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Unless you are asked to provide only a resum�, you will need a cover letter. Why? A cover letter gives you an opportunity to draw an employer’s attention to the accomplishments that are most relevant to the position you are seeking. Using the narrative form of a cover letter, you can highlight and synthesize the significant portions of your background and experience. In this way, your cover letter complements your resum�, which is limited to a reverse chronological recitation of your qualifications. An effective cover letter requires considerable thought and effort, and, consequently, I am often asked whether it is worthwhile, whether anyone will bother to read it. My answer in both instances is “yes,” especially when you weigh the risk against the reward. If an employer reads a perfunctory or poorly written cover letter, you could lose an opportunity. On the other hand, with a well-written cover letter, you can only win: If the employer ignores it, you have lost only the time you took to prepare it; if the employer reads it, you are likely to create a stronger impression than your resum� alone can provide. Always assume that an employer will read your cover letter. Some read the letter first, to gain an overall impression. Others review the resum� first and then turn to the letter for additional information. For that reason, your cover letter must never rehash the contents of your resum�. Whenever I have been in the position of determining whether to interview a candidate, I have read the cover letter to gain a better sense of the individual behind the resum�. Avoid the temptation to try to stand out from the crowd by such ploys as setting up your letter as a summons and complaint and then parodying the language of a pleading with information about yourself. The cute letter is an attention-getter, but not in the way you intend. Very likely, your creation will be shown around the office, for a laugh or a grimace, depending on how clever you are, but you will not be taken seriously, no matter how good your credentials. With all that in mind, if your cover letter is supposed to impress an employer and be something different from your resum�, how do you put it together? Basically, it consists of an introductory paragraph, followed by one or more paragraphs in the middle where you sell the employer on your credentials, and wrapped up with a short concluding paragraph. It is certainly a simple structure, but there are several areas where you can encounter problems. Frequently, candidates start their letters by stating the way in which they heard about the position. This is only effective when a contact has referred you to the employer. In such cases, the first words in your letter will be the contact’s name; for example, Jane Jones suggested that I forward my enclosed resum� to you. FOCUS ON WHAT YOU OFFER In all other cases, your best strategy is to begin by focusing the employer on what you have to offer that relates to the position which you are seeking. For instance, I am a corporate attorney with more than four years of experience in mergers and acquisitions. After that, you can mention your source for learning about the opening. For the majority of people, the most difficult part of the cover letter is the middle or “sell” portion. After spending considerable time writing a resum�, many people shudder at the thought that they still have more work to do. This reaction can lead to a letter that is a half-hearted, cursory attempt or a long-winded repetition of the resum�. In either case, you fail to maximize the effort you put into your resum�. To avoid this pitfall, establish a theme or themes for your cover letter. You can do this by first determining which skills and areas of your background best fit the job and which ones are related or transferable to it. Next, see which themes emerge. Then, structure your letter to stress them. For example, if you are a commercial real estate attorney with strong negotiating skills and you are seeking a position calling for that background, then you can emphasize your substantive knowledge and your negotiating expertise. Include facts to back up your statements without setting forth a job-by-job replay. Most likely, with two themes, you will devote two paragraphs to your discussion. Even though you may have many other accomplishments on your resum�, incorporate in your cover letter only those that are relevant to the position for which you are applying; an employer will see the others when turning to your resum�. EMPHASIZE THE FACTS Next, let us assume that you are the same attorney seeking an alternative career, such as financial advisor. In that case, you will draw upon other aspects of your resum�. Your knowledge of real estate law will not come into play and your negotiating skills may not be as significant. In constructing your letter, you will have to think about which of your skills are transferable, such as your reviewing and understanding of financial statements or perhaps accounting or other business courses that you took in college or law school. Do not overplay your hand by making far-fetched connections; stick to the facts. Use objective information that leads an employer to a positive conclusion about your abilities. Your letter will not be very persuasive if it contains self-serving, conclusory statements such as “I have excellent research skills” or “I believe I will be an asset to your organization” or “I am confident that I possess the qualities you are seeking.” Saying these things, without any support, does not mean anything to an employer and they simply clutter your letter. An employer is interested in the specifics of what you have accomplished. You can satisfy that interest by quantifying, rather than qualifying your experience. For example, if you want an employer to conclude that you are an excellent commercial litigator, you can make that point in a variety of ways, such as: (1) you have succeeded in settling 10 cases for more than $1 million each; or (2) you have won more than a dozen cases on summary judgment motions; or (3) you elicited information at a deposition that resulted in settlement of a case that saved your client in excess of $500,000. These statements are designed to lead an employer to the conclusion that you have strong litigation skills. BE POSITIVE As always, use positive language. Do not include defensive statements or excuses about your abilities or apologies about what you perceive as deficiencies in your background. Avoid sentences that include “although” or “despite” as a means of explaining away some aspect of your experience; for instance, “although I have never written for a magazine … ” This often seems to be a good idea when you are focusing on your transferable skills; however, it only serves to disclaim your abilities or highlight your lack of direct experience. A stronger approach is to focus on what you have accomplished, such as, in the example immediately above, all the other writing in which you have been successfully engaged. SENSE OF AN ENDING Ending your letter can sometimes be problematic. Sign off with a statement which again expresses your interest in the position. You can also indicate your desire to meet with the employer to discuss your qualifications in greater detail. Many people conclude their letters by stating where they may be reached. This is not necessary since your letterhead already furnishes your street address, telephone number and e-mail address. Remember that your cover letter is a marketing document. Use it to provide relevant and compelling information about yourself. A strong cover letter can sway an employer favorably in your direction. Linda E. Laufer is a career consultant who has been counseling attorneys since 1991. Her e-mail address is [email protected]

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