Thursday, October 27, 2011

Tip of the Week: Cover Letters

By Anna Van Pelt

This quarter, the Tips of the Week are about writing cover letters.  If you need to catch up, you can find all of our tips on the CPLD Blog.  Last week, we discussed the research you need to do to write a good cover letter.  This week, we’re talking about how to turn that research into the body of your letter.

The Body

The purpose of the body of your letter is to explain how you will be of benefit to this employer, and not how great the experience of working with this employer will be for you.  Now that you have your research sorted into a single page with two columns, you can start writing your letter.  Look down the list of things that the employer wants, and pick 2-3 items.  These items should either be the things you think are most important to the employer or the things that let you talk about your biggest accomplishments. 

Let’s go back to the research examples from last week.  In looking over the list, I would put discussing the work memo near the top because it’s impressive and excellent research and writing skills are one of the top things for this employer (and for nearly all legal employers).  I would spend one paragraph discussing the issue(s) researched (the breadth and depth of the memo).  Then I would name the supervisor and what she/he said about the memo.  And I would do it in 5-6 sentences. 

If I have an extra line after the whole letter is written, I might mention the A- grade in LRWA in this paragraph.  Why not discuss the grade first?  It’s not as sexy as actual work product because there isn’t a quick story to it.  “I earned an A- in Legal Research, Writing and Analysis during my first-year of law school.”  “That’s great,” your potential employer says, “but what did you do?”  Instead, describe the work you did for your memo, and then add your grade if you have space.  Remember that many jobs also ask for your transcripts, so they will see the result of all of your hard work too. 1Ls, if you do not have a real-world work product, and you shouldn’t at this point – don’t fret!  You will write a memo for LRWA and can use that in the same way.  Employers understand that 1Ls won’t have real-world work product, so they aren’t looking for it.  2Ls and 3Ls, however, it’s time to start building some real-world examples of your research and writing skills. 

The second item I would discuss from the list is the hunger to represent clients.  It might not be more important that an interest in environmental law to the employer, but it is something that the author is passionate about (hence all of the extracurricular activities).  Spend most of the space in the letter discuss what you have already done.  Here, that means that the bulk of the second paragraph will be about IFAP and the first-responder will clinic.  Talk about why you’re passionate about serving clients and about how fulfilling it is to be of service.  This is a place where you can also discuss pre-law school experiences (think of it as an answer to the question “why do you want to be a lawyer?”).  I would end this paragraph by mentioning that the hunger to represent clients also drove you to the clinical programs, and that you are a member of the tax clinic this year. 


There are many examples of cover letter styles available on the CPLD website and in our in-office library.  Please use these examples to get your creativity flowing.  All of the material is password protected using your UW NetID.

What Comes First

Whether you start with your first point or your second point depends on you and how you read the job description.  If you think that, above all else, the employer wants someone who can research and write, then talk about that first.  However, if you think that the employer is more interested in your passion for service (think public service and government jobs, in particular), then start there.  You can also start with the second “soft skills” part if you have particularly compelling story.  For example, I have a friend who became an immigration attorney at the age of 8 because she would act as a translator for her parents who were seeking citizenship.  It was the perfect start for her cover letters to immigration firms.  If you have a similarly compelling story, use it. 

What About the Other Items on the List?

In our example list from last week, the employer was also looking for someone with an interest in environmental law.  What if the only interest you’ve had in environmental law is taking a class?  Or joining GreenLaw?  What if there isn’t really enough to fill up a whole paragraph?  These are the perfect things to put in your resume.  Under your school and expected graduation date, you can add “Select Honors, Activities and Classes:” and then list your other applicable classes (not the 1L series) and extracurricular activities.  Don’t worry if what you put here changes with every application.  While your resume may be mostly static, it should be slightly adjusted for every application. 

The First Paragraph

The first paragraph can be one of the hardest because there is so much to cover in it.  Therefore, I recommend writing it last.  We’ve already discussed your attention-grabbing first line.  In the first paragraph, you must also include your law school and class year, the name of the position to which you are applying, and a brief introduction of the themes you will be discussing in the body of your letter.  Remember that you have about three standard sentences before your reader will start to lose interest.  However, if you have done your research, crafted a winning opening sentence, and written the body of your letter to demonstrate your themes (which build off your research), then writing a compelling first paragraph will be much easier. 

