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December 01, 2020

Career Services Blog

The Cover Letter: Bringing Your Skills to Life

by Devra Sigle Hermosilla, Assistant Dean of Career & Professional Development,
and Jessica Peterson, Career Services Graduate Assistant

Credit: Image by Joey Guidone, Behance

Cover letters are a crucial part of the application process and can determine whether you get an interview. Unlike resumes, which are given a quick skim, cover letters are usually read a little more closely by recruiters. It is important to take the time you deserve to craft a strong cover letter to sell yourself and bring your skills to life. 

Keep in mind that in the legal world, a cover letter is the first and most important writing sample that an employer sees. It must be well-written, persuasive, show good judgment, and have no typos. Just like with resumes, having spelling and grammatical errors in your cover letter will likely get your application removed from consideration, no matter how qualified you are. 

Here are some tips to help you get started:

Use the Same Design as Your Resume: Just as choosing a format/design for your resume is important, the same is true for your cover letter – keep it elegant, simple, and traditional. Make sure your resume and cover letter match aesthetically. It can appear sloppy and careless to submit mismatched materials that look like two different people submitted them. Coordinate these documents by using the same header, design elements, and font on your cover letter as your resume.

Use Standard Business Letter Format: The format of a cover letter is standard business letter, single-spaced, with the following key components:

  • Use the same header as your resume, with your name and contact information at the top.
  • Include the date at the top.
  • Following is the employer’s address block, with the name of the company, the name of the person hiring (or Human Resources), and full mailing address. Go out of your way to look up the company’s address, even if you are emailing the letter. If emailing, you can write “via email” with the email address underneath the physical address.
  • Next is the opening salutation. Try your best to find the name of the person who will be looking at your application materials; if you can’t find this information, though, you may write, “Dear Hiring Committee” – a modern version of “To Whom it May Concern” (also acceptable). If you are not sure whether the person you are greeting uses Ms. or Mr., then it is acceptable to use both first and last name, “Dear John Smith.” Be very careful to spell the person’s name correctly.
  • After the body of your letter, use a closing salutation such as “Sincerely” or “Best,” followed by your signature and name.

Use the Persuasive Essay Concept: While formatting is crucial for the first impression, organization and content is even more important. Do you remember first learning to write persuasive essays in grade school? Well, a cover letter is, at its core, a persuasive essay to convince an employer to give you an interview. Just like any other persuasive essay, your cover letter will consist of an introduction paragraph that includes an overview of your key supporting arguments, body paragraphs that offer evidence and support for your main points, and a conclusion to recap your stance and wrap up. IRAC, if you will. Following this structure will help guide and organize your thoughts to prevent rambling – a common problem with cover letters.

Introduction – Create a Roadmap: The introductory paragraph serves to answer the following questions:

  • Who are you? Rather than restating the obvious with, “My name is Jane Doe,” use this paragraph to provide useful context: “I am a second year law student at Lewis & Clark studying environmental law…” or “As a recent graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School, …”
  • Why are you writing this letter? Tell the employer what position you are applying for: “I am interested in your opportunity for a summer associate” or “it would be an honor to work with Smith Law as an Associate Attorney in your litigation section.”
  • Why do you want to work for this employer? Even if you want this job for the experience and connections, and even if it will look good on your resume, recruiters do not want to hear that. People want to be wanted, and this is true even for employers. Make a genuine connection with this position by presenting what is exciting to you about this specific company and position, not in terms of what you think you will get out of it. Consider how your passions match this opportunity, and what it is about this company or position that genuinely appeals to you: “Your firm’s job posting stood out as a perfect fit because I enjoy working in small collaborative work environments and I am eager to gain more hands-on experience.”
  • What makes you a strong candidate for consideration? This is where you make a few persuasive points to advocate for yourself. What skills do you have to offer? What relevant experiences do you have? These points will be what you delve into more deeply and give supporting evidence for in the following paragraphs. “I am a strong candidate for this position because of Skill or Attribute A, Skill or Attribute B, and Skill or Attribute C.” This is your essay’s Roadmap, the promise of what you intend to talk about in the next paragraphs: Skills or Attributes A, B, and C (in that order!).

Credit: Image by Joey Guidone, BehanceMiddle Paragraphs – Follow Your Roadmap: At this point, you have made claims in your Roadmap about what makes you a strong candidate, and now you need to back those claims up with proof. The middle two paragraphs of your cover letter are where you really get to bring your skills, attributes, interests, and expertise to life. Do not just list employers and tasks you already highlighted on your resume. Instead, take this opportunity to describe some projects or work you have done that really highlight those skills in action.

