A cover letter adds flesh to the CV skeleton. It emphasises key characteristics and qualities that your CV does not explicitly provide for. A CV should always be accompanied by a legal cover letter unless otherwise stated.
The cover letter should be persuasive and energetic. You want the recruiter/reader to feel that you are passionate about the firm and your application. They want to be wowed with your knowledge of the firm and equally impressed with your personality and skills. They are likely to think that if you can wow them in a one page cover letter, how compelling you will be writing an email to a client/at a networking event?
Also, remember that if your application is a cover letter and CV only, the cover letter is the only opportunity you have to inform the recruiter/reader why you want to secure a position with the firm. A further justification for you to make it powerful, persuasive and compelling.
A cover letter should be punchy throughout. Draw a comparison between a great cover letter and winning a boxing match. The key is to keep punching with your skills/attributes throughout the cover letter. To assist you to write a punchy/energetic cover letter, restrict the length of the cover letter to a page of A4 (or five/six paragraphs) unless the application requires a particular word limit (in this instance, ensure you utilise the words in the word limit). Use a familiar font (Times New Roman or Arial) and ensure it is easy to read e.g. utilise clear formatting.
As with most documents there is a standard structure to a cover letter. Quite simply this is an effective opening, a middle and a powerful closing. Although this appears obvious, many students often do not include an effective opening paragraph or an appropriate closing paragraph.
If possible/where known, you should address the cover letter to the known recipient. This is not always possible but with a little bit of digging/an email to the graduate recruitment team, it can be possible to determine. If the recipient is not known, the appropriate salutation is either “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam”.
The subject matter of the letter should be stated with “Application for [work experience]/[a training contract] at [the firm name]” in bold.
This is one of the most important parts of the covering letter. It must engage the reader and make an impact at the same time. Remember, it is likely that the reader has reviewed hundreds of cover letters that day/week therefore one of your objectives is to make yours stand out. Whatever you do, don’t start off saying “I am writing this cover letter because I want to secure a training contract/vacation placement with [the firm].” The recruiter/reader already knows this, hence your cover letter. By writing this you may have just lost the ability to capture the recruiters’/readers’ attention. Please don’t make this mistake. If you are told to include the position you are applying for in the cover letter you can reference this in a more compelling manner than the example provided above.
The body of the cover letter should convey at least three or four key messages e.g. the key reasons why you are applying to the firm, what your key qualities are and how these qualities can benefit the firm. Again, try to ensure these statements are supported by evidence and are expressed using captivating language. Stating “I am applying to [firm] because I am a team player, have good communication skills and work well under pressure” is nowhere near as powerful/captivating if you were to link the same characteristics to the firms’ trainee requirements on their website/as expressed by a trainee at a law fair which is evidenced throughout a specific role you have held during work experience. Providing this type of response doesn’t just tell the recruiter/reader why you are applying, it tells them (a) why you are applying (b) you have done your homework on the firm following a review of their website/speaking to a trainee at a law fair and (c) provides evidence to support this statement.
So you have captured the attention of the recruiter/reader with a powerful and energetic opening paragraph. You have also highlighted some of your key attributes/identified how this fits with what the firm is looking for and you have described why you want to secure a position with the firm with appropriate justification. Now, for the grand finale. Don’t let the rest of your cover letter down with a poor ending. You need to make one last push to convince the recruiter that they should meet you for an interview. Therefore, carefully consider how you do this. Again, persuasive language is key.
Yours sincerely or yours faithfully?
You should use ‘Yours faithfully’ where you have not addressed the recipient by name in the letter (e.g. Dear Sir/Madam), and you should use ‘Yours sincerely’ where you have addressed the recipient by name (e.g. Dear Mr/Mrs Smith).
A common question asked by students is whether they should send their CV or cover letter via email (soft copy) or in the post (hard copy)? This depends on a number of factors (i) the preference stated on the firm’s website (ii) whether it is part of an online application (iii) whether it is a speculative application or not (iv) the type of firm or (v) whether you have a contact at the firm.
Obviously, if the website requests a CV/cover letter to be sent via email, do so. If it is part of an online application don’t duplicate it by sending it in hard copy. However, if it is a speculative application (where no vacancy/placement is advertised) we would suggest sending it via soft copy and hard copy. We would also suggest writing the cover letter by hand on plain A4 instead of printing it on a computer. The impact of a handwritten cover letter is greater than the same cover letter printed on a computer. If you follow my advice, it is also worth investing in some quality paper (nothing too expensive but better than the standard wafer thin plain paper used for printing). We would also recommend using a fountain pen or ball point pen rather than a biro if possible. Remember, you are trying to make the best impression possible so why not make an effort with the appearance of your cover letter?