Identifying Problems

If you are tempted to say something like, “Working in your chambers will give me an opportunity to hone my legal research and writing skills” – STOP!  Return to the purpose of a cover letter: to sell you and your skills to the employer.  During your drafting, be sure to re-read your cover letter while asking, “Am I giving examples of how I’ll be valuable to this employer?”

Next week: The Last Paragraph and Closing

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tip of the Week: Cover Letters

By Anna Van Pelt
This quarter, we’re discussing the elements of a cover letter and how to write a compelling cover letter.  This tip, and all tips, can be found on the CPLD blog, and this week, we’re focusing on preparing to write the body of your cover letter.

Last week, we discussed the importance of an attention-grabbing first line.  Now that you have the reader’s attention, what do you say that will make them want to interview you?

Research, Research, Research

I’ve made this analogy before, but I don’t think I can emphasize it enough – your cover letter is your opening statement.  In an opening statement, you introduce the themes of your case (Revenge: that is what this case is all about), as well as your supporting evidence.  In a cover letter, you introduce your themes (I am an excellent legal researcher), as well as your supporting evidence in the form of past experiences that showcase your themes. 

How do you know which themes are the right themes for your letter?  The answer: research. 

Before you begin to write the body of your cover letter, you must do research.  At a minimum, you should:

-          Print out the job description (if there is one) and highlight key phrases.  Create an “outline” of the job description.  What are they looking for?  What tasks will you do if hired? 

-          Print out the firm or organization description.  This is a great place to get an insight into the culture.  What do they value?  Where does pro bono work fall into their hierarchy of importance?  How do they view themselves?  Highlight their key phrases for describing themselves.  Also, make sure you know what does the firm or organization does, especially if they have multiple offices.    You might laugh, but every year, employers complain to us about how our students wrote a cover letter about how great they would be at civil litigation when that office doesn’t have a litigation department.  If you can’t tell what the Seattle office, for example, does (a common problem in firms with multiple offices state- or nation-wide), then call and ask one of their support staff about which practice areas are served by the Seattle office. 

-          Investigate (appropriately) the person who will be reading the letter.  Specifically, look for recent articles or presentations that are interesting.  Keep a list of these as well as your thoughts about them. 

Consolidate your research into a bulleted list.  This is the list of what they want in a new attorney or in a summer intern/extern. 

Research You Too

To write a compelling cover letter, you must also do research on yourself.  Start by listing the 5 accomplishments of which you are most proud:

-          Did you get an A- in torts?  Volunteer over 150 hours for pro bono honors?  Place as finalist in the moot court competition?  Be proud!

-          For those students with a prior professional experience (5 years or more), your list can include highlights from your prior experience.  Were you the top sales performer at your company?  Did you get a grant to research the connection between metabolism and diabetes?  Publish a novel? 

-          For students without significant prior experience, the majority of your accomplishments will likely come from law school (grades, student orgs, law review, moot court, externships, etc), but if you have a pre-law school accomplishment that you are proud of – include it in this list! 

-          For each accomplishment, list what you did and the skills you used to do it.  This is the bulleted list of what you’ve done

By now you should have two lists: what they want and what you’ve done.  Now, match up what they are looking for from your list of accomplishments.  As much as possible, make this a one-to-one list.  For example:

They want:                                                           I accomplished:

Excellent research and writing                         A- in LRWA
Wrote memo on sexual harassment claim for EEOC during externship; commended by supervisor

Hunger to represent clients                              Federal Tax Clinic Member this year
Volunteered with IFAP
Pro bono program, working with KCBA’s first-responder will clinic

Interest in environmental law                          Took Environmental Law, got an A-

At the end, you should have around 3-5 things that they are looking for and that you can fulfill.  Basically, the left column will become your themes, and the right column is your list of “evidence” that you are those themes.  Don’t worry about not fulfilling everything on their list – even if you could, you won’t have room to talk about all of them in your one-page cover letter!  Instead, focuses on the things that you think are most important to them.  Usually, the most important thing isn’t the number of years under your belt but the quality of your experience. 

Back to the First Paragraph
Now that you’ve done your research, now that you’ve created your themes, you can write the body of your letter… but more on that next week!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dialogue with My Dog

Thoughts on Leadership

in a complex world

 by Tim Jaasko-Fisher, JD, MA

 The following are excerpts from conversations with my dog (Koa the Wonder Dog) in late 2011.

TJF:  Koa!

