Why write a cover letter? Aren’t employers just going to turn to the resume right away, since they don’t have time to read cover letters? While it may be true that some employers do not read cover letters, most not only read them, but also consider them important. Many view it as your first writing sample. And, since the vast majority of legal work is written work, it is a good idea to present your best work up front.

There are two opposite, yet equally wrong, myths about cover letters. First: “A cover letter is just a rehashing of the resume.” Wrong – that would be a waste of time. A cover letter that repeats one’s experience is a duplication of the resume and does not add value to your application. Second: “You shouldn’t use anything from your resume in a cover letter.” Wrong again – your cover letter qualitatively expands the information that is in your resume. A cover letter which is completely unconnected to the resume may do you a disservice if the letter and resume are ever separated.

You should strive for a middle ground: a strong cover letter introduces your resume by highlighting the components which are most relevant to the job and supplements the resume with important information which does not easily fit on the resume. For example, say that you are applying to work for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. On your resume, you have indicated that you belong to the law school’s environmental law society and that you volunteered for Earth Justice last summer. Obviously, those two pieces of information should be included in the cover letter in the context of what you skills and experience you have to offer.  In addition, you would add connections to the area, e.g., you were born in Mississippi; you plan to sit for the MS bar, etc.

Remember, your cover letter is more than a transmittal sheet.  It provides the employer with a glimpse of you as a person and potential colleague.

Cover Letter Tips

Keep the following points in mind as your write and rewrite your cover letters:

  • Write to a specific person.
  • Use the person’s name and title.
  • Make sure the spelling is correct.
  • Cover letters should never include the salutations “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Hiring Partner,” or “Dear Sir or Madam.” But do include a salutation; never put “Jane Doe:” as your salutation.

Include the following information:

  • Position you are applying for and how you learned of the opening.
  • Why you are applying for the position, i.e., level of interest.
  • Explanation of your qualifications and how you can contribute to the organization.
  • Make reference to your resume; but don’t repeat the same information.
  • State what action you want from them: an interview.
  • Indicate what follow-up action you will take.

General Rules:

  • Every resume should be accompanied by a cover letter, unless the employer indicates otherwise.
  • Limit your cover letter to one page.
  • Check and recheck for accurate spelling and grammar. Do not rely on spell-check.  This procedure is especially important when you are sending out multiple letters—make sure the name in the salutation and the addressee match.

Some common attributes of bad cover letters:

  • Poor overall appearance
  • Poor grammar, punctuation and spelling
  • Rambling, lack of focus
  • Self-focused instead of employer-focused
  • Bland, boring text
  • Embellished qualifications, bragging

View the “Winning Cover Letters” presentation