Many jobs are filled through networking and referrals, but regardless of how the process begins, eventually someone will ask for your job application materials. You need to be ready. The main purpose of the application materials is to get you in the door. To do this effectively, they must offer clear, concise and error-free information. Traditionally, legal employers will seek a resume, cover letter, writing sample, and references or letters of recommendation.
Below are materials you may find useful in updating your documents to meet legal-industry standards.
Resumes need to be well written, well edited, consistent, visually appealing and honest.
Studies show that employers spend only a matter of seconds looking at your resume. It is essential that your resume convey your experience, accomplishments, and talents quickly, clearly, and in a way that is relevant to the position for which you are applying.
The law is still a fairly traditional, conservative profession. Stick to traditional fonts and black and white. A majority of hiring partners continue to report that they prefer a one-page resume but it is more common than in years past to find acceptance of a two page resume if the second page is clearly warranted. Think critically about every word in the document.
Using the proper tense (past for former jobs, present for current jobs), the proper verbs (active vs. passive), and plain English in a easily accessible format can make the difference between a resume being tossed and it being added to the interview pile. Having great experience and a strong academic foundation will do you no good if you make it too difficult for the employer to discover your finest attributes! Never forget that a resume is also a visual document: It must appeal to the reader and invite them in.
Employers tell us over and over that they receive resumes and cover letters with typos, incorrect spellings of the firm’s name, and errors in grammar. Don’t let this be you. Have someone in the CDO, your spouse, your roommate, your friend, your references – anyone who is willing – review your materials and make sure that they are error-free.
The main purpose of a cover letter is for you to introduce yourself in such a way as to generate interest in your background and qualifications. Your resume and cover letter will not get you the job – their main goal is to get you the interview.
Good cover letters take time to write. You need to research the employers and choose your words carefully to make the cover letter unique and effective. We will provide some sample paragraphs and letters below to assist you, but be careful of “borrowing” too much as the letter needs to represent you.
A cover letter should be short, concise, and to the point. As a general rule, cover letters should not exceed one page. Cover letters are written in traditional business letter format. Your cover letter should be consistent with the format and style of your resume and you may even want to use the heading of your resume as a type of letterhead for your cover letter. The text of your letter should be single spaced with one blank line between each of the paragraphs.
Name and Address
Address your cover letter by name to the hiring partner or recruiting coordinator. If you are unsure of the gender of the addressee, don’t guess! You can often find profiles online with pictures of attorneys. Alternatively, do not be afraid to call and confirm the gender and spelling with a receptionist. Names like Kim, Shannon, Claire, Pat, and Kelly are all names that are used by both men and women. Not taking time to ensure you are using the proper salutation could be both embarrassing and it could cost you an interview if they choose to interpret your mistake as a lack of attention to detail.
Salutation and Closing
“Dear Mr. or Ms. (last name only):” is the only correct form of salutation. Do not use Mrs. or Miss, and include a colon, not a comma, after the last name.
For a judge, use “Dear Judge (or Justice) Smith:” Use “Justice” for judges in the highest appellate court, and “Judge” for all other judges.
Close your letter with “Sincerely,” followed by four spaces and your typed formal name. This allows room for your signature in between. If you are sending the letter electronically, it is optimal for you to print the letter, sign it and scan it back before sending. If that is not possible, simply use “/s” before your name to indicate a signature.
Indicate enclosed materials at the bottom of the letter by typing Enclosure or Enclosures (more than just the resume) after your name with a space between your name and Enclosures.
- Three main paragraphs of a cover letter:
Opening: Your opening paragraph should tell the employer who you are and what type of position you are seeking. It should also give reasons why you have chosen this particular employer. You will have to do some research on the employer. Highlight your strengths relative to the employer’s needs. Cover letters should be personalized for each employer or at least for each type of employer. Mass production of cover letters is not proven to be an effective method for most job seekers.
Body: Explain how your background and coursework make you uniquely qualified for the position. Highlight your relevant skills and experiences and how they would fit well with the employers’ needs.
Closing: Remember, the purpose of your cover letter and resume is to get your foot in the door for an interview. If you are going to be in the employer’s city at a particular time, say so. You can even offer to call the employer to set up an interview during your visit. Make sure you provide the employer with your contact information. Offer to provide any additional information that they may need. Don’t forget to thank them for their time and attention in reviewing your application.
After it is written, proofread it several times! Have at least two other people read it as well (bring it by the CDO and we can check it too). Perfection is the goal. We don’t want a typo keeping you from your dream job!
our writing sample can be a very important component of your application. Depending on the employer, it may be reviewed before the initial interview, at the offer stage, or both. A writing sample can make or break the deal for some employers.
