The Dos and Don’ts of Attorney Cover Letters

Harrison Barnes

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It doesn’t matter whether you need to write a cover letter for an associate attorney position, an in-house general counsel position, or you’re a law student getting ready to begin your finish your law firm career…writing a cover letter is an intimidating process. Sure, you may know how to draft a contract, a motion in limine, or a motion for nolle prosequi, but writing about your legal experience and properly highlighting your practice areas and writing skills? Yikes. Should you create a written summary of your resume? Should you gush about how much you love the law firm you’re applying with? Do you talk about what you don’t want in a legal job? Because a cover letter is such an integral part of the attorney job search process, here are the dos and don’ts of attorney cover letters.

What You DO Need in Your Attorney Cover Letter

Do know how to properly address the law firm. Read the attorney job listing carefully because it could give you key information that helps you properly address the law firm in your cover letter. It might include the name of the law firm’s hiring or managing partner (or law firm administrator) or it might just give you the name of the law firm. If you only have the name of the law firm, put your research skills to use and perform a basic online search. You can likely find the law firm’s website, Facebook business or fan page, or their LinkedIn business profile. A law firm website may have a detailed “About Us” page that gives you the name and position of the legal hiring or managing partner or the law firm administrator. A Facebook or LinkedIn page might provide a valuable email address or other information to help you determine to whom your cover letter should be addressed. Of course, if you really aren’t sure, you can play it safe and rely on “Dear Legal Hiring Manager.”

Do include relevant experience in the law firm’s practice areas. When a law firm is seeking to hire an associate attorney, there’s a good chance they need the lawyer to be experienced in certain practice areas. Your cover letter should speak directly to the needs of the law firm. A law firm hiring for a divorce lawyer won’t care that you have five years of experience as a personal injury lawyer, but they will likely be interested in your negotiation skills, mediation skills, and your litigation abilities. If you’ve recently finished law school, consider including any relevant legal clinic experience, licensed legal internships, or summer internships that are relevant to the firm’s needs.

Do show that you read up on the law firm. Copy and pasted generic cover letters are everywhere. Make yourself stand out by reading the “About Us” and “Mission” pages on the law firm’s website. What about the law firm resonates with you on a professional level? Show the legal hiring manager that you took the time to learn about the law firm. It helps you stand out from other legal candidates.

Do recognize that your cover letter is how your writing skills will be judged. Even if the law firm requests a legal writing sample, you must recognize that your writing skills will first be judged by your cover letter. Your cover letter is a persuasive argument for the law firm. Show them why you are the best attorney candidate.

Do invite the hiring attorney to contact you in your closing paragraph. The closing paragraph is a powerful tool for attorney cover letters. It is important that you make good use of it. Use a strong sentence that invites the hiring attorney to contact you. For example, “I look forward to hearing from you soon.” If there is a closing date for the legal job opening, you could use that in the sentence as well since it is likely that legal candidates will not hear back until after the closing date. Doing so shows the reader that you paid attention to the legal job description.

Do ensure all of your contact information is accurate. And appropriate. Review your contact information. Is it correct? Review your physical address as well as your mailing address, if it is a separate address. Review your contact phone number. Review your email address. Also, ensure that your email address is appropriate for a job search. While we hope that you do have a separate, appropriate email address for professional emails, we also recognize that isn’t always the case. And, yes, using a Gmail or Hotmail account is fine as long as you remember to check the spam or junk filter to ensure that any responses aren’t automatically flagged. If you do not have an email address that is appropriate for a legal job search or if you’re not sure, play it safe and set one up.

Do proofread your cover letter before sending it. There’s a saying you’ve probably heard or read: I do my best proofreading after I hit send. As funny and true as the saying is, it’s a terrifying thought when it comes to an attorney job search. There is a lot of competition for law firm job openings for both entry-level and lateral hire attorneys. Before you mail, email, or electronically fax your cover letter, proofread it. Twice. Remember that a cover letter for an attorney position is the first time a law firm will see your writing skills. Typos and grammatical errors certainly won’t do you any favors in such a competitive environment. Always proofread your cover letter before you send it. This is also important if you’re applying with multiple firms. It can save you from an embarrassing mistake such as including the wrong law firm name or naming the wrong hiring partner, wrong human resources representative, or wrong law firm administrator.