KWD:  Uh oh…

TJF:  Koa, I can’t believe you got into the trash again!

KWD:  Sorry…sorry…sorry!  Please, don’t make me go to a meeting, please!

TJF:  Meeting?  What are you talking about?

KWD:  Well, I know you’re really mad because this is the third time this week I got into the trash, so I thought you might punish me by making me go to a meeting.

TJF:  What?  First off, I never “punish” you – I just clean up after you, and second, what do meetings have to do with anything?

KWD:  Humans talk about meetings.  They sound terrible.  Some say they are boring, but some say they’re “painful”.  One person even said she’d rather die than go to another meeting! 

TJF:  Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is true that many people are frustrated with meetings.  Many times, they are unproductive and can feel like a waste of time.     

KWD:  Why do people bother to have meetings?

TJF:  They can be really useful.  They can help a group plan and move forward on critical issues. 

KWD: How do you separate out the good meetings from the bad?

TJF:  Your question about why people have meetings is a great place to start.  Everyone calling a meeting should be able to clearly state their intention for calling the meeting.  Many times the “painful” meetings happen when no one is clear why they are there or how to participate.

KWD:  You mean people just get in a room and wander around together then leave?

TJF:  Well, kind of – if not physically, certainly mentally.

KWD:  Humans are funny animals.  I can understand if there was food involved, but the rest…

TJF:  Basically, there are three types of meetings- meetings to give information, meetings to get information, and meetings to decide a course of action.  By clarifying what kind of meeting (or agenda item) you are dealing with, you can help people effectively participate.

KWD:  I don’t get it.

TJF:  For example, if you are holding a meeting to give information, then it is clear to participants that you just want them there to take in new information.  Participants might ask clarifying questions, but the intention of the meeting is not to generate new courses of action or to decide whether you are going to do something.  The meeting is to give information.  By contrast, if you have a meeting or agenda item in which you want to get information, you are inviting people to generate ideas and to provide information.  Finally, it is good to clarify if you are asking people to make a decision and if so, what are you asking them to decide.  Sharing the intent of the meeting with people before the meeting lets them come prepared to participate.

KWD:  So if a decision has already been made, you should let people know up front but if you want new ideas or you want them to decide something let them know that up front too?

TJF:  Yes.  Getting clear on what kind of meeting you are having and why, make it easier to decide who should be at the meeting or whether you should even have one.  Many meetings to give information may be better handled just sending out a memo then giving an opportunity for questions.  If you intend to gather information, do you have everyone in the room you need to see the issue fully?  If you are deciding something, are all the necessary decision makers invited?

KWD:  So basically, if you decide what kind of meeting you are having and what it is about, meetings will be better because people will know how to participate and they will be more likely to get invited to the right kinds of meetings where stuff actually gets done?

TJF:  Exactly.  Now about that garbage…

KWD:  If that’s upsetting to you, I wouldn’t recommend going upstairs.

This blog post was adapted from ideas in:

Swartz, D. H. (2001). Designing and leading participative meetings workbook: A comprehensive

learning resource notebook on how to design participative meetings and then conduct

them in ways that motivate people to contribute because they feel heard. Seattle, WA:

Effectiveness Resource Group, Inc.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Tip of the Week: Cover Letters

By Anna Van Pelt
This quarter, we’re discussing how to write a stellar cover letter.  As a reminder, all tips are available on the CPLD blog, so feel free to bookmark that page and refer back to it as you apply for positions!  This week, we’re talking about your first line. 

Attention Span

In Trial Advocacy, the attention span of the listener is important if you want to make an effective argument to juries (or even judges).  Listeners, like readers, pay the most attention at the start.  Attention then dwindles until the closing, where attention picks up again briefly before dropping off completely.  Therefore, your first paragraph is the most important, and your first sentence is paramount. 

Since you have the most attention during the first paragraph, it is important that you articulate who you are (especially your grade level and law school) and why you are writing (usually, to apply for a position).  However, that is exactly why…

First lines are difficult. 

Let’s start with a couple of examples:

“As a first-year law student at the University of Washington, I am applying for the summer associate position with your law firm, Perkins Coie.” 

“I am a first-year law student at the University of Washington and I am applying for the position posted on Symplicity.”

“I am a first-year law student at the University of Washington and I am applying for an externship position this summer in your chambers.” 

