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.
Different schools of thought exist when it comes to cover letters for job applications. Back when I applied for legal jobs, I took a “do no harm” approach, using the cover letter merely to transmit my résumé, transcript, and writing sample. But jobs were more plentiful back then.
In a tougher legal job market, employers expect more from cover letters. For cover letter advice from an in-house perspective, see David Mowry’s post. For cover letter advice from a small-firm perspective, see Jay Shepherd’s post.
And for an example of how not to write a cover letter, keep reading….
This clerkship application letter went to a judge up in Alaska. It’s now making the rounds among Alaska law clerk circles.
We’ve removed the salutation line and the sign-off, but everything else is intact. And no, the salutation line did not read “DEAREST BELOVED” — which might come as a surprise, since the letter is more flowery than the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Here it is (click to enlarge):
“Law school reinforced my understanding that knowledge is a tool.” But it’s not the only “tool” out there.
Looking on the bright side, reading this cover letter while plowing through hundreds of clerkship applications must have given the judge a chuckle. It’s nothing if not… refreshing. “I sipped confidently from this hearty libation.”
That was my second-favorite line. My favorite: “I am extremely self aware.”
We might do more on epic cover letters for legal jobs. If you have a specimen you’d like to share, send it our way by email (subject line: “Cover Letter”). Thanks.
Earlier: Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Enclosed Please Find … No Reason to Hire Me
House Rules: Use Your Résumé and Cover Letter to Get Inside