt one of my co-bloggers to generate and post some additional helpful thoughts on résumés or interviews in the comments or a new post soon . . . ?

Haskell Murray, Joan Heminway, Law School | Permalink


Great advice! Show the employer that you have done your research - they want to know why you selected them, why you think that they are unique. It takes time, but it will make your letters much, much better. As a law school career adviser, I've read hundreds of letters, and the best ones sound like good conversations, or at least, good “elevator speeches.” Read your letter out loud after you write it! Does it flow? Does it sound genuine? Would you interview this person if you received this letter? Your resume is what it is; use it AND your best persuasive writing skills in your cover letter to compel the reader to want to meet you.

Posted by: Kay Brown | Jan 20, 2016 1:28:39 PM

Thanks, Kay. (Note to readers: Kay is one of our staff professionals in the Career Center at UT Law.) Research is so important to all of this. And I agree that employers "want to know why you selected them, why you think that they are unique." But I think students sometimes emphasize that piece over the very important need to show the employer that they have knowledge, skills, and experience that the employer needs. Hence my emphasis on that part in the post . . . .

Also, your advice about using solid persuasive writing skills is very important. It's not just what you say, but how you say it. I like your idea about reading the letter aloud for flow and sound. I sometimes do that with important pieces of academic and nonacademic writing. I do think it helps.

Thanks for all these thoughts. Great stuff.

Posted by: joanheminway | Jan 20, 2016 1:42:12 PM

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