Cover Letters: critical tools for an alternative career search

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Best cover letters

The best cover letters are door openers. They should show that you understand the job for which you are applying, know some current problems in the industry, understand problems specific to the business (two different things), and that you have recommendations for solutions or strategies for problem solving. Present these elements clearly, and employers will want to talk to you.

A letter that opened the door for an interview (and a job)

I had never been a law school career advisor when I applied to 125 law school deans in 1992. I did have 10 years of sales (food business and car business), a year of law practice, and six years as a headhunter for lawyers. This is the essence of my letter:

Dean’s name spelled correctly
Institution’s correct name (Law School, College of Law, School of Law? It matters.)

Dear Dean [Correct Last Name]:

In case it is not clear why a lawyer, car sales person and headhunter for lawyers ought to be your Director of Placement (that’s what it was called in 1992), here are the four constituencies of the office, some of their problems, and a few recommendations.

The letter had two sentences about me and nearly two pages about life in a law school. Because law schools have the same constituencies and the same general problems, I did not have to demonstrate that I had been stalking the dean.

Another winner

After a frustrating year-long attempt to extricate herself from Big Case Litigation and to land a job as a non-profit development director, the candidate dropped her singularly ineffective “pick me, I’m a lawyer” letter and replaced it with:

Dear Non-Profit President:

I have served on several boards, worked on finance committees, and chaired two successful capital campaigns. I have always been deeply committed to [your issues], demonstrated by my active membership in [significant organizations.] I would like to be considered as a candidate for your open Director of Development position.

[The second and third paragraphs contained a succinct discussion of the differences between the roles of staff and board members in fundraising, and the challenges of managing on-going fund-raising and capital campaigns in a distressed economy.]

[Last paragraph.] In addition to my board service, I am a practicing attorney who has demonstrated commitment to public service by [short list of pro bono projects]. I hope to be able to harness my knowledge of active board service, my commitment to [your stuff], and the technical skills that I bring as a lawyer in service of your organization.

When she wrote “Pick me, I’m a lawyer,” she distracted prospective employers from her relevant experience, commitment to the organization’s work, and her transferable skills. Three weeks later, she had job offers.

Telepathy is not a job search tool.

You have to show that you have potential to get the work done. Although you may never have worked in that industry or performed the specific tasks that are critical to an employer’s enterprise, you have to give her something to onto that will justify calling you for an interview. Unless you are applying for a job that is titled “lawyer,” writing “Pick me, I’m a lawyer” is a non-starter.


Susan Gainen presented Alternative Careers for Counselors Without Secret Job Drawers at the 2013 NALP Educational Conference in April 2013. This post is adapted from one published by Bloomberg Law on April 10, 2013. The entire post, Cover Letters and Resumes: Critical Tools for Alternative Career Searches, can be found behind the Bloomberg Law-Law Schools pay wall, and it will be available to NALP members under the 2013 Conference Handouts tab by May 10, 2013.

About susangainen

Whimsical Wildlife Documentarian. Abstract Painter. Writer. Teacher. Explorer.
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