Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.
As the owner of a small law firm, I’m always surprised at how many blind résumés I receive in the mail. First of all, who even uses mail anymore? Does anyone seriously think that I’m going take them more seriously because they used cream-colored, 100% cloth, 24-pound bond paper? I’m not.
But forget the résumés for a minute; for me, it’s the cover letter that tells me whether I want to interview this person. Over the years, I’ve received thousands of cover letters from lawyers and law students. I’ve gotten to the point where I really don’t need to read the résumé before I’ve made my decision.
So with that in mind, here are 11 tips for writing cover letters to potential employers.
1. Spell my frikkin’ name right. You’d be astounded at how many times candidates blow this one.…
People are determined to put an a in my name (damn you, Alan B. Shepard). Common mistake? Sure. (I’ve even had people spell my name one way and my firm name another way. It’s the same name.) But this tells me that you can’t be bothered to get it right before you get a job. Why would I think you’d bother trying to get it right after you were hired? My simple rule: Spell my name wrong — you don’t even get a ding letter.
2. Don’t say “Enclosed please find my current résumé.” In fact, don’t ever write “Enclosed please find …” in any letter. What the hell kind of English is that? Does the lady at Dunkin’ hand you a bag and say, “Enclosed please find the donut you ordered”? Plain-English guru Bryan Garner describes this phrase as “archaic deadwood” and points out that business-writing guides have blasted it and similar phrases since 1880. Say instead: “Here is my résumé.” I’ll know what you mean right away, and I’ll think more highly of you.
While we’re at it, you should absolutely have a copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage on your desk. If you don’t, you probably don’t care that much about your writing (and it will show).
And as I mentioned in my informational-intervew post, don’t spell résumé without both accents. People who tell you that it’s acceptable to drop the accents don’t belong in a career that involves, you know, words.
3. Don’t tell me how great you are. That’s what your résumé is for. Besides, I’ll decide if you’re really that great, and I won’t base my decision on your opinion. Too many cover letters try to convince me how great it would be for Shepherd Law Group if only I would let the writers come work here. Color me doubtful. I recently had a guy tell me how my firm would be helped by his “tremendous amount of litigation experience.” He graduated from law school in 2009. Seriously?
4. Instead, tell me how great it would be for you to work here. If you don’t know it already, let me clue you in on a poorly kept secret: Most lawyers are egomaniacs. Big firms, small firms: doesn’t matter. I want to hear that you think working for my firm will be the greatest honor you could ever have. It doesn’t matter that I know deep down that that can’t possibly be true. And it doesn’t matter if you don’t really believe it. I still want you to try. But it’s a fine line: don’t sound obsequious.
5. Make sure you know what I do for a living. I keep getting cover letters from people who express an interest in IP law or tax or admiralty (not sure that’s a real field) or corporate law (ditto). That’s swell, but why are you telling me? Like most lawyers, I work pretty hard at telling the world what it is I do in my day job. If you can’t be bothered to Google me, or check out my websites or the three blogs I write for, then please don’t send me your résumé.
6. Speaking of which, mention something you learned when you Googled me. It’s the egomaniac thing again: I’m a sucker for faint praise. Even false faint praise. Tell me you liked something I wrote about the billable hour sucking on The Client Revolution. Or tell me that you like how I use the word “douche” in most of my ATL post titles. Or that you read something about a case I handled back in ’aughty-aught. If you convince me that you actually did do that, your chances of getting an interview rise sharply.
7. I know what you did last summer. That is, if you tell me that you were a summer associate. I don’t need you to give me a laundry list of the different menial activities you did there; I already know what a summer associate does. Same for a junior associate. Telling me that you “participated in a planning session for a mediation” or “research a multifaceted problem to assist a junior associate on an office memorandum” or “attended court for a procedural court hearing in court (although I sat in the back next to a homeless dude)” does not further my understanding. In fact, I’ll never read that, so don’t bother.
8. Ignore well-meaning but dumb advice from your law school. The career-services people want you to get a good job; they really do. And they want to help. But sometimes their advice is really … well, not helpful. For example, over the years I’ve noticed that nearly every cover letter from a Northeastern University School of Law student or graduate contains the same paragraph explaining that school’s unusual (and excellent) co-op program. I don’t mean “similar” paragraphs; I mean exactly the same. I’ve been told that the school advises students to use this paragraph so that would-be employers won’t be put off by the strange schedule and lack of grades. A good thought, I guess. But don’t you think I’m going to notice the same stupid paragraph over and over? Plus, if you get your Google on, you’ll find that I’ve hired four different NU lawyers in the past. And I’m here in Boston, two miles away from the school. In other words, I know how your funky co-op system works.
