Drafting Successful Covering Letters

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covering letterCovering letters MUST be targeted to the particular firm you are applying to – you can use similar letters for similar firms but you must ensure your letter is targeted exactly to the firm you are applying to with that letter.

It will be very tempting to play the numbers game and apply to lots of firms for a training contract. This is fine and actually is a sensible thing in the current climate. However, you should always resist the temptation to run off a batch of standard form covering letters using the wonderful time saving tools there are available in word processing software nowadays.

You must write each letter individually and only after you have conducted your research into the specific firm you are applying to. See here for the tools I would recommend that you use to complete thorough research – Researching Law Firms. By doing this you will automatically put yourself ahead of the applicants who have done no more research than the firm’s entry on LawCareers.net or in the Training Contract Handbook and who have used the same covering letter over and over again.

You should remember that recruiters see hundreds if not thousands of training contract and vacation scheme applications each year.  As a result they are able to spot a recycled and generic covering letter from 100 paces and will be thankful that you have just given them an easy reason to reduce their candidate numbers by one.

Part of being able to write an impressive and credible covering letter is to actually have a genuine interest in wanting to work for the firm you are applying to.  Again, it comes back to conducting thorough research and finding which firms truly appeal to you and why. You then just need to express why you want to work for that firm and why they should choose you to be one of their trainees.

The Easy Bit

So the easy bit is that you only really have to do 3 main things with a covering letter.

First, you have to present it well on one page of A4 (unless the firm specifies a higher word allowance) with good English.

Second, you have to answer the question “Why do you want to work for that firm?”.

Third, you have to answer the question “Why should that firm choose you to be their trainee?”

The Hard Bit

The hard bit is being able to answer those two questions on one page of A4 so that you stand out from the crowd enough for them to ask you for interview.

In reality, what you need to do with your covering letter is make the recruiter want to move on to your CV or application form that you have supplied with your covering letter.  Many candidates will not make it this far as their covering letters are just not good enough.  This is nothing to fear, in fact it represents an opportunity for you and now you know this you can avoid the mistakes others will make and therefore increase your chances of success.

The Letter

The key to any covering letter is to show the recruiter that you have made an informed decision to become a solicitor, and that you have a genuine interest in the firm you are applying to.

You should avoid repeating lots of things that are mentioned in your CV but instead provide teasers as to the content of your CV with references to some of the interesting parts of your work experience or extra-curricular activities. Use these as examples of skills and attributes you have which are relevant to the role of a solicitor and that would be of benefit to that firm in particular.

Do not fear blowing your own trumpet here – just make sure you back up your claims to skills and attributes with some evidence of where you have used or developed them.

Where the firm has specified certain skills and attributes as being desirable to the firm then make sure you mention parts of your experience and CV which demonstrate them.  If the firm is going to give you clues as to what it’s after in its trainees then you want to give them what they want as much as possible.

When answering the question “Why that firm?” you need to be able to show that you are genuinely interested in working for that firm.  The letter gives you a small window in which to target your application to the specific firm so do not miss this opportunity.

Mention any specific skills, such as language skills, that you have if you feel they are relevant to firm and if they have said so in their job description.

Things you can include in a covering letter to help answer the question of “Why that firm?” are as follows:

  • You have already done a vacation scheme or other work experience with that firm, or a firm similar to it that helped you decide to apply
  • You met some of their staff, including trainees, at an open day or a networking event
  • You are particularly interested in one of the areas of law they practise – you can mention that this interest came from either your legal studies, from some work experience or elsewhere
  • You have links with the geographical area in which the firm operates. This is particularly important to local and regional firms as they will want to see a reason for wanting to build a career in their area. They want to avoid the situation where they take someone on for a training contract and they move away from the firm as soon as they have qualified which can happen
  • Show you have researched the firm by mentioning something from a third party resource such as their entry on the Chambers Student website
  • Mention a client of the firm or some specific work they have been involved with which may have made it into the news recently

The key rules for a successful letter:

  • Do not address you letter “Dear Sirs” or “To whom it may concern”. Review the firm’s recruitment materials for the name of the person to address your application to. If you cannot find this, or just before you send your application, give the firm a call to check the name, job title and address of the person you need to send your application to.  Even where you want to make a speculative application to a firm that is not currently advertising training contract vacancies you need to call up the firm to get a name.
  • Ensure you write in a professional tone and do not try to use complicated or overly-clever language. Much better to use simple English in short concise sentences so you make it as easy as possible for the recruiter to consider you as an applicant.
  • Ensure the letter is well presented. If you do not know how to use the formatting in your word processor you must go on a crash course and learn this.  Letters where spaces are used instead of tabs and where lines and paragraphs do not align properly will often lead to a rejection.
  • Use white space well – do not overwhelm the recruiter with large blocks of text. Instead use short paragraphs that are separated by plenty of white space.
  • Use a professional font style that is the same as your CV or the rest of your application form. Times New Roman and Arial are commonly used.
  • Golden Rule – always phone the firm just before you post or email your letter to check the name of the person you need to write to, their job title/position and the address you should write to. Do not rely on information you find on the internet or in training contract books as this can often be outdated. Writing to the wrong person or to the wrong address could be one of the small things that can cause your application to go onto the No pile.

Finally, you can also take a look at the guide to covering letters I have written on Trainee Solicitor Surgery  – see here: Covering Letters Guide