Cover letters and transmittal emails accompanying resumes and job applications are both an opportunity and a curse. These are usually the first contact between a candidate and an employer, and psychologists are unanimous that the first impression is the one that imprints the strongest on the employer. That makes it a key component of the job-hunting process, one that cannot be taken lightly. What follows is a recommended 5-step process for designing cover letters/transmittal emails that advance your cause.
Step One: Deconstructing the Job Ad
Don’t Take a Job Ad Literally
The most important point about job ads is this: they are almost always written with the “ideal” candidate in mind. Naturally, every employer seeks the “dream teamer.” However, only rarely does such a superstar come along. What employers actually seek is “next best.” Candidates often “mis-read” job ads this way. You may not “leap tall buildings at a single bound” or are able to “outrun speeding bullets.” That does not automatically mean that the advertised position is out of reach.
Don’t Refrain from Applying If You Lack Some of the Qualifications
When you see a legal job ad that seeks “2-3 years of experience,” do not reject it out-of-hand without a deeper analysis of the situation and context. You may feel encouraged to apply anyway.
One of my former attorney counseling clients needed to find a job in Birmingham, Alabama as a “trailing spouse,” her husband having just taken a new position there. Before law school, she had spent a year as a paralegal in Washington, DC with a trademark law firm drafting and filing several hundred trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and helping the firm’s attorneys prepare cases before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board challenging trademark refusals. She saw an ad in a Birmingham newspaper for a company seeking a Trademark Attorney that stated: “at least two years of experience required.” She applied anyway, reasoning that Birmingham was unlikely to have many attorneys that could possibly match her intense Washington, DC trademark experience, notwithstanding that she acquired it as a paralegal. She crafted a cover letter emphasizing her experience and was invited for an interview. She got the job.
The employer was willing to overlook her lack of the precise experience requirement because (1) there were few trademark attorneys in Birmingham, and (2) she had extensive trademark experience that equaled or exceeded that of many lawyers.
Each job ad should be read in context. While the would-be trademark lawyer above might have had no chance at a comparable job in Washington, DC, where hundreds or even thousands of experienced trademark attorneys practice, Birmingham was a very different story. Geography plays a major role in attorney supply and demand.
Other factors than pure geography may also play a role in the decision whether or not to apply:
Assessing potential competition is important. An artificial environment like the Washington, DC area, where government and federal contracting dollars fuel a great deal of hiring, competition for any legal job is almost always intense. That is not the case in many other places. A resume that looks unprepossessing in one location may be very intriguing to employers elsewhere. In the latter locales, competition is likely to be less and employer are likely to be more flexible when it comes to rigid adherence to the qualifications and requirements specified in a job ad.
There will be some occasions, of course, when you cannot ignore the stated experience requirements. Public sector employers, for example, have far less wiggle room in this respect. Their flexibility is limited by existing official position descriptions that, for example, unambiguously state a years-of-experience requirement. Private sector employers, in contrast, are rarely so constrained.
Step 2: Assessing Your Background Against a Job Ad
Once you have deconstructing the job ad, you need to compare your background against the specific mandatory and desired qualifications stated in the ad. The easiest way to do this is to put together a two-column chart, with the job requirements in the left column and how you match up to them in the right column. Place the employer’s requirements in the sequence in which they appear in the job ad, from top to bottom. Keep the following rough rule of thumb in mind: requirements are usually listed in their order of importance to the employer. Having done this, you now have a “visual” of how you stack up to the employer’s mandatory and desirable requirements.
Step 3: Deciding Whether to Apply
This is an ad hoc judgment call, based on how you believe your background and transferable skills match up with the job ad. However, unless you are completely unqualified, based on my experience observing thousands of job-seeking attorneys, never say never. I have seen and been involved in numerous job campaigns where an individual who appeared at first glance to be outside the parameters of what an employer said s/he was seeking succeeded in eliciting interest.
Up Next: Steps 4 and 5, Crafting the Cover Letter/Transmittal Email