Finding a training contract is hard enough without a bad covering letter letting you down. You might think your CV is the star of the show, but without a good supporting act, your application will flop.
Even in these days of fancy online applications, many firms will still ask for a covering letter to accompany your application. You’ll also definitely need a covering letter if you’re planning on applying to high street and medium-sized firms.
Covering letters do much more than just ‘cover’ your CV…
A good covering letter will give a voice to the person behind your CV. It’s your chance to highlight the impressive parts of your CV, smoothly convince the employer that you’d be a fantastic trainee, and tell them what it is that makes you jig with excitement at the thought of working for their firm.
Seeing as drafting letters will be part of your responsibility as a trainee, a poorly constructed, ineffectual covering letter, riddled with mistakes, won’t exactly set a good example.
Before you put pen to paper…
Think of yourself as a Savile Row tailor, every training contract covering letter should be custom-made for the law firm. Put your excellent research skills into practice and find out as much as you can about the firm.
What areas of law do they specialise in? What is their company culture? What kind of skills are they looking for in trainee solicitors? Visit them at law fairs and scrutinise their website. You should know exactly who they are and what they do.
Next, think about the kind of skills you will need as a trainee solicitor and make a list of your own personal strengths.
Take a look at your CV and pick out the skills and experience you want to highlight in your training contract covering letter.
Constructing your training contract covering letter…
Research over; let’s have a crack at writing that covering letter. In its very basic form, it should answer these five questions:
1. Who are you?
2. Why are you writing to me?
3. Why do you want this role?
4. Why do you want to work for this firm in particular?
5. Why should we offer you a training contract?
As well as these questions, there are two words you need to keep in mind: relevance and brevity.
Keep the covering letter short, concise, and to the point. Here’s a suggestion for the general structure of your training contract covering letter, but it’s by no means gospel:
Structuring your covering letter…
Use a formal business letter template: your address and the name and address of recipient should be at the top of the letter. If you are emailing them, put the covering letter in the body of the email and omit the addresses.
Try to find out the name of the person who will be reading your covering letter. That way you can address it to them. It might be a small thing, but it does make a difference.
Here you can answer the first two questions: “Who are you?” and “Why are you writing to me?” You might want to tell them the position you are applying for (e.g. trainee solicitor), how you found out about it and, if the firm advertises more than one training contract, the year you’ll be able to start.
For example, you could say something like: “Further to your advertisement on AllAboutCareers.com, I would like to apply to your trainee solicitor position starting in 2014.”
Next, you might want to show them why you are interested in the type of work they do at the law firm. Give examples to back up your claims, such as relevant work experience, extracurricular activities or modules you’ve chosen to take at university.
Most important of all, tell the firm why you’re interested in them specifically. What is it about the firm that made you want to apply to them? And no, “the sizeable salary” and “sheer desperation” aren’t the right answers.
Here you might want to summarise the strengths and skills you have which you feel would make you an ideal trainee solicitor. Back each assertion with an example, whether that’s from previous work experience, extra-curricular activities or something else.
For instance, you might want to use your vacation work as an example to demonstrate your interpersonal skills or your commercial awareness.
Say when you’re available for interview and cover any practical issues they ask about (e.g. what your salary expectations are). Be positive: “I’m looking forward to your reply.”
You should end the letter “Yours sincerely” if it’s being sent to a named person; if you haven’t managed to find out a name then use “Yours faithfully”, followed by your name (obviously!).
- Think about the tone of your letter. It needs to be professional and formal, but, at the same time, you need to convey your own personal voice. You might want to use different ways to structure and formulate your sentences to really show off your writing style.
- If you’re emailing your covering letter or they’re likely to read it onscreen, then use a font designed to be read on a screen, such as Verdana or Helvetica. You should also use shorter paragraphs in emails as well.
- Go back over it with a harsh editing eye. Strike out anything superfluous. Can you make your sentences shorter? Can you get that point across in fewer words?
- Scrutinise your cover letter for mistakes. Double check it. Triple check it. Get your parents, your granny, the postman and your friends to proofread it. Spelling and grammar mistakes aren’t cool. End of.
If you're currently on the hunt for a training contract, head over to the training contract section on AllAboutLaw.co.uk.