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by Mary Kate Sheridan | October 22, 2018


Laptop and phone

You’ve found your dream law firm, and now you need to figure out how to get in the door. One major road block is in your way: the dreaded cover letter. The last thing you want to do is write generic, canned drivel and sound like every other applicant. But this is a law firm—you don’t want to stray so far outside the box that you appear unprofessional. What should you do?

Four words: think like a lawyer. Use the same skills you would use to win a moot court competition, draft a compelling note, craft a persuasive motion, sign a new client, etc. Do your homework, connect the research to your background and goals, and communicate effectively. Below are five tips for crafting a stand-out legal cover letter.

 1.  Nix the Sir or Madam

 If there’s anything you should highlight in an application for a legal position, it is your ability to research and find an answer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a litigator, a real estate attorney, an M&A specialist, or anything in between—your job is to get clients answers and solve the most challenging of issues. So if you can’t even find the names of a firm’s hiring professionals, what does that say about your skills or drive? Most firms have a “Careers” section on their website in which they specify hiring contacts for specific cities and/or the head of recruiting. But if your target firm is mum on its hiring professionals, do some digging. A quick search on LinkedIn and other social media sites may reveal those in the recruiting department. Plus firms have profiles through a variety of publications (including Vault), and some include hiring information. Take the extra step to personalize your cover letter and demonstrate your thoroughness.

 2.  Link Your Practice Goals

A law firm job isn’t just any job—it’s a profession. And as an attorney, you won’t be applying for a general position, with the exception of summer associates at some firms. But even for summer associates, tailoring your cover letter to the specific practices that interest you or in which you have experience is critical. Discussing the firm’s practices and notable matters that link to your own career goals will show that you understand the firm’s work. Don’t simply indicate that you want to be a litigator because the firm is “a litigation powerhouse” or some other generic term. Review the firm’s website, read up on recent news stories about the firm, and check out the firm’s rankings and profiles in legal publications. Pinpoint why the firm’s work meshes with the kind of matters you have done or want to do.

 3. Show Your Roots

Associate positions are competitive, and the investment law firms make in each associate is great. Noting your specific ties to an area can help you demonstrate your dedication to the firm and put you above others who are less bound to a city. You don’t need to drone on about your childhood home down the road or list every family member who lives in a 10-miles radius. But a sentence or two about why you value the firm’s location can provide another dimension to your application.

 4. Dig Deeper

Many law firms work hard to provide programs that help lawyers develop as professionals. These offerings vary by the firm’s priorities, culture, and resources. Some may have an extensive pro bono program with a full pro bono staff. Mentoring and hands-on training may rule at certain firms while others may offer robust training with in-house specialists, offsite skill-building, or innovative programming. Still others may boast a plethora of affinity groups and diversity programming. And some may be plugged into the community and offer opportunities for networking or service in the local area. Part of your job search should be whittling down those firms that offer the programs best suited to your career goals and development. Don’t be afraid to specifically touch on why you are impressed with some of the firm’s specific programs and why you think they will help you in your career. Going beyond the legal work shows that you’re considering your broader career at the firm and how you can contribute.

 5. Be Brief

While there are many areas that you can discuss in a cover letter, brevity is key. Communication is crucial in practice, and there’s no better place to show off your skills than in your cover letter. Take time to craft language that is direct and encapsulates what you want to say without rambling. Law firm hiring professionals are busy and have a stack of other applications to read. So grab their attention, and keep it.

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