The purpose of the cover letter is to capture the attention of the reader, inspire him/her to go on to read your resume, and motivate the person to call you for an interview. The cover letter is often just as important as your resume. It emphasizes your qualifications for a specific position and demonstrates your genuine interest in the employer.
The key to a good cover letter is to make it as personal as possible. All letters should be addressed to a particular person instead of to a job function (i.e., "Dear Ms. Doe" as opposed to "Dear Hiring Partner"). If you cannot get the name of the appropriate person through written or on-line resources (such as Martindale-Hubbell or the organization's web site), you should call the organization directly. If no one is designated as responsible for hiring, you could address the letter to someone who practices in your area of interest or who is an alumnus/ae of your college or the UW Law School (in other words, someone who is likely to take an interest in your resume).
Personalizing your letter goes far beyond addressing it to a particular person, however. An employer wants to know why you are writing and how your personal skills and attributes can contribute to the organization. Relate what you know about the employer's type of work and how the work matches your interests, skills and experience by highlighting information contained in your resume. In order to do this, you will need to do some preliminary research on the employer before you send out your letter. The Office of Career and Professional Development has many resources available to help you with this task. In addition, many employers have their own web sites that describe in detail the type of work they do. The information that you gather in your research will enable to you show that the decision to write to the employer was an informed one, rather than one based simply on an employer's name appearing on a generic list.
Your cover letter should be in standard business format and printed on the same bond paper as your resume. In addition to being persuasive, it is important that your letter be well-organized, concise, grammatically correct and error-free. It should not exceed one page of approximately three brief paragraphs. Finally, always remember to sign your cover letter.
Most lawyers are not "trained HR professionals" and therefore their interviewing styles, and the sorts of questions they ask, vary widely from individual to individual. Most lawyers who interview law students try to put them at ease and make it an enjoyable experience. Each interviewer's style is unique, and often the lawyer who interviews you will not have a list of prepared questions. Recently, however, a number of law firms have begun asking what are known as "behavioral" interview questions. Don't be surprised, therefore, if occasionally you encounter questions that begin with the phrase "Tell me about a time when you . . . " or "Describe a situation in which you . . . "
The most successful interviews usually are characterized by an easy give-and-take, of a conversational nature. However, to help you prepare for interviews, we have compiled below a list of some of the most commonly-asked questions that you're likely to encounter in a legal job interview.
• Why (and/or when) did you decide to go to law school?
• Why did you decide to attend the University of Wisconsin Law School?
• Now that you're IN law school, how do you like it?
• What courses have you liked best so far? What courses have you liked least? Why?
• What areas of law interest you? Do you have any idea what area of practice you would like to work in? Why?
• Tell me about your journal article [moot court topic][LAIP experience][last summer's job].
• What did you get out of this past summer's experience? What did you enjoy most?
• Tell me about your grades. [What is your class standing/class rank?].
• What is it about our firm/organization that interests you? [Why do you want to work for us?]
• What other firms/organizations are you interviewing with?
• What other cities are you interviewing in?
• Tell me about yourself.
• I see from your resume that you're an officer of the ___ student organization. Has that been a worthwhile experience? What have you learned from it?
• What do you consider to be your greatest strengths and weaknesses?
• How do you spend your spare time? [What are your hobbies?]
• Tell me something about yourself that isn't on your resume.
• Are you on law review? Moot court? If not, why not?
• What's your favorite movie? What books have you read lately (not counting law school books)?
• What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
• Did you receive an offer to return from the organization you worked for last summer?
• I see that last summer you worked at ________. Why did you decide to do that?
• Why do you want to work in ____ (city)? What ties do you have to this city/region?
• Give me an example of a time when you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem.
• Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond the call of duty in order to get a job done.
• What is your typical way of dealing with conflict? Give me an example.
Be prepared to discuss knowledgeably anything that is on your resume, because that is the document that the interviewer will be looking at while talking to you, and which he/she will use to choose topics to talk to you about. If your interviewer has a writing sample from you, be sure to refresh your recollection about the subject matter of the document, so that you can talk about it intelligently.
Questions You Might Want to Ask
At some point in the interview, the interviewer will "turn the tables" and ask you if you have any questions for him/her. At this point the ball is in your court, and it is incumbent upon you to keep the conversation going by asking some questions. These should be questions that reveal that you have done your homework and know something about the organization you're interviewing with.
Interviewer: "So, now that I've found out a little about you, do you have any questions for me?"
Student (after awkward silence): "Ummm . . . No, I think you've answered everything. Thanks."
Message to Interviewer: This student isn't really interested in my firm.
Do not let this happen to you! In preparing for your interviews, it is vitally important to have a number of thoughtful, relevant, insightful questions to ask the interviewer. This is true whether you are preparing for a 20 minute on-campus interview with just one person or a half-day off-campus interview where you meet with numerous people. Asking questions conveys self-confidence, thorough preparation and sincere interest in the firm/organization.
