An Oh-So-Different, Effective Approach to Strong Cover Letters

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08Apr2015

An Oh-So-Different, Effective Approach to Strong Cover Letters

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By Chere Estrin

Doing work

Cover letters are usually boring. About 98 percent of the time it’s entirely possible that your cover letter is just like the last one that the employer read. In fact, while not word for word, I’ll bet it goes something like:

To whom it may concern:

“I noticed your ad for a litigation paralegal. I am an experienced paralegal with 10 years of experience. I have attached my resume for your review.

“I am seeking a challenging position which offers me the opportunity for growth. I have extensive litigation experience and excellent skills: I have great attention to detail, am organized, an expert in research, and a team-player. I am seeking a position where I can utilize my background and skills.

“I can be reached at (213) 555.1212. I will call you next week in order to schedule an interview.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

As an employer, here’s all I can say: Blech! This person does not stand out from the crowd. He/she sounds just like everyone else. (Let’s not even talk about the resume.)

Here’s a little known secret: A resume only talks about 20 percent of the information you need to impart in order to get a job. It reveals none of the remaining 80 percent of the information upon which hiring decisions are based. These decisions are primarily based upon emotion. Do I like this person? That’s the first thing that goes through an employer’s mind. The resume does not speak to your personality, creativity, work style, work habits, or critical thinking. Rarely will a resume tell a hiring authority you are precisely the right candidate. Only a letter can reveal these things about you – and more.

Here are some basic rules:

1.         Write a letter addressed to an individual. Call if you have to and find out to whom the letter should be addressed.  We know, we know, you can’t do it with a blind ad.

2.         Don’t use standard openings. “In response to your ad in the Daily Journal” gets a big ho- hum. Stand out from the competition! Weave information into the opening to suggest that the letter was written specifically for the opening at hand.

3.         Don’t use legal terminology or try to sound “lawyerly.” You’ll sound silly instead. Using terms such as “this position is not de facto,” “Responsibilities include but are not limited to” are unlikely to impress the reader. Frankly, my dear, “tacky” comes to mind.

4.         Keep it brief, three or four paragraphs max! Explanations as to what has occurred in your career are not necessary. Save that for the interview.

5.         Link your strengths and qualifications to the job. Do not leave out your passion for the field. Cover letters that do not address the “pain” that needs to be fixed or the needs of the firm are likely to come across as narcissistic. Me, Me, and more Me. Let the employer know you understand what it takes to fit the bill.

6.         Do not use standard cover letters right out of a book. Believe me, employers can quote the book you used.

7.         Make the letter easy to skim. No one reads anything thoroughly anymore.

8.         If it’s broken, fix it! Don’t use a cover letter over and over that is not working! It’s not the number of resumes you send out, despite coaches telling you that you have to send out hundreds. It’s the quality of the cover letter and the resume.

9.         Use numbers, percentages and revenue. People are much more impressed. 

Here are a couple of samples. Use your own tone and style. (Don’t copy! Employers will then only see the same ole, same ole once again.)

No. 1. Re:  Corporate Paralegal Position: I am a certified paralegal with excellent references!

(OPENER) I have been fortunate to have found the occupation I love – paralegal. Although I do not have extensive experience, what I do have has only furthered my commitment. As an entry-level paralegal, I have developed a skill for detail that incorporates a thorough, flexible work plan, along with a healthy dose of a see-it-through attitude. I am devoted to continuing my own education with the many seminars and webinars I take. I believe my enthusiasm to become an effective and committed paralegal is my greatest asset.

(PASSION)  One reason I have chosen to apply for a position at your firm is because it is rated in the National Law Journal as one of the top 10 firms in the country. If hired, this fact will give me a great opportunity to incorporate my personal goals of becoming a high-quality paralegal with those of the firm.

(ACTION) If after reviewing my resume you believe there might be a match, please call me. I am available Monday through Friday at 213.555.1212. Otherwise, please leave a message anytime. 

(HOT, HOT CLOSER) Becoming a paralegal is more than a job to me. It’s a lifetime commitment to education.

No. 2        I’m available immediately and highly interested in the Paralegal/Database Coordinator position for Coffee, Coffee & Wine.

For the past three years I have had the opportunity to become an expert in Recommind, Nuix, Nutcase, and CompuLegal, which I truly love. I am now looking forward to applying my skills and knowledge in a new setting with an established law firm where I can continue to meet new and different challenges. In addition to my skills, my fifteen years of experience with all aspects of the eDiscovery  life cycle will make me a valuable asset to both your firm and your clients.

After recently researching Coffee, Coffee & Wine’s vision/mission, along with your recent high-profile travel industry win, I believe that my abilities can make an immediate and positive impact on your bottom line. Particularly with my experience leading eight litigation teams, working on cases of 2 million documents and above, along with a 93 percent accuracy rate, I can help with providing value-added Summation implementation. I can deliver quality performances that will lead to success stories for your clients and additional business for your firm.

The position of Litigation Paralegal/Database Coordinator is more than a job to me—it’s my passion in life. Understanding legal problems, providing recommendations for training non-attorney staff, creating improvements, and providing technology solutions that support your firm’s objectives is what I can offer Coffee, Coffee & Wine.

I will follow up with a phone call in a week to make sure you have received my application as well.

No. 3           “I took a moment to match my skills with your requirements. You may find the following table helpful in your assessment of my abilities.”

Job Qualifications My Skills
Experience with trial preparation, document organization, Recommind,
team leader.
I have full understanding and knowledge after working on many high profile cases leading a team of 10 temporaries utilizing Recommind and other databases.
Preparation of subpoenas I am familiar with and have regularly prepared subpoenas both in the U.S. and abroad.
Excellent oral and written communication skills. I possess excellent and proven communication skills.
Exceptional time management, problem
solving, and analytical skills. 
I have outstanding time management, problem solving, and analytical skills. My billable hours consistently exceed 1800 hours per year.


Use the Skill Matching Technique for its many excellent advantages:

  • It will get your cover letter and resume noticed quickly.
  • It focuses your set of skills into a brief and easy-to-read strong summary.
  • It helps the reader quickly skim your cover letter.
  • It helps your cover letter and resume get decided upon immediately.

It has been shown, believe it or not, that the color of your signature can improve the response. If possible, always sign your letter using blue instead of black. Be sure to make it legible.

There you go! Tweak these, use your own style, make each cover letter unique to the job advertised, and test market to see what’s working, what’s not.

Best of luck in your new adventures!

About the Author

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Paralegal Knowledge Institute, providing training, staffing, and career coaching specifically for paralegals across the country. She is the author of 10 books about the paralegal career, including The Paralegal Career Guide, 4th Ed., and she is a LAPA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Forbes.com, Newsweek, and other prestigious publications. She has written her blog, The Estrin Report, since 2005. Reach her at chere.estrin@paralegalknowledge.com.

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