It may be difficult on first blush to know why these are bad starting lines.  After all, the first paragraph should let the reader know who you are and why you are writing. The problem with these sentences is that every law student who is applying for that position will use a nearly identical line.  One sentence into your cover letter, and your future employer is already bored and unable to tell the difference between you and every other applicant.  Ouch.

Alternatives to the Standard First Line

Luckily, there are many ways out of this trap!  The first line is a great place, for example, to demonstrate the research you’ve done on the firm or organization, or to introduce a connection to the reader.  For example:

“With a background in physics and a passion for patent prosecution, I was thrilled to learn that XYZ Firm is accepting applications for a 1L Summer Associate position in the Seattle office.”  What works in this opening sentence is that the writer’s passion for the kind of work that this office does is evident, along with a little additional information letting the reader know that the writer is likely qualified.

“Jane Doe mentioned that you are seeking an extern in your chambers this summer and suggested that I contact you.”  There is nothing better than a name in your first sentence – but be careful!  This only works if the reader both knows the person you are naming and likes them.  This works best when the person recommending you works for the same firm or organization, especially since the hiring coordinator will be sure to let your contact know when you are selected for an interview. 

“During your visit to UW Law last winter, I had the pleasure of hearing you address the developing issues with Miranda and in-custody interrogation.”  This is one of my favorite ways to start a cover letter.  It demonstrates that you are so passionate about an area of law that you sought out opportunities to learn about it outside of the classroom.  It also demonstrates that you’ve done some homework about the person to whom your letter is addressed.  The next sentence will typically be “I am a first-year law student at UW…,” but you’ve already grabbed the reader’s attention.  Be sure to tie the speech into the rest of your first paragraph by referring back to something specific about it. 

“Judge Spearman of the King County Superior Court suggested that I contact you regarding summer associate opportunities in your Seattle office.”  Sometimes, the person who is recommending you isn’t in the same office as the reader.  In that situation, give a little more information about who is recommending you – these are still highly valuable recommendations as it means another attorney is willing to vouch for your credibility. 

General Guidelines:


·         Show your enthusiasm!

·         Use a name – the reader’s or a mutual friend’s

·         Reference a common experience

·         Illustrating the background, experience or passion that you have which separates you from the crowd

·         Trust your voice – even if your first line isn’t included here, trust that you are saying

Do not:

·         Use the boring standard first line

·         Cite the source of the job opening notice (“I saw your job posting on Symplicity”)

·         The name of someone who doesn’t know you

·         Use fancy words or word order to inflate your confidence.  This one is a little tricky because we all want to sound better on paper, but it is way too easy to get this wrong.  For example, if you don’t say “myriad” in everyday speech, it is unlikely that you researched a “myriad” of issues at your last position. 

Next week: Your First Paragraph or What Comes After the First Line?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Tip of the Week: Cover Letter

By Anna Van Pelt

This quarter, we are discussing how to write a compelling cover letter.  If you need to catch up, all tips are published on the CPLD blog.  Today, we’re focusing on the top two inches (or less) of your cover letter.

What’s in a Header?

Never underestimate the importance of using the same header on your cover letter that you already use on your resume.  Your header is your brand.  While it is composed of your name, address, phone number, email address and maybe a line, it is a visual “stamp” on your application materials that will help the reader to link your cover letter to your resume, and it will help them remember what they read when you are interviewing with them. 

By Anna Buzard

It can also be the difference between getting your application read and getting it recycled.  One recruiting coordinator told our office that one of the biggest challenges is keeping all of the parts of an application together as it moves from office to office, hiring partner to hiring associate, for review.  Having a consistent header makes it easier for your materials to remain together because it is easy to identify them as partners.

Address Block & Date

Be sure to include the recipient’s name and address below the date (usually with a space between).   The legal profession is a formal profession and it is slow to change.  When in doubt, be as formal as possible.  A recipient’s address block is a formal piece of a cover letter, and demonstrates your attention to detail.  This only works, however, if you double check that you have spelled the recipient’s name correctly and have the correct address.     


Always – always – use a name.  If there is no name on the job posting, call the organization or firm and ask them the name that you should use.  Never – ever – use “to whom it may concern” or “Dear hiring partner.”   Always – always – double check how to spell their name.  Nothing says “I don’t really care about working for you” than failing to do even basic research about the person who will be vetting your application.  At large organizations and firms, recruiters are your gatekeepers: be respectful and polite, and doors will open; be rude, terse or uncaring, and doors will remain shut. 

