How to write winning covering letters for law firms
Many solicitors’ firms will ask you to apply for a training contract with a covering letter. Some will want you to upload this as part of an online application form, while others – usually smaller, high street firms – will want you to send the letter alongside a CV. In either case, the covering letter is likely to be the first aspect of your application that the recruiter looks at.
Legal recruiters at major law firms read through hundreds, if not thousands, of applications from aspiring trainees each year and will only spend a minute or so reading your covering letter. Some recruiters say that they make their decision paragraph by paragraph – if they aren’t impressed by halfway through, they might not even read the rest of the letter. Your covering letter creates a powerful first impression, so make it easy for the recruiter to see that you have strong potential as a solicitor.
Explain why you want to be a solicitor at that law firm
A covering letter is a golden opportunity to explain your motivations for becoming a lawyer and for applying to that firm. ‘A well written, succinct, persuasive covering letter crafted by an aspiring trainee solicitor who has really thought about the firm stands out,’ says Nichola Rowe, director of legal human resources at Cleary Gottlieb. ‘Ask yourself: what sets this firm apart from other law firms and how do my individual skills and experiences marry with that firm?’.
The best letters have a clear structure, such as:
Introduce yourself, explain what stage you are at in your studies (including the university you’re attending), state that you are applying for a training contract and where you saw their advert. This should only be a sentence or two.
The second paragraph should cover why you want to be a solicitor and why you want to work for that law firm in particular. Highlight any experiences you’ve had that have convinced you that you want to be a solicitor, such as vacation schemes or even mini-pupillages – it will impress recruiters if you’ve put the effort into comparing the two sides of the legal profession, as long as you can explain why you’ve picked the solicitor route (this could come up at interview).
Make it clear why you want to work in the particular area of law that the firm focuses on. For example, if it’s a commercial firm you’ll want to draw on any work experience you’ve had at other commercial firms. Show off your research about the firm by explaining your interest in their main practice areas – don’t just say ‘I am interested in shipping law’, for example, but provide evidence of that interest.
You might also want to mention the firm’s training structure. Some firms will have compulsory seats, in which case you’ll need to show an interest in those areas. If you’ve chosen a firm that doesn’t have compulsory seats, or has no seat structure at all (such as Jones Day), then you could explain why this appeals to you above a more defined structure.
Next, you need to pitch yourself to the recruiter. Make it clear that are suited to a career as a solicitor by highlighting achievements that show you have the competencies the firm have asked for. If the firm hasn’t specified exactly what they’re looking for, see our article here on the skills most legal recruiters want from applicants. Don’t just say ‘I have good communication skills’ – you need to mention an achievement that hinged on your use of those skills.
If you’re uploading a covering letter as part of a larger application form you should avoid repeating examples you’ve used to answer questions on the form. Give as broad a picture of your skills and experience as possible and only repeat something if you think it is particularly significant. Your covering letter is an introduction to get the recruiter’s attention, not your overall application.
Close by referring the recruiter to your CV and stating your availability for interview. A covering letter should be a maximum of one page, with a font size of 11 or 12.
Before you hit ‘send’
Once you’ve put your covering letter together, don’t be tempted to rush it off. Ask friends, family and your university careers adviser to proofread it. ‘There is no good excuse for spelling errors, especially when you’re applying for a job that requires scrupulous attention to detail,’ points out the legal recruitment advisor at Ince & Co. ‘The number of applications we receive that contain errors is surprising. Your application is all we’ve got to go on so you owe it to yourself to ensure it’s not let down by something so easily avoidable.’ Remember that recruiters will be judging your ability to communicate professionally with clients on the professionalism of your covering letter – you’re making a pitch, just like you would do as a practising solicitor.