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 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.
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