Try to limit the letter to three-quarters of a page in length. Remember, your letter will be read by someone with limited time and needs to be designed for clarity and impact.
Your name, address, and telephone number should be typed on the letter. It is preferable to use standard business form, with your address and telephone number and the date at the top right, and the addressee's name, title, and address at the left, above the salutation. At the close of the letter, your full name should be typed just below your signature. Letters should be addressed using the appropriate title in the salutation. Never use a first name unless you know the addressee personally. Ms. should be used if a woman's preference is not otherwise clear. The cover letter template illustrates the typical business correspondence style to which your letter should conform.
Like the resume, your cover letter should be carefully drafted and typed. Don't just rely on spell check, since some mistakes will not be caught by spell check. Have a friend read over the final draft to make sure that it is typo-free, as your ability to draft a perfect document is of great importance to all legal employers.
Ed. note: This is the latest post by Anonymous Recruitment Director, who will offer an insider’s perspective on the world of law firm hiring.
Following the publication of my initial column, I received scores of emails from polite job-seekers with specific questions about their current employment situations. While I am not able to reply to all of the notes, I can offer some guidance to assist the majority of these job-seekers.
Insider tip: Biglaw firms tend to avoid hiring candidates who have strayed off of the traditional path to Biglaw firm employment. Such “rogue” candidates make the recruitment committee nervous, and any candidate who makes the committee nervous will not be advanced in the process. If you want to work in Biglaw, get a job in Biglaw during your 2L summer. If this is not possible (because you did not land a job in Biglaw or you have already graduated), get a job at a small- or medium-sized private firm in the exact practice area that you hope to work in when you make the jump after a few years to Biglaw. Clerkships are fine, but law firm experience in your desired practice area is the ideal. Also, of great importance, you MUST do well in all courses related to your practice area of choice. If you received a C in Securities Regulation, it will be a hard sell to land a job as a securities lawyer at a large firm.
What are some other factors that will make the recruitment committee uncomfortable?
Post-law-school advanced degrees in non-law-related subjects, joint law degrees in subjects that are not directly relevant to your practice area of choice, public interest law jobs, and periods of unemployment are troublesome. They make the candidate seem unfocused or flaky or, worse still, not competitive. In other words, identify your desired practice area and get experience in that area, at a firm of any size, even if you need to work for free for a period of time. Any other career choices give the hiring committee a reason to doubt your focus and, as such, you will not be given serious consideration.
I appreciate that there are plenty of new attorneys who are not able to get experience in their desired practice area. This advice may be controversial, but I recommend that if this is the case, and if you aspire to work in Biglaw, you must select a different practice area to pursue (namely, one that is available to you early in your career). Biglaw partners love to believe that litigators have wanted to litigate since childhood; they do not respond well to candidates who, after three years as a patent attorney, decide that they now wish to do litigation (unless it is patent-related litigation). In other words, partners are suspicious of anyone who does not start down one path and remain on said path. That’s what they all (allegedly) did, after all; and, as discussed last time, partners like people who are just like them.
While this advice may seem rigid, please consider the matter from the vantage point of the recruitment committee. Here is a sampling of the cover letters that we receive:
1. “I am extraordinary and the reason that I received a C- average in law school is that I was the primary caregiver to my ailing (mother/father/spouse/child) during law school and he/she had six near death experiences, each of which corresponded with an examination period; and, as such, I encourage you to ignore the fact that to date I have not evidenced any ability to excel in the law and hire me regardless.” (the bullsh** applicant) (yes, ladies and gentlemen, after seeing hundreds of these letters over the years, I now assume that they are all bulls**t);
2. “I have no particular interests and, instead, I wish to apply to any opening that you might have at the firm at this time, whether it be in international arbitration, structured finance, employment law, etc. I love the law SO MUCH that I will do anything that is on offer.” (the unfocused applicant);
3. “I do not really want you to consider me for a job because I have so many options that I am overwhelmed. At this time, I am really trying to decide how I will share my legal genius with the world, and, if you want to get on this bandwagon early, which I strongly advise, let me know what you can offer me and when (hypothetically, of course) you would want me to start.” (the d-bag applicant); and
4. “I am writing to express my interest in the position of 4th year tax associate that is detailed on your firm’s website. I am currently a tax associate at [firm] with four years of experience undertaking the following types of [tax-related] matters:…” (the viable applicant).
Only the fourth applicant will get put forward to the hiring committee members. Why? Because, unlike the other applicants, he or she is building a case for him or herself to be hired for an identifiable role; he or she is in effect arguing that the job opening should belong to them. This individual has convincing support for his or her argument.
While on the subject of cover letters, I advise that you write a cover letter, two paragraphs at most, that details who you are, what exactly you want, and why you are a smart hire (if you cannot explain why you are a smart hire for this particular job, and/or if you cannot do so succinctly, you should not be applying for this position). A letter longer than two paragraphs will not be read.
Those applicants sending a letter of interest for a summer associate position can write an even shorter letter. We understand why you are applying and that, at this stage of your legal career, your interests are not fully refined.
The cover letter is in many respects a formality. No one has ever been hired because he or she wrote an amazing cover letter. Many people have been rejected because they submitted a poorly written cover letter. The truth is that the cover letter may not be read until an applicant is sitting in front of his or her interviewer. In recruitment, we have a tendency to scan résumés first, and then, if interested, we review brief cover letters to make sure that there are no red flags. As such, as I will address in the next column, you should focus far more effort on your résumé.
You are an attorney (or soon to be one). In your cover letter, please be clear, be concise, and be convincing. Argue your own case.
Earlier: Greetings From Anonymous Recruitment Director
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Anonymous Recruitment Director is the head of recruitment for a leading international firm and has 20 years of law firm recruitment experience. Anonymous NYC Recruitment Director can be reached at NYCRecruitmentDirector@gmail.com (please note that job applications sent to this email address will be deleted!).