Organize your paragraphs by discussing Skill or Attribute A and B in the first middle paragraph, and then Skill or Attribute C in the next paragraph. Or A in the first and B and C in the next. Lead with your strongest and most descriptive experience.

Use the investigatory Ws – Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How – to describe your work. Pick experiences that are in line with the work you might be doing for this prospective employer or that highlight universally transferrable skills such as research, writing, client service, time and project management, leadership, presentation or oral advocacy, communication skills, teamwork, or a demonstrated interest in the subject.

For example, rather than simply declaring that you “have good communication skills” and are “able to communicate with people from a variety of backgrounds,” draw a picture with your words of your communication skills in action:

  • Before law school, I worked as a high school English teacher in a Title 1 district for four years. I am no stranger to difficult conversations, difficult people, or difficult situations. That experience has blessed me with the maturity to confront critical issues with grace and care. It also taught me how to communicate effectively to a range of audiences, to manage administrative as well as substantive workloads, and treat people with professionalism and respect. One of the greatest compliments I ever received as a teacher is that I have a way of making people feel seen. Now, as a law student, I hope to bring those skills to bear in making meaningful change.

Instead of an unsupported statement that you “have outstanding written and verbal communication skills,” describe a project where you really used those skills while volunteering or performing an internship during law school. Here is an example of how to show communication, research, writing skills, as well as a subject-matter interest:

  • I value communication skills, as demonstrated by my deep interest in supporting the performing arts through pro bono and volunteer work over the past four years. Through my work with the Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, under the supervision of an attorney, I took on a project to produce guidelines for local nonprofits to gain tax-exempt status. This required me to conduct extensive research into local tax codes and write a usable document for the organizations that explained the law to a non-lawyer audience with starter forms the organizations could use to complete and file in order to obtain the desired status. I met with each organization to learn about their needs and to explain whether and how a tax-exempt status might help them. My background in economics came into play and I enjoyed using my education in conjunction with my current legal training to help my clients in a tangible way.

This method works even for those without much work experience. Do not sell yourself short. Use experiences gained through your academic work, club involvement, volunteer work, or subject-matter interest. For example, to highlight your academic writing experience without the benefit of practical experience, rather than asserting you “are a good writer,” go deeper:

  • My academic performance and background give me the technical skills necessary to be a thoughtful, resourceful, and effective clerk. In Lawyering (legal writing), during my 1L year, I earned a High Pass and then an Honors Pass – the highest grades offered for that course. After completing the required courses during the first year in law school, I purposefully chose courses requiring an intensive writing component that will bolster my writing skills and allow me to apply the law to a broad range of topics. My academic accomplishments during my first year also opened the door to Lewis & Clark Law Review where I contributed as a Member this past year. This experience further refined my ability to properly cite, edit, and appreciate legal writing. I expect that my skills in the technical aspect of legal writing will only grow as I take on the responsibility of Lead Article Editor next school year.

Pull out tangible achievements such as high sales numbers, positive customer reviews, and other wins. Use the job description from the posting to make sure you address skills that are important to the employer. Click here for more examples of how to bring your skills to life in a cover letter.

A helpful strategy to make this customization of each cover letter easier and less time consuming in the long run is to keep a Cover Letter Paragraph Bank. Prepare paragraphs about your key skills/attributes/experiences ahead of time and then draw from this saved document to create tailored cover letters without starting from scratch every time. You will thank yourself later.

Final Paragraph – Recap and Close: The final step is to write a short conclusion paragraph, consisting of a brief restatement of what you have told them. Take care not to repeat yourself verbatim. Finding different ways to phrase your skills and attributes will be more impactful than repeating yourself. You can even mention strengths, interests, and skills that are adjacent to those you discussed in your letter, so long as there is a clear connection and you are not bringing things up seemingly out of nowhere. An example of this would be to highlight the genuine enjoyment you feel from working with people, which relates to and enriches the information you’ve already provided about your strong people skills, but isn’t something you’ve already said – and is self-explanatory enough that there is no need to substantiate it.

Additionally, the final paragraph will be where you make your ask. Tell the employer that you would like to work or intern with them in plain language. Again, people want to be wanted, so make sure they know that you want to work there and are hoping for an interview. Make a point to thank them for their consideration.

For more guidance, see the examples on Lewis & Clark Law School’s Career Services website. To keep your cover letter authentic and to honor your own skills, experiences, and voice, use the examples as guides without using the language directly – otherwise, your letter may end up looking too similar to others who are using the same examples.