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Public Sector Cover Letters

Introduction:

Drafting a cover letter to a government agency or non-profit employer is different, in some ways, from drafting a cover letter to other types of employers.  (See a general discussion of cover letters on the Career Office website.)  

As your first writing sample, it must convey to the employer that you are dedicated to serving its clients and its larger mission.  It should be tailored to each employer and opportunity – a boiler-plate letter won’t cut it.  This is your first and best chance to make your case.  Don’t waste it!

Specifically, your cover letter must demonstrate:

  • you understand the mission of the employer;
  • you understand what the lawyers and/or interns at that organization do
  • you want to serve that mission and perform that legal work due to your background and interests; and
  • you would bring the employer specific skills and knowledge to serve that mission and perform that legal work.

General Letter Structure:

Write a one-page document with no more than four paragraphs.  Here is a suggested template:

Paragraph one:

  • Identify yourself and the position you seek
  • Communicate that you understand the mission of the employer and what their attorneys do.
  • For internships, interns may not do the same work as that of seasoned attorneys; think about what the senior lawyers do and consider what an intern might do to help them.  Articulate this understanding.
  • Discuss why you want to do this work for this employer, using details from your background and experience to support your interest.

Paragraph two:

  • Identify a skill or knowledge set that would be important to this employer.  For all legal employers, research and writing skills are essential, so typically include a paragraph on this skill set.
  • Start with a topic sentence which introduces the paragraph.  E.g.,”To your office I will bring strong legal research and writing skills.” 
  • In the three or four remaining sentences, use concrete examples to support your topic sentence’s claim. 
  • To the extent possible, choose examples which are relevant to the employer.  For example, if you are discussing your writing skills, emphasizing that you wrote on a criminal law topic in your first year legal research and writing class would be an excellent choice for a criminal law employer.

Paragraph three:

  • Discuss another skill or knowledge set that would be useful to the employer. 
  • Choose a skill which shows you understand the nature of work and have the skills contribute to its completion. 
  • Or write about your substantive knowledge in a relevant area of law.
  • Or consider highlighting something that is not readily apparent on your resume, like your capacity for hard work. 
  • As in paragraph two, start with a topic sentence and support that claim with concrete examples.

Final paragraph:

  • List the additional application materials enclosed with the letter. 
  • In the absence of specific instructions to the contrary, a cover letter and resume are all you need to send in an initial application packet.
  • Offer to send additional application materials, if needed.   
  • Indicate when you will be in the employer’s area should the employer wish to speak with you in person.
  • Thank the reader for his/her consideration and time.

PLANNING EXAMPLES:

Before you sit down to write, developing a plan for your cover letter is essential.  Review the following two examples to see how good planning can make writing the letter both easier and more effective.

Letter Planning Example: 2L applying to a state prosecutor’s offic

Brainstorm:

  • You know that district attorneys prosecute crimes against people and property to keep our communities safe, redress individual harms, deter future crimes and potentially rehabilitate criminal offenders.  
  • You have a sense that prosecutors spend a lot of time in court, arguing their cases before judges and juries. 
  • Finally, you would guess that prosecutors, like all lawyers, must spend some of their time researching the law and writing briefs. 

Gather More Information:

  • Review “The Official Guide to Legal Specialties” book by Lisa Abrams, a copy of which we gave you as a 1L.  It contains useful descriptions of the daily work of prosecutors, the kinds of cases they work on, the skills they find most important, and the types of classes and law-school activities which would best prepare you for this kind of practice. 
  • Do some internet searching.  Review the prosecutor’s website, if possible.   Search the net to find general information about the work of prosecutors. One excellent site is PSJD.   On the left navigation bar of the main page, you will see “Career Central,” which provides advice links on many public-sector employers, including prosecutors.  Also, you can use Lexis to do a news search to find high profile cases which the office has recently prosecuted
  • Talk to people who have worked at that particular office or one like it.  Many Cornell students have interned for district attorneys over the years and many Cornell alumni practice in the public sector. 