Some employers will accept an entire piece, but others would like only an excerpt. A general rule of 5-10 pages is standard. If an employer does not specify a page limit, you may send the entire document. Make sure you select a sample of your best legal work/writing that does not contain any grammatical or typographical errors.
Many people choose to create a cover page and title it like “Excerpt from First Year Legal Writing Appellate Brief” or whatever the case may be. If necessary, a brief explanation may be advisable to give the writing excerpt context. For example:Writing Sample
Excerpt from First Year
Legal Writing Assignment-
Appellant’s Brief in Support of
Its Motion for Summary Judgment
With electronic submissions more and more the norm, hard-copies of writing samples are becoming less frequent. If they are requested, do not waste good resume paper. Simple white copy paper will suffice.
If you are using a sample from your legal writing class, you should “clean it up” based on the feedback you received. Correct any citation mistakes and grammatical errors. Here is some good advice regarding writing samples copied from a listserv discussion on the subject:
- No matter how great the comments are that your professor wrote on the paper, submit a clean copy rather than a photocopy of the graded paper.
- Proofread it again.
- Edit it again, especially if it is a long paper and there are guidelines on how many pages they want in the writing sample.
- Shepardize the cases to be sure they haven’t been overruled.
- Spend a moment with the Bluebook or ALWD Citation Manual double-checking your citations.
- You can change some of the facts if you like. It is no longer a writing assignment, and you can get rid of those questionable facts that made readers raise their eyebrows at your analysis.
- If the writing assignment used funny names, change them to normal names that won’t distract the reader or remind them it was a writing assignment.
Selecting a writing sample that is relevant to the type of job you are applying for it great if you have multiple samples to choose from. Appellate briefs are popular because they show that you can set forth facts objectively, and you can also advocate in the argument section.
Remember, if you want to use a sample from work, you must get permission of your employer.
References (or letters of recommendation)
Employers ask for references as a way to confirm that all you say is true and that you really are as good as you look on paper. Employing someone is a leap of faith that can cost an employer thousands of dollars. Often, your references are one way to assure the employer the decision to hire was a correct one.
Your references should be able to speak to your abilities as a student and an employee. Your references need not all be legally related but they should all be academic or employment related and not personal. The most important factor is how well the individual knows you and can speak to your abilities. Who knows you best? Who is the most articulate? Who has been the most supportive of your chosen career path? Who has first-hand knowledge of your analytical abilities or your work ethic? As a first year student you will likely not have any references from the law college yet. As you enter your second year, however, employers will expect to be able to call upon a legal reference who can speak to your abilities as a lawyer-in-training. Take time to get to know the professionals at the law college and to let them get to know you.
How Many and How?
Three to five references are usually sufficient. Once you identified the people you would like to use as references, you must ask them if they are willing to serve as a reference. Never assume that someone is willing to speak positively on your behalf. You should call or e-mail your potential references and ask their permission to list them as a reference. Ask them if they would have any reservations recommending you. You may think that because your professor is friendly he or she would make a great reference for you. It could be that the professor likes you but would never hire you because you are habitually late to his or her class. You need to know up front that the recommendation will be positive. Some professors may not feel like they know you well enough. In that case, be polite and work toward a future date when they may know you better.
The Dean’s Office has traditionally had a program that will reimburse students up to $20 for taking a professor out to lunch. Grab a friend and invite your favorite professor!
Nurture your References
You should thank your references and remind them of your accomplishments and goals. Provide them with a current copy of your resume and always keep them up to date on the jobs you are applying for so they are not caught of guard with a call out of the blue. Remember that many businesses have policies which may prevent them from doing more than verifying employment dates of past employees. You may want to make sure that your potential reference is willing to go beyond that to an “off the record” endorsement of your work, if asked.
Once you have identified your list of references provide them with a current copy of your resume and keep them updated on your search and on your successes.
Your references are not part of your resume. They should be listed on a separate page but following the same format. Create a blank document and out the same heading that appears on your resume at the top. Title it References and then list the names down the side of page. Put the name and the contact information preferred by the reference (phone, address, email, etc.). It is also common to include some indication of the relationship between you and your reference (e.g.: Professor, Direct Supervisor, Supervising Attorney, etc.) if it is not going to be obvious to the employer. This is especially true if your reference has changed positions or titles since you worked with them.
Law School Transcripts are available by e-mailing Darice Cecil.
You should use the 9.0 scale when describing your GPA. If you want to help give someone an easy reference point you can indicate your GPA something like this on your resume:
GPA: 6.345/9.0 (6.0 = B)