Why should you write a cover letter? Aren't employers just going to turn to the resume right away, since they don’t have time to read cover letters? While it may be true that some people don't read cover letters, it is also true that some employers not only read them, but also consider them important. Many will view it as your first writing sample. And, since the vast majority of legal work is written work, it is a good idea to put your best foot forward.
There are two opposite, yet equally wrong, myths about cover letters that we must dispel right away. First: “A cover letter is just a rehashing of the resume.” Wrong - that would be a waste of time. A cover letter which recites one's experience in reverse chronological order is a duplication of the resume. Second: “You shouldn't use anything from your resume in a cover letter.” Wrong again - you don’t need to come up with totally new material. A cover letter which is completely unconnected to the resume may do you a disservice if the letter and resume are ever separated.
You should strive for a middle ground: a strong cover letter introduces your resume by highlighting the components which are most relevant to the job and supplements the resume with important information which does not easily fit on the resume. For example, say that you are applying to work for an environmental organization in Montana. On your resume, you have indicated that you belong to the law school's environmental group and that you volunteered for Earth Justice last summer. Obviously, those two pieces of information should be included in the cover letter. In addition, your Aunt Trudy lives in Montana and you visited her every summer during high school. This is a great fact that doesn’t fit nicely on the resume, but is perfect for inclusion in the cover letter.
Appearance, Form, Style
Within the constraints of standard form and style, the letter should express your individuality. That said, do try to limit the letter to three-quarters of a page in length. Remember, your letter will be read by someone with limited time and needs to be designed for clarity and impact.
Your name, address, and telephone number should be typed on the letter. It is preferable to use standard business form, with your address and telephone number and the date at the top right, and the addressee's name, title, and address at the left, above the salutation. At the close of the letter, your full name should be typed just below your signature. Letters should be addressed using the appropriate title in the salutation. Never use a first name unless you know the addressee personally. Ms. should be used if a woman's preference is not otherwise clear. The cover letter template illustrates the typical business correspondence style to which your letter should conform.
Like the resume, your cover letter should be carefully drafted and typed. Don't just rely on spell check, since some mistakes will not be caught by spell check. Have a friend read over the final draft to make sure that it is typo-free, as your ability to draft a perfect document is of great importance to all legal employers. Your letter should reflect your ability to select significant information, organize it coherently, and present it “like a lawyer”.
To whom do I send my letter of application?
- Every letter you send must be addressed to an actual person, since it will likely be thrown away if it does not have a clear recipient. In writing to employers at which you do not know the name of the addressee, there are several options:
- The Hiring Attorney or Recruitment Administrator by name (call the office)
- An alumnus/a of Cornell Law School or your undergraduate institution (ask to have it forwarded to the person in charge of hiring or write two letters)
- An attorney who has something in common with your background or interests. Use the attorney directory from Martindale to reseach attorneys and practice areas.
What do I put in the letter?
First paragraph: Who Are You, Why are You Writing, Why this Employer?
The first paragraph of the letter should identify you as a Cornell law student and indicate the kind of position you are seeking (summer or permanent). In addition, you should express the reason you have selected the employer, (e.g., long range goals, interest in practice, desire to live in that geographic area), calling attention to anything you may have on your resume, or in your background, that attracts you.
I am currently a first-year student at Cornell Law School, and I am seeking employment in Washington, D.C. this coming summer. While attending Georgetown as an undergraduate, I formed many friendships in the Washington area, and I would like to practice law there upon my graduation. Further, my interest in working for the Federal Trade Commission grew out of my work at the National Association of Manufacturers, where I became acquainted with several attorneys who worked in your office.
Second Paragraph: What Do You Have to Offer?
This paragraph should begin with a topic sentence indicating the skill(s)/interest(s) that will be useful to the employer. Then, use the remainder of the paragraph to demonstrate these skill(s)/interest(s) using specific examples from your experience and education. You can draft two paragraphs of this kind if you have two distinct themes you’d like to present.
To your firm I will bring strong research, analytical, and writing skills. I began developing these skills as an undergraduate, where I served as an investigative reporter for my college newspaper. In that capacity, I researched and wrote approximately 25 articles in each 14-week semester. In addition, having double majored in English and Sociology, I analyzed primary research materials and drafted a 50-page senior honors thesis on cross-cultural linguistic differences. Here at Cornell, I am adapting these skills to the legal context through Cornell's first-year legal research and writing course, Lawyering.
I am committed to using my lawyering skills to help the accused. This interest began when, as an undergraduate, I volunteered as a tutor at a juvenile detention center. Here in law school, that interest has grown as I have worked at Cornell's Death Penalty Project, where I have researched and written a brief submitted to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Your organization’s specialization in death penalty defense coincides with my career goals.
Closing paragraph: What Do You Want To Do About It?
Use the final paragraph to request an interview. Suggest a time you will be available:
I am planning a visit to Washington during the week of ____ and would like to meet with you then, or at your convenience, to discuss the possibility of my employment with the Commission this summer. I have enclosed a completed SF-171 and a copy of my undergraduate transcript. My law school grades will be available at the end of January. Thank you for your consideration.
If your firm is interested in considering me for a summer position, I would be happy to fly to ____ for an interview at your convenience. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you.
Merely sending a resume and cover letter may or may not get you an interview. It is often a good idea to call a possible employer to inquire about the receipt of your packet, and to find out more about their hiring time line. This is especially true for government employers whose mail may not come to them directly. Rather than being considered rude, many employers indicate that this kind of follow up shows your interest and commitment.
Should you send your application materials via email or snail mail?
When making this decision, first visit the employer's website and follow any directions posted there. But, if the employer does not state a preference as to mailing method, snail mail is always acceptable and email is widely accepted as well. If you choose to send your materials electronically, maintain the same high standards of grammar and punctuation as you would in any business correspondence. Because emailed application materials are often printed by the employer for distribution to interviewers, you should send your cover letter as an attachment, rather than in the body of the email. Keep the email body text brief, directing the reader to the attachments.