Public Interest Cover Letters: Tips and Best Practices for Summer Job Applications

It’s that time of year.  1Ls and 2Ls are scurrying about looking for summer internship/clerkship listings, checking deadlines, and putting application materials together.  Here, we start a series of job application posts we’ll publish over the next several days, offering tips and best practices. Today’s post will focus on cover letters.  

Before we get to our tips list, the first, most important, universal tip is that law students should immediately schedule an appointment in their career services or public interest advising office.  Your author, about 10 years ago, fancied himself a sort of rogue public-interest student who didn’t need the help of his public interest career advisor.  This was really, really dumb.  Only after I sent the job applications out did I see the typos (amazing how they jump out at you once the original letter has already been sent), the formatting inconsistencies, etc.  These are things that a trained eye would have caught in no time.  So by all means, speak to a professional who’s helped hundreds of students in the exact position you’re in now.

Without further ado:

Five Tips for Public Interest Cover Letters

  1. A cover letter is a “living document,” which means that each letter must be tailored to specific employers.  An employer is usually able to identify a form letter by the end of the first paragraph.  Then that letter is often thrown in the trash can before the second paragraph begins.
  2. cover letter should almost always be one page.  The chief exception may be if you have a wealth of experience related to a particular employment opportunity, and if the job listing for that opportunity is so fleshed out that you need more than a page to convey your qualifications.  This is not typically the case with law student positions, so try to keep it to one.  If you want a second opinion on a particular job application, ask your career advisor.
  3. A cover letter is a complement to the resume, not simply a reformatted version of the resume.  The letter gives you a chance to express your passion directly to the employer in a slightly less formal manner than a resume; it gives you a chance to say not only what your credentials are, but a) why your credentials will enable to you to do that job, and b) why you want that job.  A personal commitment to an organization and/or its mission is a chief criterion used by almost all public interest employers in evaluating job candidates.  This doesn’t mean that you should go over the top, writing something like, “As a child I fell asleep dreaming of handling public benefits appeals.”  But the cover letter is your opportunity to say that you want to use your degree to “ensure that the poor and others on society’s margins can achieve real, meaningful access to the justice system” and, if you can, to illustrate past experiences that reflect this commitment.  One cover letter format to consider is as follows:
    • Paragraph One: Who I am and, in short, why I want the job;
    • Paragraph Two: What I bring to the job by way of experience, interest, and credentials;
    • Paragraph Three: Fleshed out explanation of why I want the job – an expression of my passion for the employer organization and/or the work.
  4. Use the qualifications listed in the job description as prompts for points to hit about your experience/credentials. If an employer is seeking someone with an interest in juvenile justice issues, then you can write that, “My strong interest in juvenile justice issues has prompted me to gain experience researching juvenile sentencing trends for violent offenses, and to spend four weeks shadowing a legal services attorney who represents accused minors in criminal proceedings.
  5. Have someone – a career counselor, classmate, friend, etc. – proofread your cover lettersWe are always our own worst editors and proofreaders, so don’t rely on yourself to do it.

Bonus Tip: Follow application instructions to the letter.  An employer may send a job description to your school, and your school may post it on Symplicity.  This does not necessarily mean that the employer wishes to receive your application via a Symplicity email – even if the employer does want the application emailed.  If they direct you to apply by email, send the email directly to them yourself.

For more tips and best practices, be sure to visit PSLawNet’s job search fundamentals page.

NEXT UP: later this week revisit the PSLawNet Blog for a post on resume tips.

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  1. […] January 19, 2011 PSLawNet has just posted some useful suggestions for 1Ls and 2Ls who are drafting cover letters for summer public interest jobs:…. […]

  2. One other tidbit to include in Paragraph One is to let the reader know where you found out about the position and if anyone within, closely related to, or otherwise well-known to the organization recommended that you apply. This can be any staff member at the organization, a Board member, your professor, a big donor, etc.

    Great information on the Symplicity posting — I pass this along to my own students regularly (and we set our postings accordingly). The other issue of course is that an email sent via Symplicity is all too likely to end up in someone’s SPAM folder.

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