Try to come up with questions based on your independent research about each firm/organization and/or interviewer (and try to phrase the questions in a way that indicates you've done some advance research). Also, when formulating your questions, think about what attributes are most important to you in a legal employer. Stability and future of the firm? Working conditions? Training/mentoring programs? High profile cases or nationally-recognized clients? Commitment to community service? Once you have come up with a list of attributes, try to incorporate them into your questions. It is perfectly appropriate to glean the information you are seeking through general questions about the firm/organization or relevant (and non-intrusive) questions about your interviewer personally.
Finally, do not ask questions if the answers are readily available through the usual pre-interview research sources, such as the firm's/organization's web site, marketing brochure or NALP Directory listing (e.g., "How many female partners does your firm have?"). Also, avoid questions that would be more appropriate after you have received an offer, such as questions about salary, vacation and other benefits.
The following are sample questions; however, as mentioned above, you should only ask questions that elicit answers in which you have genuine interest. Otherwise, your questions may appear disingenuous and cause more harm than good.
• I noticed on your web site that ________is one of your clients. What type of work do you do for them? What departments in your firm are currently the busiest/least busy? I understand that the firm just opened an office in Hong Kong. What prompted that decision? What are the firm's expectations for future growth, and in what areas? What distinguishes your firm from similar firms in (Chicago, Milwaukee, etc.)? How long have you (interviewer) worked at this firm/organization/agency?What did you do before joining the firm/organization/agency? Why did you decide to join the firm/organization/agency? What do you enjoy most about working for the firm/organization/agency?What types of projects do summer clerks/interns work on?[ONLY if not described on the employer's website]
• How, and how often, are summer employees evaluated?[ONLY if not described on the employer's website]
• How is feedback provided during the summer? How do summer employees get their assignments?[ONLY if not described on the employer's website]
• How many offers did you make to summer associates last year? How many of those offers were accepted? What do you like best about your (job/position/firm/organization/agency)? What do you like least about your (job/position/firm/organization/agency)? How much client contact am I likely to have in my first two years? Are associates assigned to one partner or are they part of a pool available to work with several partners? How long does it normally take for a new lawyer to be able to participate in a trial? How is work assigned? How are new lawyers supervised? How are new lawyers evaluated? Which of your practice areas are expanding? What new areas of practice does the firm/organization/agency want to move into? What are the firm's/organization's/agency's priorities? Does the firm/organization/agency expect to grow in the next five years and, if so, how? More associates, more lateral hires, more offices? How have you seen your own practice evolve? What is expected in terms of participation in professional organizations? What is the firm's policy on pro bono and community activities? What do you think sets this firm/organization/agency apart from others of its type? How would you describe the firm's/organization's/agency's personality/firm culture?
Remember to tailor your questions based on your research on the firm or organization.
Questions such as "I noticed that your firm just added an intellectual property department. Why did the firm decide to do that? Are there other practice areas that the firm is considering adding?" show that you have researched the firm and are at least a little bit savvy about law firm management and growth. Other good questions are ones such as "What are the fastest-growing areas of the firm?" or "Which firms do you consider to be your competition in the local market?" Do not ask questions that you could easily have found the answer to on the firm's website, and don't ask questions that will make it seem as if you are only interested in getting paid a lot and working as little as possible. If you run out of ideas for questions to ask, remember that you can always ask the interviewers about their career paths: whether they began their legal careers with this organization; how they got involved in the practice area they specialize in; what they like best or least about the firm/their practice area; what a typical work day is like for them. Law firm merger activity in the city in which the firm is located can also be an interesting topic to bring up.
The purpose of your resume is to convey your qualifications to a prospective employer in a clear, easy to read, and organized manner. It should highlight the most important aspects of your background, including your academic and employment experiences as well as your unique accomplishments. Keep in mind that your first opportunity to make an impression on a prospective employer is through your resume. Although a resume will not guarantee you a job or an interview, a poorly prepared resume will undermine your ability to put your best foot forward. Please take a look at some sample resumes to get started.
1. Do's & Don'ts
• Be positive. Convey confidence and enthusiasm in your abilities and experience
• Be accurate. Stick to the facts
• Use action verbs to describe what you did or what you have accomplished.
• PROOFREAD, PROOFREAD, PROOFREAD. Check carefully to avoid spelling, grammatical and punctuation errors. Your resume must be absolutely error-free - no typographical, grammatical or spelling errors. Be sure to have several people review your resume; do not rely on spell check
• Use negative statements or seek to explain perceived problems.
• Use technical jargon, wordy sentences or personal opinions.
• Use abbreviations where space permits.
• Use phrases such as "fluent in..." or "proficient at..." unless you are.
• Use personal pronouns such as I, you, he, she, it, we, they.
• Include an Objective statement or category.
Your resume should be one page unless significant experience warrants a second page. Employers spend an average of 8.5 seconds reviewing one resume. The employer may miss valuable, relevant information if your resume is not concise. In addition, anything over two pages and you run the risk of alienating an attorney who has been practicing for years but still has a one page resume.
