Many solicitors’ firms in the UK will ask you to apply for a training contract with a covering letter. Some will want you to upload this as part of an online application form (such as Slaughter and May, Jones Day, White & Case, Sullivan & Cromwell ), while others – usually smaller, high street law firms – will want you to send the letter alongside a CV (see our law CV example here).
How to write a law cover letter tip #1: use the letter to explain why you want to be a solicitor at that particular law firm
A covering letter is a golden opportunity to explain your motivations for becoming a lawyer and for applying to that specific firm. ‘My advice is to use the cover letter to introduce yourself and to explain why you are applying to that firm,' says Janine Arnold, senior manager – trainee recruitment at Slaughter and May. ‘Be sure to include any additional information that you feel is relevant to your application.’
If you’re uploading a covering letter as part of a larger application form you should avoid repeating examples you’ve used to answer questions on the form. Give as broad a picture of your skills and experience as possible and only repeat something if you think it is particularly significant to that law firm. Your covering letter is an introduction to get the recruiter’s attention – a sample of your potential, if you like – not your overall application.
‘A well-written, succinct, persuasive covering letter crafted by an aspiring trainee solicitor who has really thought about the firm stands out,’ says Nichola Rowe, director of legal human resources at Cleary Gottlieb. ‘Ask yourself: what sets this firm apart from other law firms and how do my individual skills and experiences marry with that firm?’.
How to write a law cover letter tip #2: how long should it be?
A covering letter should be a maximum of one page, with a font size of 11 or 12. Slaughter and May’s Janine Arnold agrees: ‘A lengthy covering letter is not necessary; aim for it to be no longer than one side of A4.'
How to write a law cover letter tip #3: the format law firms like
The best law cover letter examples have a clear structure, such as:
1. The introduction to your cover letter
Introduce yourself, explain what stage you are at in your degree course (including the university you’re attending), state that you are applying for a training contract and where you read about the law firm. This should only be a sentence or two.
2. A paragraph on why you want to work at that law firm
The second paragraph should cover why you want to be a solicitor and why you want to work for that law firm in particular. Highlight any experiences you’ve had that have convinced you that you want to be a solicitor, such as vacation schemes, open days or insight days. You can even mention mini-pupillages – it will impress graduate recruiters if you’ve put the effort into comparing the two sides of the legal profession, as long as you have good reasons for picking a career as a solicitor (this could come up at interview).
Make it clear why you want to work in the particular area of law that the firm focuses on. For example, if it’s a commercial firm you’ll want to draw on any work experience you’ve had at other commercial firms. Show off your research about the firm by explaining your interest in their main legal practice areas – don’t just say ‘I am interested in shipping law’, for example, but provide evidence of that interest.
You might also want to mention the firm’s training structure. Some firms will have compulsory seats, in which case you’ll need to show an interest in those areas. If you’ve chosen a firm that doesn’t have compulsory seats, or has no seat structure at all (such as Jones Day for example), then you could explain why this appeals to you above a more defined training contract structure.
3. A paragraph highlighting why you're a good fit for the law firm
Next, you need to pitch yourself to the recruiter. Make it clear that you are suited to a career as a solicitor: highlight achievements that show you have the competencies the firm has asked for. If the firm hasn’t specified exactly what it's looking for, see our article here on the skills most legal recruiters want from applicants. Don’t just say ‘I have good communication skills’ – you need to mention an achievement that hinged on your use of those skills.
4. The ending to your law covering letter
Close by referring the recruiter to your CV or application and stating your availability for interview(s) or assessment centre(s).
How to write a law cover letter tip #4: explain any extenuating circumstances
'Covering letters should also explain any mitigating circumstances relating to exam results and to address any questions that you may reasonably expect to arise from your application, such as any gaps in your CV,’ explains Janine.
How to write a law cover letter tip #5: proofread your cover letter before you hit ‘send’
Once you’ve put your covering letter together, don’t be tempted to rush it off. Ask friends, family and your university careers adviser to check it. ‘There is no good excuse for spelling errors, especially when you’re applying for a job that requires scrupulous attention to detail,’ points out a legal recruitment advisor at Ince & Co. ‘The number of applications we receive that contain errors is surprising. Your application is all we’ve got to go on, so you owe it to yourself to ensure it’s not let down by something so easily avoidable.’
Remember that law firms will be judging your ability to communicate professionally with clients on the professionalism of your covering letter – you’re making a pitch, just like you would do as a practising lawyer.
Legal recruiters at major law firms read through hundreds, if not thousands, of applications from aspiring trainee solicitors each year and will only spend a minute or so reading your covering letter. Some recruiters say that they make their decision paragraph by paragraph – if you haven't impressed upon them that you would be a good fit for their firm halfway through the cover letter, they might not even read the rest. Your covering letter creates a powerful first impression, so make it easy for the recruiter to see that you have strong potential as a solicitor by following the tips above.
In other news: Massive changes to the way solicitors qualify are on the horizon. Do you know how they will affect you? Find out here.
Cover Letter Advice
The cover letter is a sample of your written work and should be brief (preferably one page), persuasive, well-reasoned, and grammatically perfect.
A good cover letter:
- Tells the employer who you are (e.g., a first-year student at YLS) and what you are seeking (e.g., a summer intern position);
- Shows that you know about the particular employer and the kind of work the employer does (i.e., civil or criminal work, direct client service, "impact" cases, antitrust litigation);
- Demonstrates your writing skills;
- Demonstrates your commitment to the work of that particular employer and converys that you have something to contribute;
- Shows that you and that employer are a good "fit;" and
- Tells the employer how to get in touch with you by email, telephone, and mail.
Determine to whom you should address the cover letter. If you are applying to law firms, address your letter to the recruiting director. For NALP member firms, use the NALP Directory to obtain contact information. (NALP also provides a useful mail merge feature for generating multiple letters). For other employers, you can refer to their websites, or contact the office to determine to whom your materials should be directed.
Although there are many ways to write a cover letter, the following format has worked well for students in the past.
- In the first paragraph of your cover letter, explain why you are sending your resume to the employer: “I am a first-year student at Yale Law School and am seeking a position with your organization for the summer 20xx.” If you are applying to public interest employers and are eligible for SPIF funding, you can mention that here.
- Use the second paragraph to explain your interest in the employer, including your interest in the employer’s geographic location, reputation, specialty area, or public service.
- In the third paragraph, stress why this employer should hire you. Elaborate on the qualifications that you possess that will make you an exceptional summer intern or attorney.
- The final paragraph should thank the employer for taking the time to review your application and tell them how to reach you. You may wish to state that you will contact the employer in a couple of weeks to follow-up and then actually do so. This is especially true with public interest employers who are often understaffed and will appreciate your extra effort.