Writing the cover letter for a law resume is something of a thankless task. In my experience, no one ever got a job because of his or her cover letter. For example, some law schools send firms a big stack of resumes from an entire class. What happens in this instance is that either the cover letters are immediately stapled onto the back of the resumes (and often not read), or they are thrown away at some point to keep the piles smaller. At the same time, it is customary to include a cover letter on an application, so you have to write one.
So if the cover letter is so unimportant, why worry about it, right? Well, while a good cover letter never got anyone a job, a bad cover letter can hurt you enormously.
In my experience, the more impressive the resume, the shorter the cover letter. If you are sending a cover letter and resume, it is obvious to the recipient that you are applying for and are eager to get a job. You don't need to talk about your deepest motivations for choosing the law or your mother's opinion of your work ethic. Avoid giving too much information about your hobbies or the secret wishes of your heart. The worst cover letter I ever got began like this:"An avid watcher of Court TV, I ..." This is exactly the wrong kind of information to give out in a cover letter. Should your potential employer believe that you want to work at the law firm because you dig L.A. Law reruns? ~
More common errors: peppering your cover letter with blandishments, such as "I am a very enthusiastic worker." That's unnecessary and borderline unprofessional. And it goes without saying that misspellings, bad grammar and addressing your letter to Mr. Jordan Smith when it's really Ms. Jordan Smith will all sink your application.
Keep it simple
I cannot emphasize this enough: for your cover letter and resume, gratuitous use of big words will make you look stupid. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who you felt was being deliberately verbose? It's easy to tell, isn't it? Good lawyers are masters of language. They spend years studying, writing and revising. They will be able to tell if you are misusing elaborate words.
Here's another tip: do not use French accents on the word "resume." Both spellings are correct, so people will not think you are particularly impressive or unimpressive if you choose to forgo the accents. In fact, using the accents may be mistaken for pretension. If you're European, go ahead and use the term "CV". That's fine.
One item of information you should mention in your cover letter is the name of a reference, if you have one. That means that if you were referred by someone at the firm, you should make note of that fact in the cover letter. On the other hand, don't mention that you were referred by the hiring partner's mom's manicurist. That won't hold any professional weight.
Try to follow this rule: if you are getting anxious about your cover letter, you are spending too much time. You are applying to a place where the people considering you are busy. The truth is that your cover letter may get tossed in the recycling bin, so keep it short and simple. An introductory sentence, a short paragraph for the body that describes your experience and qualifications, and a final sentence that includes your thanks for being considered is sufficient. Your merits, as shown on your resume and transcript, should stand on their own.
Excerpt(s) taken from the forthcoming book, The Law Firm Interview: A Guide for Law Students by Katy Schubert. For more information visitwww.lawfirminterview.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.