Every candidate for a lateral or in-house role should write a cover letter. This is true even if you are working with a recruiter, and the recruiter is promoting your candidacy through other channels, such as phone calls. Why? It’s crucial that you give your recruiter any and all information that may be helpful in marketing you to the prospective employer.
I don’t offer candidates a cover letter template because it’s essential that the letter not sound insincere or formulaic. The letter should be authentic and, if signed by you, in your own voice. If you use the same cover letter to apply for multiple positions, at least tweak the text for each employer and re-read each version in full before sending. It’s easy to spot a non-tailored letter—this conveys laziness and disinterest.
Crafting a great cover letter starts with preparation. You want to be clear on what the letter is trying to achieve before you write it.
Read the job description. Read it line by line. I cannot stress enough the importance of tailoring your cover letter to the specific job and in particular to the required and preferred qualifications listed.
Research the firm/company. You must ensure that your stated interest in that employer will resonate with the reader. Make sure you have enough context to convey convincingly that your skills will help this firm achieve its strategic goals.
Think of your cover letter as a first-round interview. What questions might you anticipate? You will want to address (if applicable): a. Why are you looking to make a move, and why specifically do you want to work here, with us? b. If applicable, why do you want to move to the new city? What personal or professional ties do you have to the new location? c. If applicable, why do you want to move from a firm to an in-house role, or vice versa?
Above all, your cover letter must answer the question, “How are you going to add value to our firm/company?” In your cover letter and in your interviews, remember that it’s not about you. It’s about what you can do for them. A prospective employer will be turned off by candidates who only talk about how this move will advance their own personal goals.
Once you fully understand the opportunity and are clear on how you can add value, it’s time to start drafting. There are a number of common pitfalls to avoid.
Be concise. It’s a letter, not an essay.
Ensure that the letter is well-structured. Keep it simple: an opening sentence/paragraph, your “arguments,” and a conclusion. Your cover letter will offer substantive information, but it will also be judged as a representation of your writing and communication skills.
Connect the dots. Do not assume the relevance of your experience is obvious. You may need to help the employer get from Point A to Point B to see that you do indeed have the relevant experience.
Remember the old adage “Show, don’t tell.” Give concrete examples, especially for your relevant soft skills. There is nothing more annoying than reading “I have great interpersonal skills” with nothing to back up that claim. Consider: a. What precise skills or experiences do you have that qualify you for this job? b. What do you bring to the table that makes you unique? c. Why should we hire you instead of your competition?
Be thoughtful about tone. Err on the side of formality, but avoid sounding pretentious or unrelatable. If you are applying to a start-up, perhaps a less ceremonious tone would be more appropriate?
Do not simply repeat what is on your resume. You may want to highlight the most important points from your resume that match the job description, but the cover letter is primarily an opportunity to include relevant information not in your resume.
Explain moves and gaps. If you have made numerous moves already, have left an employer after a short amount of time, or are currently unemployed, get ahead of the issue. No need for a complete memoir, but failing to address the matter may cause the prospective employer to suspect that you’re hiding something.
If you are applying for a lateral law firm position and your class year for promotion purposes is different from your JD year, be sure to highlight this.
Proofread. Absolutely no typos!
After you’ve drafted, revised, and proofread (go do that once more, just in case!), follow best practices in sending the letter.
Try to find the appropriate recipient’s name. I am always turned off by “To Whom it May Concern” letters.
This tip is from my friend who is a senior executive with a large bank: make your cover letter and attached materials forwardable! Send everything in a clean email (separate from any personal chit-chat if you are sending to a personal contact) with the cover letter in the body of the email and not as a separate attachment.
A recruiter can help you decide which information is appropriate for a cover letter and which is not. Be sure to give your recruiter all the information and trust them to guide you. (If you don’t trust your recruiter, get a new one.) If you need visa sponsorship, you cannot start a new job within the next month or two, or you have any other complications to your job search, let your recruiter know upfront.
Will a good cover letter really move the needle? Realistically, it may only make a difference to a small percentage of applications. But why not give every job application your best shot?
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