Step 4: Crafting the Cover Letter/Transmittal Email
Whether your resume is accompanied by a cover letter or transmittal email, the guidelines are the same for both delivery modes. For the purposes of this section, the term “cover letter” will be used to encompass both.
The cover letter is your opportunity to: (1) tell a prospective employer more about you than what you have included in your resume; and (2) to emphasize your most compelling qualifications for the specific position for which you are applying.
You want your cover letter to:
• present a great first impression;
• stimulate interest in reading your resume; and
• encourage the reader’s decision to keep you in the running.
A cover letter affords the opportunity to personalize your application. In it, you can demonstrate that you understand the employer’s needs and gain points for having researched the employer’s organization.
Typically, employers want to learn (1) why you are interested in them, and (2) why you think you fit into their organizations. If you are applying for a position that would require you to relocate to a new geographic area, the employer will also want to know what attracts you to the region.
If they read it at all (and some employers either do not or never see your cover letter in certain cases when a human resources department has first crack at applications and only forwards the resumes of eligible candidates), employers view cover letters as a writing sample.
Writing coherently and persuasively is a big part of an attorney’s job. You should assume that employers will scrutinize your cover letter carefully and critically in order to assess your writing skill and, to an extent, your reasoning ability.
Employers strongly prefer to see cover letters that do not exceed one page in length. However, that does not mean a license to shave margins or employ a small type font. Do not use any format which causes the text of your letter to appear cramped.
It’s best to keep your sentences short and to the point and to avoid long, rambling paragraphs.
Each position for which you apply merits a targeted cover letter. A standard, “one-size-fits-all-employers” cover letter is not recommended.
Appearance, Style and Format
Your cover letter should have the “look and feel” of a quality presentation. Think of it as the wrapping on a present. The wrapping should give the impression that there is something of value inside. If you are submitting an actual hard copy letter, use high-quality white or off-white letter-size paper (8.5″ x 11″), 25% or greater cotton bond. Avoid unusual fonts. Arial, Times Roman or Calibri are recommended. Use black ink. 12-point fonts are preferred. The paper quality and color of the envelope should match that used for the cover letter.
Spelling, Grammar, Syntax and Usage
It should go without saying that your cover letter must be error-free, with no mistakes whatsoever. Employers have zero tolerance for these glitches. Whenever I encountered one, that was the end of the exercise…I never bothered to glance at the resume.
It cannot be overemphasized that technical accuracy in preparing your cover letter is essential. Employers are inclined to make snap judgments, if only to reduce the pile of applications they have to read. Typos, spelling mistakes, and grammatical errors are an immediate turn off. Employers jump to the conclusion that you are careless and inattentive to detail.
Never rush this important piece of correspondence. Take the time to proofread your cover letter carefully. Better still, have someone whose language skills you trust review your letter to make sure it contains no errors.
What to Include
A rough rule of thumb applicable to almost all cover letters is to think of them in terms of four paragraphs, following a personal salutation (if you know or can determine who will be reading your cover letter…otherwise, “Dear Colleague” will do).
Paragraph 1: Your reason for writing, e.g., “I saw your ad for a tax evasion attorney at www.alcapone.com.” Alternatively, if you are submitting an unsolicited application, a reference to a mutual acquaintance might be a good entrée, e.g., “Mr. Benjamin Siegel of Las Vegas suggested that I contact you regarding your need for a tax evasion attorney.”
Paragraph 2: You indicate some knowledge of the employer’s concerns, e.g., “It appears that many of your colleagues in similarly situations have sought and are seeking efficient, economical representation before the IRS.”
Paragraph 3: You highlight information that shows that you are a good match for the job, e.g., “I successfully represented Frank Nitti in a similar case two years ago. Moreover, I often wine and dine Chicago judges and prosecutors (including Mr. Ness) at my home.”
Paragraph 4: You cite your enclosures and inquire about the next step in the hiring process, e.g., “I look forward to the opportunity to elaborate on my qualifications with you at your convenience. However, please note that Valentine’s Day is not a good time.”
This is not a rigid, rule-driven construct. It may need adjustment to your particular circumstances. For example, if you are making a major career change, you may want to mention this and provide some context while also highlighting your transferable knowledge and/or skills. Another reason for deviating from the suggested approach, above, might be if you have a gap in your work history and can mitigate or extenuate it in your cover letter.
If you are asked for your salary history or expectations, you will not be able to avoid responding. Ignoring such a request risks elimination from further consideration. Employers typically seek this information in order to screen out candidates who are clearly outside the contemplated salary arena. Before responding, find out as much information as possible from industry or other sources about what the job pays.
Be “employer-centric.” Avoid giving the impression that you are more concerned with your interests and desires than with what the employer wants or needs. In fact, you want to convey just the opposite impression, i.e., that meeting the employer’s wants and needs is your first concern.
Don’t repeat your resume. Either say something different about yourself, or express the material in a different way.
Step 5: But What If I am Directed to Apply Using an Online Application Form?
Technology has made it increasingly difficult to get your qualifications—as you want them to appear—to the person you want to impress. Online application forms are popular with employers, especially if they have a human resources department, because they make it easy to both store applications (in the “ether”) and extract exactly what the job ad says is being sought.
Great danger for candidates accompanies both of these employer advantages. Virtual applications can be lost with the stroke of a key. Moreover, even if your application makes it to the employer’s database, it may not emerge if the search terms used to extract qualified candidates do not match terms you employed.
There is, however, a way to protect yourself while also distinguishing yourself from the competition. That is by submitting a digital resume and transmittal email (or hard-copy resume and cover letter, which is preferred for the reasons indicated below) to the individual for whom you will be working if hired, in addition to the requested online application. If not indicated in the job ad, you should try to determine that person’s identity and contact information.
Once able to pinpoint your prospective boss (or his or her deputy), you can send a resume and cover letter to him or her, indicating that you submitted your application as per the job ad’s instructions, but that you wanted the recipient to also be able to see and judge you on the basis of your own personal response. In any event, it is important to get across the fact that you followed instructions. This is not a substitute for the online application, but a supplement to it.
The reason why a hard-copy resume and cover letter is preferred is because of the “Wild West” nature of email communications, which is causing an increasing number of organizations who fear evils such as viruses and malware from opening email attachments from unknown sources. Combine that with the formatting problems you are likely to face if you include your resume in the body of your transmittal email and the advantages of a hard copy submission become obvious.