Cover letters are usually boring, unimaginative or just not taken seriously because there is nothing new in the letter that makes the writer stand out. Typical responses from employers? “Same letter, different sender.” Not exactly the let’s-jump-right-for-the-phone reaction you are seeking. In fact, with all due respect, I'll bet your letter goes something like:
“I noticed your ad for a litigation paralegal. I am a paralegal with 10 years of experience. I have attached my resume for your review.
I am seeking a challenging position which offers me the opportunity for growth. I have extensive litigation experience and excellent skills: I have great attention to detail, am organized, an expert in research, and a team-player. I am seeking a position where I can utilize my background and skills.
I can be reached at (213) 555.1212. I will call you next week in order to schedule an interview. I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
As an employer, here’s all I can say: Blech! This candidate does not stand out from the crowd. He/she sounds just like everyone else. Let me just close my eyes, reach into the pile and pick one. I don't want that. What I want is someone outstanding.
Funny thing is, people don't think to change what they're doing. Instead, they tend to increase the volume of resumes sent expecting different results. Or, blame the market for lack of results. Career coaches tell you to send out 75-100 resumes to get one interview. I say if you send out a dynamic resume and convincing cover letter, you'll get the interview.
Here’s a little known secret: A resume only talks about 20% of the information you need to impart to get a job. It reveals none of the 80% of the information upon which hiring decisions are based. These decisions are primarily based upon emotion. Do I like this person? That’s the first thing that goes through an employer’s mind. The resume does not speak to your personality, creativity, style, work habits or critical thinking. Rarely, will a resume tell a hiring authority you are precisely the right candidate. Only a letter can start to reveal these things about you.
Here are some basic rules:
- Write a letter addressed to an individual. Call and find out to whom the letter should be addressed. I know, I know, you can't do it with a blind ad.
- Don’t use standard openings. “In response to your ad in the Daily Journal” gets a big ho-hum. Stand out from the competition! Weave information to suggest that the letter was written specifically for the opening at-hand.
- Don’t use legal terminology or try to sound “lawyerly”. You’ll sound silly instead. Using terms such as “this position is not de facto”; “Responsibilities include but are not limited to” are unlikely to impress. Frankly, “tacky” comes to mind.
- Keep it brief. Three – four paragraphs MAX! Explanations as to what has occurred in your career are not necessary. Save that for the interview.
- Link your strengths and qualifications to the job. Do not leave out your passion for the field. Cover letters not addressing the pain that needs to be fixed or the needs of the firm are likely to come across as narcissistic. It comes across as “Me, Me, and more Me”. Let the employer know you understand what it takes to fit the bill.
- Do not use standard cover letters right out of a book. Employers can quote that book. Not a pretty picture for original thinking.
- Make the letter easy to skim. No one reads anything thoroughly anymore.
- If it’s broken, fix it. Don’t use a cover letter over and over that is not working. It’s not the number of resumes you send out. It’s the quality of the cover letter and the resume.
- Use numbers or percentages where possible. Phrases such as number of billable hours, Fortune 1000 clients, and AmLaw 100 firms are impressive.
Here are a couple of samples. Use your own tone and style. (Don’t copy. Employers will only see the same ole, same ole once again.) You are going to use four topics: opener, your passion, action, and hot closer. That’s it.
#1. Re: Corporate Paralegal Position: I am a certificated paralegal with excellent references.
(OPENER) I have been fortunate to have found the occupation I love – paralegal. Although I do not have extensive experience, what I do have has only furthered my commitment. As an entry-level paralegal, I have developed a skill for detail that incorporates a thorough, flexible work plan, along with a healthy dose of a see-it-through attitude. I am devoted to continuing my own education with the many seminars I take. My greatest asset is my enthusiasm to become a top-notch and committed paralegal with a firm such as yours.
(YOUR PASSION) One reason I have chosen to apply for a position at your firm is because it is rated in the National Law Journal as one of the top 10 firms in the country. If I am hired, this fact will give me a great opportunity to incorporate my extensive product manufacturing skills along with my personal goals of becoming a high-quality paralegal with those of Acme, Acme & Acme.
(THEIR ACTION) If after reviewing my resume, you believe there might be a match, please call me. I am available Monday – Friday at 213.555.1212. Otherwise, please leave a message anytime.
(HOT CLOSER) Becoming a paralegal is more than a job to me. It’s a lifetime commitment to education.
#2. I'm available immediately and highly interested in the Paralegal/Database Coordinator position for Coffee, Coffee & Wine.
(OPENER) For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to become an expert in Relativity. I am now looking forward to applying my skills and knowledge in a new setting with an established law firm where I can continue to meet new and different challenges. My fifteen years of experience with all aspects of the eDiscovery life cycle will make me a valuable asset to both your firm and your clients.
(YOUR PASSION) After recently researching Coffee, Coffee & Wine’s vision/mission, along with your recent high-profile travel industry win, I believe that my abilities can make an immediate and positive impact on your bottom line. Particularly with my experience working with a top travel industry client leading eight litigation teams, working on cases with over two million documents along with a 93% accuracy rate, I can help by providing value-added Summation implementation. I can deliver quality performances that will lead to success stories for your clients and additional business for your firm.
(HOT CLOSER) The position of Litigation Paralegal/Database Coordinator is more than a job to me—it's my passion. Understanding legal problems, providing recommendations for training non-attorney staff, creating improvements, and providing technology solutions that support your firm’s objectives is what I can offer Coffee, Coffee & Wine.
(ACTION) I will follow up with a phone call in a few days to make sure you have received my resume as well.
#3. Write the above and add: (Do not make cover letters too long. They will not get read.)
"I took a moment to match my skills with your requirements. You may find the following chart helpful in your assessment of my skills and abilities."
Experience with trial preparation, document organization, Relativity
Full understanding and knowledge after working on many high-profile cases leading a team of 10 utilizing Relativity and other databases.
Preparation of subpoenas
Regularly prepared subpoenas both in the U.S. and abroad.
Ability to work overtime
Billable hours consistently exceed 1800 hours per year.
This unique Skill Matching technique has many excellent advantages to help get you that all important interview. It:
- will get your cover letter and resume noticed quickly;
- focuses the employer directly on skills with a brief and easy to read strong summary;
- helps the reader quickly skim your cover letter;
- helps your cover letter and resume get decided upon immediately.
It has been shown, believe it or not, that the color of your signature can improve the response (even in an email). If possible, always sign your letter using blue instead of black. Be sure to make it legible.
There you go! Tweak these, use your own style and create each cover letter unique to the job advertised. Test market to see what’s working and what’s not. Above all, if something isn't working, change what you're doing. That's the best way you'll get results.
Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing for legal professionals across the country, CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and Co-Founding Member and President of the Organization of Legal Professionals. She is the author of 10 books about legal careers including The Paralegal Career Guide 4th Ed. Chere is a national seminar speaker and a Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement and Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. She is a co-founding member of the International Practice Management Association (IPMA). Chere has been an executive in a $5 billion corporation and Paralegal Administrator for two major law firms. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Above the Law, Forbes.com, Newsweek and other publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report, has been around since 2005. She is free on Sundays from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.