Why are these things important?

Lawyers primarily work for non-lawyers, which means you have to be skilled at communicating effectively with non-lawyers.   Your cover letter is your first opportunity to demonstrate not only that you can communicate effectively, but that you can go the extra mile.  Excellence in your top two inches is a great start for an effective cover letter.

Next Week: The Hook

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tip of the Week -- Cover Letters

By Anna Buzard

Each quarter, the Center for Professional & Leadership Development publishes a Tip of the Week to help students navigate the changing waters of career development and job search.  All tips are published on the CPLD blog.  This quarter, the Tips of the Week will focus on writing attention-grabbing cover letters.

Why write a cover letter?

As you have discovered, attorneys write a lot.  We write briefs, we write memos, we write draft opinions and orders, we write contracts, and more.  Legal Analysis, Research and Writing prepares law students to write exactly these kinds of documents.

But attorneys also write letters and emails – to clients, to supervisors, to employees.  You will write letters to engage a new client and letters to terminate client-attorney relationships at the end of a matter.  You will write letters informing clients about recent developments in their cases.  You will write executive summaries to explain why you used that specific language in your contract.  You may write articles for the newspaper or an online blog.  You may write legislation, or you may write your biography when you run for office.  In short, you will do a lot of non-legal writing.  Your cover letter is the first opportunity for you to demonstrate that you can write for a non-legal audience, and that is a skill that employers are looking for. 

Cover Letter as Opening Statement

The best legal cover letters are easily compared to the best opening statements.  They are clean and professional.  They grab your attention at the beginning, focus on two or three key themes, and support those themes with evidence.  They are long enough to cover everything, but short enough to keep the reader’s attention.  They end with a call for action and a sincere thank you for your consideration. 

This quarter, we will discuss the parts of your cover letter, from the top edge to the bottom edge, and give tips for how to improve everything in between. 

Next week: Headers, Addresses & Greetings

Monday, September 26, 2011

Dialogue with My Dog: Thoughts on Leadership in a Complex World

by Tim Jaasko-Fisher, JD, MA

The following are excerpts from conversations with my dog (Koa the Wonder Dog) in late 2010.

KWD:  How do you get a lawyer out of a tree?

TJF:  Not funny

KWD:  Wait…what do you call a lawyer at the bottom of Lake Superior?

TJF:  Again, not funny.  Where are you getting all this?

KWD:  Day time TV – hilarious!

TJF:  You should be more respectful towards lawyers.  They do a lot of good things in the world.  Many lead the way to a better society, or at least try to.

KWD:  Seriously? 

TJF:   Yes seriously – lawyers are leaders in the public, private, and non-profit world.  They serve as executives, advisors, and organizers in virtually every segment of society. 

KWD:  Wow – I never really thought about that.  You must have had to learn a lot about leadership in law school.

TJF:  Well…actually, we didn’t learn a whole lot about leading back when I went to school– at least not directly.

KWD:  You mean human society expects all this out of lawyers and no one is teaching them how to do it?

TJF:  Well, more and more law schools are helping lawyers to gain these skills.  For instance, the University of Washington is working to develop “leaders for the global common good”.  Conversations are also happening in schools like Harvard and Yale.  In fact a guy named Ben Heineman from Harvard wrote a great short article in Yale Law’s online journal called Lawyers as Leaders.

KWD:  Why did he think teaching lawyers about leadership was important?

TJF:  Well, he advances three main arguments.  First, we are experiencing a crisis in leadership the world over, so essentially we need the help.  Second, lawyers are in a bit of a crisis as a profession and seeking out meaningful leadership roles will help to reconnect lawyers with the more virtuous personal values most of them went to law school for in the first place.  Finally, he basically notes that lawyers are one of a very few professions which do not explicitly provide this type of education.  

KWD:  So basically, the world needs this, lawyers need this, and everyone else is doing it anyway?

TJF:  Yes, plus, the issues leaders face today are generally not the type that can be resolved by a single profession.  They cannot be solved with technical expertise, but rather are truly interdisciplinary, complex messes which require a leader who can bring together diverse groups of people in ever changing environments.

KWD:  Well, that is all very interesting, but if we don’t go for a walk soon, you are going to have a pretty complex mess to clean up on the kitchen floor – so can we finish this later?

TJF:  Certainly.

To learn more:

Ben W. Heineman, Jr., Lawyers as Leaders, 116 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 266 (2007),