What You DON’T Need in Your Attorney Cover Letter

Don’t overwhelm the reader with too much information. While it is important to draft a cover letter that highlights your skills and abilities that also directly address how and why you are the best attorney candidate for the law firm, be concise. Don’t overwhelm the reader with too much information. Maintain your focus.

Don’t just copy and paste a general cover letter. Keep in mind that the legal industry is competitive. Law firms will look for the job candidates with the best legal skills for the position. And those legal skills are showcased in a well written cover letter, not in a copy and paste job. Cover letters provide an opportunity for you to persuade the law firm to interview you and to highlight why you are the best attorney candidate. Don’t ignore this. Cover letters are also a law firm’s first look at your writing skills. While cover letters shouldn’t overwhelm the reader with information, it’s still your time to shine!

Don’t ignore the instructions in the legal job posting. Some law firms give specific instructions in their legal job postings, such as what should be included in the cover letter. Read the law firm’s job description carefully. In fact, read it more than once so that you fully understand what, if anything, the law firm expects to read in the cover letter. After you write your cover letter, review it to make sure that you included it. If you fail to include their requested information, you will give them a reason to not consider you.

Don’t just summarize your resume. Your resume goes along with your cover letter for an attorney position. There’s no need to summarize your resume in your cover letter. Use your cover letter as it was intended: to explain to the law firm how your experience directly fills their needs.

Don’t tell the law firm what you aren’t interested in. You’re looking for a job as a lawyer. You’re applying for the stated job opening. Do not under any circumstances tell the law firm what you’re not interested in doing in the job opening. If you do this, you’re telling the law firm that you’re not interested and you’re not the candidate that they need.

Don’t discuss salary unless specifically requested in the job description. Attorney’s salary discussions should be saved for later in the hiring process or when an actual job offer is extended unless, of course, the attorney job description specifically requests that you provide a salary request in your cover letter. It is ideal, as well as polite, to wait for the law firm to address the topic with you.

Don’t include personal or non-relevant information. While law firm culture is important, don’t include personal or non-relevant information in your cover letter. Your cover letter should be used to provide relevant information in a persuasive manner so that the law firm wants to move to the next step of the legal hiring process and contact you for an interview. You can learn more about the law firm’s culture both through research and during the interview process.

Don’t send your cover letter without proofreading it. We cannot overemphasize the importance of your cover letter enough. Do not send it without proofreading it. Typos, spelling errors, grammatical errors, and using the wrong law firm name or addressing the wrong person can mean that you don’t get the interview. Proofread your cover letter at least once before you send it, including your contact information. Also, use the squint test for eye comfort. Print out a copy of your cover letter and tape it to the wall. Then step across the room. How does it look to you? It’s not so much about being able to read it from across the room. Look at the white space and the paragraph length. How do your eyes feel? Should you adjust the look of your cover letter?

Don’t include negative comments about your current or previous law firm. Sometimes, attorney jobs just don’t work out. You may feel like you have a justifiable reason for discussing that previous legal position, but your cover letter isn’t the place for it. Doing so does nothing other than tell the law firm that you could end up being a problem for them if they hire you. Gaps in legal employment or problems with a current or previous legal employer can, if necessary, be properly (and politely) addressed during the interview.

Find the Right Attorney Job for You

If you’re looking for the right attorney job, you could be overwhelmed by the number of job boards, not to mention applicant tracking systems and legal recruiting firms. HiringPartner is different. We’re a data-driven one-stop shop for attorneys and law firms. What does this mean for you as a legal job seeker? We help top attorney talent like you find the right law firm job. We are the most powerful legal recruiting tool out there for legal employers.

About Harrison Barnes

Harrison Barnes is the founder of BCG Attorney Search and a successful legal recruiter. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. His firm BCG Attorney Search has placed thousands of attorneys. BCG Attorney Search works with attorneys to dramatically improve their careers by leaving no stone unturned in job searches and bringing out the very best in them. Harrison has placed the leaders of the nation’s top law firms, and countless associates who have gone on to lead the nation’s top law firms. There are very few firms Harrison has not made placements with. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placements attract millions of reads each year. He coaches and consults with law firms about how to dramatically improve their recruiting and retention efforts. His company, LawCrossing, has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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