Bad Cover Letters - Lazy Eyes and Laborious Prose
I learned something interesting yesterday. I had always assumed that my hiring at FindLaw was the product of my appropriate pedigree (English minor, law degree from Dubyanel, and background in blogging, web design, and HTML coding) seasoned with the helpful praise of a dear friend's mother, who has worked at FindLaw for quite some time.
I was wrong. It turns out my "sparkly" cover letter was to blame. I dug up that cover letter, and decided to share with you, the dear recent grads seeking jobs, what seems to have worked. Here's the best line from an overly-casual cover letter:
"Along the way, I've gained a few dollars, a little knowledge of SEO, and a lazy eye from spending far too much time in front of a computer screen."
Oh yeah. Self-deprecation is key. Or not.
The real key is to know your audience. I was applying to a blog, not BigLaw. Humor and geek street-cred go a lot further in the blogosphere than they do at Cravath.
Speaking of knowing your audience, legal tabloid/blog Above the Law reprinted a brilliant cover letter from a frat bro to an Alaskan judge that is nearly unintelligible.
The frat boy's aim was clear. He was trying to "be different' or "stand out" and amuse the judge into looking further into his tardy application. Many of his fellow Kansas Citians (represent!) have taken a similar approach. Lazy eye jokes, however, are far easier to read than some of these sentences:
- "Laboriously, I molded myself into a surprisingly athletic, covertly academic, role player. The Dalai Lama might even have congratulated me on my stubbornly unconditional perspective." (Arrogant much?)
- "Overwhelmed by ubiquitous female beauty, animal instinct to succeed prevailed." (Never follow "female beauty" with "animal instinct", unless you are E.L. James.)
- "Hubris, however, was the only Greek concept I truly envied during a near-graduation retrospection of my college years." (I have no idea what this means.)
And best of all:
- "I began to comprehend the true complexities and weights inherent in word choice and sentence construction." (No, no you didn't. Bryan Garner, please advise.)
Again, this all comes down to knowing your audience. Blogs appreciate humor and personality. Judges appreciate clear-writing, free of purple prose, arrogance, and back-to-back-to-back mentions of "libation," "female beauty," and "animal instinct."
If you are a judge, you've got limited time to review a lot of law. Imagine reading a memo on class action and arbitration clauses penned by that guy? To put it in clean, clear prose: fuggedaboudit.
Editor's note, May 10, 2016: This post was first published in May, 2013. It has since been updated.
- How Not to Write a Cover Letter (Above the Law)
- Stop Waiting for Career Services to Find You a Job (FindLaw's Greedy Associates)
- Avoiding Crappy Law Jobs: Three Tips (FindLaw's Greedy Associates)