Letters - Cover and Otherwise

Quite possibly the most dreadful task of any job search is composing an effective letter. Note that we hesitate to use the word "cover" when describing the letters you will compose in your job search. Your skilled Career Planning Center staff is of the opinion that the phrase "cover letter" connotes a particular type of letter and often inhibits you, the seeker of the ultimate job, from giving thoughtful consideration as to what the actual purpose and function of the letter you are about to draft are. An aggressive and productive job search requires you to draft letters beyond the typical, "enclosed-please-find-a-copy-of-my-resume-letter."

Hopefully, you are now contemplating what types of letters you may compose. The answer includes, but is not limited to the following:

1. A networking letter to a Marquette alum or other direct contact.
2. A letter requesting an informational interview.
3. A letter requesting a job interview.
4. A letter following-up on an interview.
5. A letter expressing gratitude for any number of things.

Although the letters you draft will differ in purpose, there are components of style and format that are consistent for all job-related correspondence. Consider the following tips when composing a letter to a potential employer.

  • The letters you send, not your appearance or amazing personality, often carry the burden of making your first and last impressions?be certain they make good ones. Letters need to be aesthetically pleasing. Print your letters on the same paper you use for your resume; use traditional/conservative fonts, black ink, and normal margins. Letters should be single-spaced with double-spaces between paragraphs. The practice of law attacks the eyesight first?be kind and use a font no smaller than 10 pt. An 11pt or 12 pt font are preferred.
  • Your letter must be ERROR FREE. Any error, no matter how minuscule, sends the same message: "I don't care enough about a possible job with you to be thoughtful, thorough and precise. And by the way, I likely won't be thoughtful, thorough and precise if you hire me." There is no forgiveness for flaws. If your letter has an error, it is highly likely it will end up in the discard pile during the initial screening of applicants.
  • Your letter must be coherent and persuasive. Advanced writing skills are essential for a practicing attorney. If you fail to demonstrate these skills in your correspondence, no matter what your resume reflects, the employer will question your qualifications.
  • THE LETTER MUST BE EMPLOYER SPECIFIC. Let us say it again...THE LETTER MUST BE EMPLOYER SPECIFIC. A form letter or one which suggests "mass-mailing" is not going to get you very far. Employers are more apt to take time to interview candidates who express a genuine and specific interest in their firm/business/organization. Extremely qualified candidates can be overlooked for failing to send an enthusiastic employer-specific cover letter. With that said, you should not make statements about the employer which you can not support. If you note that you are interested in the employer because of the reputation of its securities litigation, be prepared to discuss your knowledge of this practice area.
  • NEVER send a letter addressed: "To whom it may concern." Do your homework and locate the name of the hiring partner and/or recruiting coordinator and address the letter to that individual.
  • If ties between you and the employer's city are not obvious, you need to include a statement in your letter that establishes your interest in that particular location and/or identifies your connection to that community. For 3L's, another method of demonstrating your commitment to move to a particular area is by including a statement that you intend to take that state's bar examination on a particular date.
  • Along similar lines, if you are sending a letter to an out-of-state employer, consider including a statement that you would be willing to travel to interview with that employer at your own expense or include dates you intend to be in the area and are available for an interview. An employer may be more interested in meeting with you if they do not have the expense of paying for airfare and accommodations.
  • If you indicate in your letter that you have enclosed a resume, transcript, etc., make certain you actually enclose it. Failure to include identified enclosures is a sign of carelessness.
  • GET THE TITLE RIGHT. Unless the name is obviously gender specific, you must confirm the recipient's gender. When in doubt, call and confirm with the employer's receptionist or check the firm's webpage for a picture! Do not let a misplaced "Mr." cost you an interview.
  • Always consider presentation. Choose an envelope which accommodates the materials you need to send. Resist the temptation to handwrite the addresses on the envelope. If you can't figure out the envelope function on your computer, use the Career Planning Center's typewriter or ask a member of the CPC staff to assist you.
  • By all means, make certain you include correct postage. Sending letters, resumes, writing samples and transcripts postage due may leave a lasting impression but not likely one that will land you an interview!
  • If you are using a template letter and manipulating it to be employer specific, make certain that the letter is fully adapted for its current audience. Recruiters can tell many a tale about receiving letters addressed to them but with another employer's name left in the body of the letter. This is not a recommended strategy!


An effective job search-related letter ? no matter what the specific purpose?must address the following five questions.

1. Who are you?

  • Provide the reader with a brief description of who you are. Ex. "I am a third year law student at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin..."

2. Why are you writing this letter?

  • The recipient of your letter has better things to do with his/her time than try to deduce through implication what in the heck you are asking of him/her. Be specific. The reader cannot respond to you if they do not know what you want. If you are responding to a posted position and want to be considered for an interview?identify the position and tell them you want to be considered. If you are writing to a Marquette alum to network and learn more about the Seattle job market, specifically tell the reader you understand that no jobs may be available and you do not intend for them to help you find a job, but that you are simply hoping to meet with them to discuss their personal experiences with respect to practicing law in Seattle.

3. Why them?

  • Depending on the purpose of your letter, the "them" may be an organization/firm/agency or an individual attorney. For example, in a traditional "cover" letter, you need to include a brief paragraph or a few statements in which you articulate your specific interest in that employer (e.g., nature of work, size of firm, type of client, reputation, location). If you have difficulty formulating an answer as to why you want to work for this specific employer, you need to evaluate whether you are really interested in pursuing this job, and if the answer is yes, you need to conduct further research in order to make a strong, genuine statement of "why them." The "them" may also be a specific person. In the event you are writing a letter to a Marquette alum for the purpose of networking, you need to inform the reader that you are contacting them because they are a Marquette Alum and that they are practicing at an employer, in a practice group or in a location which interests you.

4. Why you?

  • The first part of why you is answered by an effective "why them" statement. Confused? Think about it--employers want to hire people who want to work for them. When you provide the employer with a genuine and compelling response as to why you are seeking a job with that employer, you already gave the reader a reason to give you further consideration. The second part of "why you" is providing the employer with concise statements about why they should hire you or meet with you for an informational interview. Consider your response to the "why you" question as your brief in support of your motion to request an interview. This is the time to market yourself with compelling statements of what you can do for the employer. The letter is a precursory response intended to incite interest and to provoke the reader to want to further consider the stellar qualifications emulated on your resume which you are more than happy to discuss during an interview/meeting.

5. What next?

  • Finally, you need to define for the reader what you intend to do next. Are you going to follow-up in a week with a telephone call to arrange an interview? Are you going to wait to hear from them? Are you going to forward additional information? Are you requesting that the reader send you additional information? You must detail what you asking of the reader or what they can expect of you.