Rediscover Your Cover Letter; By Kristina Marlow, Esq.

Didn’t land that interview? Maybe you should blame Seymour Rubinstein. It was his company, after all, that developed the software that has allowed computer-savvy job searchers to “personalize” their stock cover letters using the mail merge function.

You may have carefully drafted a solid, all-purpose letter and expected that merging it with the name and title of the firm recruiter would be sufficient. In this economy, you told yourself, you don’t have time to tailor each letter; you simply need to apply to as many firms as possible.

As the recipient of many of those letters – sometimes addressed to Mrs. Kristina Marlow or in all caps to MS. KRISTINA MARLOW – I am sorry to tell you that form letters don’t work when you are trying to land a job. Especially in this economy. Unfortunately, your fellow job searchers are employing the same “throw-it-against-the-wall-and-see-what sticks” strategy, so your cover letter and resume – which are the bakery equivalent of store-bought cake mix, pimped-out to appear homemade – are sitting in a pile of like semi-homemade applications, also cooked up by Sandra Lee wanna-be's.

The mail merge function is useful for many things: mass fundraising pleas, the annual Christmas missive, or any communication that doesn’t need to be customized. But sending a “generic” cover letter as part of a job application belies a fundamental misunderstanding of its purpose.

A cover letter is essentially a written elevator pitch, a 30-second opportunity during which you can sell your combination of education, skills, and experience. And that is what a document which is essentially the ultimate self-marketing device should do: Sell. You. To the poor, overworked recruiter who is the “Buyer” in this transaction.

Whether you are a rising 2L applying to firms with which you didn’t land OCI interview slot, or an associate looking to move laterally, the basics of making the sale are the same. 

Don’t Call Me Madam

There are no excuses for not sending your cover letter to the person currently responsible for hiring at a firm. That means not relying on the may-or-may-not-be-up-to-date firm contact list in your Career Services Office. And not addressing it to “Dear Sir or Madam.” (Ma’am is bad enough; I really don’t like being referred to as Madam.) How do you get those names? Easy. You’ll usually find the recruiter you’re looking for by Googling a firm's name, along with the words “Careers” and “Contacts." Or, do an “Advanced People Search” on LinkedIn using the Title (“recruiting”) and Company fields (specify current.)  If neither of those work, pick up the phone, call the office’s main number, and ask for the name and extension of the person who handles attorney hiring. Always use “Dear Mr./Ms. Last-Name:” as your salutation. The recruiter is not your BFF and should never be greeted with “Hi.”

After a simple introductory sentence telling the recruiter why you’re bothering her (“I am writing to express my interest in the M&A associate position posted to the firm’s website.”) and a mention of any “in” you have (“After speaking with ATTORNEY NAME about NAME OF THE FIRM, I feel confident that I could meaningfully contribute to the firm.”), you should launch into the pitch.

Sell You to the Recruiter 

Remember back to first-year legal writing as you structure your “argument” to answer two questions: (1) what makes you a good fit for a position and (2) why you want to work there. You can use variations of this structure to discuss how the skills, experience, or education you have can benefit the firm to which you are applying.

For example:

TOPIC SENTENCE: My experience as POSITION at CURRENT FIRM has provided me with the tools necessary to contribute immediately as a member of the PRACTICE GROUP team.

WHAT THE FIRM WANTS. You should have researched the firm and know what is important to it. Parrot back key words about the requirements of position, or information from the website about the desired practice area.

RELEVANT SKILL, EXPERIENCE, OR EDUCATION THAT YOU CAN OFFER: In my current TITLE position, I am responsible in part for…..

CLOSE THE DEAL: That same experience could be applied to THIS XXX…..

Your cover letter is not the appropriate venue for you to tell the recruiter how the job would benefit you. Whether it would help you (the “Seller”) develop your lawyering skills is not a concern to the recruiter (the “Buyer”) until after you’re hired.  As I liked to repeat (under my breath) as I read cover letters touting how landing the job would help the sender, “It’s not about you, it’s about us.”

Your letter should conclude with something neutral (“I appreciate your consideration and would welcome the opportunity to discuss the position and my qualifications in greater detail.”) and a traditional closing (“Sincerely,”).

A law firm recruiter wants to present to the Hiring Partner a candidate who looks like she’s been made-to-order. Serve it up.

Kristina Marlow is a Director in the Washington, DC office of the Lateral Link Group, LLC and can be reached at

Lateral Link Group LLC is a legal recruiting attorney placement firm and networking forum founded in December 2005 is a proud collaborator with Ms. JD. The company provides free career services to "Members" in the form of an online job database as well as traditional off-line recruiting and networking services. Lateral Link works with both law firms and in-house legal employers in the United States, Asia, Western Europe, and Middle East

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