Use a font and size that is easy to read (i.e. Times New Roman, and no less than 11-point font size).
Refrain from using resume templates that are found on many word processing programs, as these templates usually do not create a resume in the proper legal format. Sample resumes are provided here. However, you are discouraged from merely copying the wording in the samples, as your resume should be an expression of your own experiences. The samples are provided primarily to illustrate how a proper resume might look, as well as some of the formatting options.
Resume Format Guidelines
1. One page (sometimes two pages)
2. Margins between 0.7” – 1”
3. Font Size: at least 10.5 point font, 11 point is better, no larger than 12 point
4. Standard font type (e.g., Times New Roman, Century, Cambria, etc.)
5. Black font color
6. Neutral colored resume paper
7. Maintain consistency in formatting
8. Do not overdo it with bold and underline
9. Balance text and white space
Basic Resume Sections
• Name – Bold and in a larger font size (16-18)
• Address, City, State and Zip
• Professional e-mail address (with no “e-mail” title)
• Phone number (with no “cell” or “Phone” titles)
• Institution, Location, Degree and Graduation Date Needed
• Can include GPA, Class Rank, Honors, Activities, etc.
C. Experience (listed in reverse chronological order)
• Organization, Location, Title and Dates Needed
• Bulleted point action statements outlining what you did and/or your accomplishments demonstrating the skills you developed
D. Additional Information
• Skills (specific to position, exclude “computer skills” that are basic and expected)
• Community Service
• Foreign Languages
• Interests (if there is room and they have some unique quality)
Final Resume Checklist
The final resume copy should be meticulously reviewed before multiple copies are produced. Be sure to have an advisor review your resume before you submit it to a prospective employer.
1. Is the resume visually appealing or is it cumbersome and difficult to read? Is the layout attractive? Does spacing achieve an uncluttered look?
2. Are the margins between 0.7 – 1” equally for top and bottom, left and right margins?
3. Are there any typos? Be sure to carefully proofread, not just rely on spell check. Spell check does not catch grammatical mistakes such as “trail” versus “trial” or “form” versus “from.”
4. Are bold, caps, or underlining overused?
5. Is the language direct and concise? Is it free from jargon and easy to understand?
6. Did you check for verb tense? For previous employment responsibilities, use past tense. For present employment duties, use present tense.
7. Are job responsibilities described vividly and with full description?
8. Is it repetitive?
9. Is irrelevant information excluded?
10. Does it represent you at your very best?
11. Is the formatting (use of bold, underlining and italics; spacing before and after parallel entries; tab stops, the way dates are entered, etc.) consistent?
Thank You Notes
Whether to send a thank-you letter after an interview (both screening interviews and callback interviews) is a personal decision. If you choose to send a thank-you letter, be mindful of the following:
(1) Timing. Callback decisions are made quickly and a letter sent through the mail after an on-campus interview may not arrive in time. Consider sending an email in those circumstances.
(2) Proofread. A thank-you note, by itself, is unlikely to get you an offer. It can, however, derail a forthcoming offer. Do not be informal or too familiar, check spelling and grammar, and if it is a hand-written note, make sure it is legible. Be sure you spell the person’s name correctly! If you asked for a business card, consult the business card or double check spellings on the firm or organization’s website.
(3) To whom the note should be addressed. If you met with multiple people and there was a clear point person for the process, you may consider sending the note to that person and asking him or her to extend your gratitude to the others in the firm or organization.
(4) Do not be generic. Try to add something that references a point or topic in your conversation. This is important so the person receiving the thank-you note feels like it was meant for him or her and reaffirms a genuine interest in the interviewer and the organization.
Many employers and almost all judges require applicants to submit a legal writing sample. Be forewarned that some judges require a writing sample that has not been edited by others; at a minimum, your writing sample should be substantially self-edited.
The most important thing when choosing a writing sample is that it be your best work as well as flawless and well-written. When choosing among writing samples, keep in mind that judges are looking for work that shows legal reasoning and analysis, while other legal employers look for examples of analytical or persuasive writing in the form of a legal memorandum or legal brief.
If you want to use a writing sample drawn from a legal internship/clerkship, clinical or summer associate experience, you must obtain your employer's permission, and you may be required to eliminate any client-identifying information. (Note: try to avoid meeting this requirement by blacking-out the client's name or other identifiers. Instead, change names to "Client X" or "John Doe" or something similar, so as not to disrupt the flow of your sample.) It also is helpful to indicate on the face of the writing sample that you are submitting it with the permission of your employer.
Your writing sample ideally should be between 8 and 12 pages long. It is acceptable to use an excerpt from a longer piece, if necessary; however, if you do so, make sure you provide a cover sheet that describes important facts and the general context. If you find that editing for length will sacrifice comprehensibility, it may be best to provide a longer sample.
Finally, make sure your writing sample is free of bluebooking, typographical, and grammatical errors. Employers will be relying on you to provide clear, concise, error-free work. There is no better way to derail your application than by submitting a sloppy writing sample.