Identify your Motivation:

  • Now that you understand what prosecutors do, you need to come up with reasons, based on concrete experiences, for why you want to do that work.  
  • Delve into your personal background, think about coursework, consider extra-curricular activities, recall influential people and events, and think about articles or books you’ve read.
  • Especially if you have a geographic tie to the area, you can state that keeping the community safe and doing justice are motivating to you.

Demonstrate your Research and Writing Skills:

  • List the research and writing experience you have gained.  
  • In particular, focus on research and writing experience pertaining to criminal law matters. 
  • Don’t forget to consider researching and writing that you did as an undergraduate, in jobs and internships, and in extra-curricular activities.

Connect with the Job:

  • Show the employer you understand the particulars of their work.
  • For example, with a district attorney’s office, you might demonstrate that you understand that their lawyers have to sort through a great deal of important factual information from police records, witnesses, investigators and victims.
  • Emphasizing that you understand this aspect of the job and that you have experience analyzing, organizing and distilling voluminous information will show the employer that you are both interested in this position and a good match for it.

Letter Planning Example: 3L applying to the EEOC’s Honors Program

Brainstorm:

  • You may know that the EEOC works to ensure that all people, irrespective of their race, gender, national of origin, age, disability and religion are not discriminated against by employers, government entities and educational institutions.  
  • You likely have a generalized sense that their lawyers engage in a great deal of fact gathering, pre-trial practice, negotiation, trial work and appellate litigation. 
  • You might guess that the EEOC has something to do with larger issues like routing out systemic discrimination on behalf of large groups and serving other federal agencies.

Gather More Information:

  • Surf the web: the EEOC’s website is extremely informative.  There, you will get a comprehensive understanding of the agency’s mission, the particular laws it enforces, and how its lawyers do that.  In addition, it would be helpful for you to read the General Counsel’s annual reports.
  • Check out PSJD.  In addition to general advice for federal government job seekers, a quick search of that site also revealed a first-person narrative written by a current EEOC attorney.
  • Talk to people who have worked at that particular office or one like it.  Many Cornell students have interned for the EEOC over the years and some Cornell alumni currently practice there or have done so in the past.

Identify Your Motivation

  • Consider why working for the federal government is appealing to you.  What motivates you to work for this type of public-sector employer?  Do you know anyone who has worked in federal government and does their experience influence you? 
  • Think about why you want to work for the EEOC, in particular.  Have you taken courses or done work in the employment area?  Do you (or someone you know) have personal experience with employment discrimination?   Have you read books or articles about employment discrimination issues that have piqued your interest?

Demonstrate Your Research and Writing Skills:

  • List the research and writing experience you have gained. 
  • In particular, focus on research and writing experience pertaining to employment law matters. 
  • Don’t forget to consider researching and writing that you did as an undergraduate, in jobs and internships, and in extra-curricular activities.

Connect with the Job:

  • Show the employer that you understand what lawyers do at the EEOC and that you have the skills to help them do it. 
  • For example, by reading the most recent EEOC General Counsel’s report, you would learn that the EEOC has shifted its focus to “class cases,” in other words, cases in which it represents a group of people, rather than an individual.  If you have taken courses or worked on large cases with multiple parties, you would want to emphasize that experience
  • Or, you might learn that about 80% of the EEOC’s work involves Title VII.  While your experience with other anti-discrimination acts like the Americans with Disabilities Act, Age Discrimination in Employment Act or Equal Pay Act are helpful, emphasizing your understanding of Title VII may be most effective.

HAVE YOUR LETTER REVIEWED

After you plan and write a first draft, make an appointment to see Karen Comstock or Liz Peck, who can give you specific feedback.

·         And, right before you send your letter have a detail-oriented friend review it for typos.  (Remember, spell check can’t tell the difference between “good” and “goof.”)