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We've covered resumes before, but cover letters are a whole other ballgame. The cover letter -- which you should be sending even if a job description doesn't ask for it -- is your time to shine, to separate yourself from all the other lawyers blindly sending their resumes into the ether.
While there's no single correct way to craft a cover letter, there are some general principles you can follow for a smoother experience and with any luck, a better outcome (read: a job!).
1. Reference specific events from your work history.
If a job description calls out a specific skill or responsibility as a requirement, you absolutely must mention it in your cover letter. For example, a job for a contracts associate wants experience drafting contracts. In your cover letter, talk about the specific experience you have drafting contracts, saying more than "I drafted contracts." Be more descriptive, like, "Between 2011 and 2012, I assisted in the preparation of over a dozen contracts between multiple Fortune 500 companies."
2. Break up the cover letter into discrete parts.
Like peeling an apple or waging a war, there are many different theories about how to best to get the job done. Some people advocate breaking it into different parts, arranged by theme. In a three-part letter, the first part consists of your qualifications, the second your reasons for wanting to work there, and the third the specific qualifications you have.
Or, you could use up to three of the desired qualifications from the job posting and provide examples of how you meet those qualifications, weaving your enthusiasm for the job in between. No one style is the best, but weaving requires more skill than using thematic chunks.
3. Solve the employer's problem.
A cover letter must be framed in terms of how you can help the employer, never focusing on how working for the employer will benefit you. And please, skip any mention of "improving" your skills with this prospective employer; that says only that your skills aren't already up to snuff. Remember: The employer has a problem; i.e., a lack of someone in a particular position. You're here to solve that problem.
4. Keep it short.
Unlike my advice about resumes (that it's as long as it has to be), a cover letter should really only be a page long. There are very few instances in which a cover letter should go beyond a page. For example, an academic position or a judicial clerkship might warrant two pages, but not a private practice job. The cover letter/resume is only supposed to get you an interview, not get you the job right away.
5. Just proofread it, will you?
You know why we keep saying this? Because people don't do it. If you put on your resume that you "pay attention to detail," (which you shouldn't say anyway, a lawyer is born with outstanding attention to detail) but your cover letter contains typos, it's going into the cylindrical file. Or perhaps be burned to keep warm during this chilly winter.