The lesson here: Don’t ever use stock language in a cover letter.
9. Don’t recite your résumé in your cover letter. I see it attached (“enclosed please find”). If your cover letter reads like a prose version of your résumé, I’m not going to read it. In fact, I probably won’t read either.
10. Tell me how you’re different. Don’t tell me how your interests are travel and reading and foreign-language films and … *nods off* I just don’t care about that, and it’s like job-candidate camouflage; you’re practically invisible with those interests. Instead, tell me the most interesting things about you. I was talking to an informational interview a couple of weeks ago, and his résumé had the usual somnolent interests and activities. Then he told me that he had written three screenplays. Now that’s interesting. Now he’s Screenplay Guy. I’ll remember Screenplay Guy; I’ll never remember Travel and Reading Guy.
11. Finally, write like yourself. Remember that the cover letter is usually the one chance you have to show me how you write. Don’t write how you think lawyers should sound, and for Pete’s sake don’t write like everyone else. Write the way you talk, and then you’ll sound more like you. Because isn’t that what your cover letter is for: to introduce you to me?
Jay Shepherd has run the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group for the past 13 years. Jay also runs Prefix, LLC, which helps lawyers and clients value and price legal services. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at email@example.com.
A job seeker may desire employment with a particular company that has not posted open job requisitions. In this case, an unsolicited application letter is used as an inquiry about possible openings and to gain a hiring managers attention. The letter may be addressed to the head of the Human Resource department or to the manager of a particular division. The letter is most likely to be read when it is addressed to a particular person rather than the generic to ‘whom it may concern’ salutation.
Format and Content
Write the letter so that it immediately captures the reader’s interest by explaining how you could benefit the company. Keep the content broad in scope, especially if you want the manager to consider you for any position in the company that utilizes your specific skills and abilities.The unsolicited application letter format is much like the solicited letter format: the first paragraph serves as an introduction, the body of the letter makes an argument as to why you are the best job candidate and the closing paragraph contains a request for an interview and your contact information.
This unsolicited application letter sample is written by a job seeker who was advised of possible unadvertised job openings by an employee of the organization. She communicates her value by using specific examples of her accomplishments. She expresses a preference for a particular area but indicates her willingness to consider other openings.
Ms. Agnes Stevens
123 Kentucky Avenue
Papago, Arizona 28925
Mr. David Jones
Global Accommodation Services
Human Resources Manager
25 Hill Drive
Papago, Arizona 28925
Dear Mr. Jones,
I am writing to express my interest in acquiring a position at Global Accommodation Services. I am very familiar with the company’s excellent reputation for supplying high quality consultation services to the hotel and special event convention industries. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Mike Jefferies, the head of marketing at your company, and he suggested that I contact you about possible job openings in your sales division.I am currently seeking a position where I can utilize my superior sales abilities for the benefit of a company who specializes in the international marketplace.
My sales experience encompasses 5 years in the entertainment and promotion industry as well as 7 years in the accommodation and special event industries. As a senior sales consultant for Brandiff Services, I managed multimillion-dollar accounts with clients located in Europe, China and the United States. At Leonard Enterprises, I averaged annual sales upward of 7 million. I am a published author and my book, Best Practices in Effective Sales Communications, is now used by universities across the United States as part of their business curriculum.
I possess excellent persuasive communication skills and I am able to communicate with people at all job levels. I am experienced in both national and international customer presentations and negotiations. I hold a master’s degree in Corporate Communications with a minor in Foreign Business Management and certifications for Intercultural Communication and Persuasive Communication. I am extremely detail orientated, highly motivated and my work ethic is second to none.
I would appreciate the opportunity to meet with you in person and to discuss any job openings within your organization. I prefer to handle international contracts but am willing to work national accounts as well. Please call me at 215-890-3465 or contact me by email at [email] to arrange an appointment time that is mutually agreeable. I am enclosing a copy of my resume for your consideration. I look forward to meeting you.
Ms. Agnes Stevens