Q: Could you please provide some guidance on the form of cover letters to introduce my resume to a law firm? For some reason, I find the cover letter more difficult to write than the resume. I am afraid my cover letters sound trite and canned. What information should I make sure to include?
A: The cover letter is a critical document and it should absolutely be more time-consuming to prepare for submission than the resume. The first rule of effective cover letters is to make every one personal. Canned letters are as appealing as junk mail. Although a well-constructed resume can be reused with minimal adjustment for just about any job application your cover letter should be carefully considered and drafted anew for each application. The resume should clearly describe your education, experience, and background, which don't change. The cover letter should connect your skills and experience to the needs of the potential employer and will require more careful consideration.
Make sure you have some tangible connection with the person you're contacting before you draft the letter. For an immediate link, refer in your first sentence to the name of any mutual acquaintance. If you know of a common affiliation or interest (such as graduating from the same law school or an article written by the recipient), use it to open your letter. If you have achievements you know the recipient would find compelling, start out by describing them. If you have no specific information about the person you want to write, wait to send the letter until you do!
The body of your letter is intended to motivate the recipient to set up an interview. To do that, you must quickly respond to the unspoken question: What's in it for me? Focus on the recipients needs, not how impressive your credentials are. And be specific. Rather than reciting a list of your good qualities, describe one accomplishment relevant to their needs that highlights those skills without specifically naming them. If you can't generate any accomplishments that would impress the recipient, you either don't know enough about their practice and need to do more sleuthing, or you're applying to the wrong firm.
In my opinion, it's also a good idea to use the cover letter to address up front any objections you anticipate the employer would have to your background. For example, one of my lawyer-clients decided to return to legal employment as a paralegal after a 10-year break for child rearing. She explained her reasons in her cover letter as twofold: She wanted a regular work schedule because she still had kids at home, and she'd learned in practice that she preferred the type of investigative and organizational work that was now the bailiwick of paralegals. It was this explanation that caught the eye of the hiring coordinator and led to an interview and subsequent offer.
Finally, use an active closing that forces you to follow up, rather than waiting for the recipient to make the first step. Request a meeting and tell the recipient when you'll call to schedule it. Then do it!