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Quit Kidding Yourself with Boring Cover Letters. Get One That Works.

Cover letterCover letters are usually boring, unimaginative or just not taken seriously because there is nothing new in the letter that makes the writer stand out. Typical responses from employers? “Same letter, different sender.”  Not exactly the let’s-jump-right-for-the-phone reaction you are seeking. In fact, with all due respect, I'll bet your letter goes something like:

“I noticed your ad for a litigation paralegal. I am a 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 candidate does not stand out from the crowd. He/she sounds just like everyone else. Let me just close my eyes, reach into the pile and pick one. I don't want that. What I want is someone outstanding.

Funny thing is, people don't think to change what they're doing. Instead, they tend to increase the volume of resumes sent expecting different results. Or, blame the market for lack of results. Career coaches tell you to send out 75-100 resumes to get one interview. I say if you send out a dynamic resume and convincing cover letter, you'll get the interview.

Here’s a little known secret: A resume only talks about 20% of the information you need to impart to get a job. It reveals none of the 80% 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, style, work habits or critical thinking. Rarely, will a resume tell a hiring authority you are precisely the right candidate. Only a letter can start to reveal these things about you.

Here are some basic rules:

  1. Write a letter addressed to an individual. Call and find out to whom the letter should be addressed. I know, I 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 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. Frankly, “tacky” comes to mind.
  4. Keep it brief. Three – 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 not addressing the pain that needs to be fixed or the needs of the firm are likely to come across as narcissistic. It comes across as “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. Employers can quote that book. Not a pretty picture for original thinking.
  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. It’s the quality of the cover letter and the resume.
  9. Use numbers or percentages where possible. Phrases such as number of billable hours, Fortune 1000 clients, and AmLaw 100 firms are impressive.

Here are a couple of samples. Use your own tone and style. (Don’t copy. Employers will only see the same ole, same ole once again.) You are going to use four topics: opener, your passion, action, and hot closer. That’s it.

#1.   Re: Corporate Paralegal Position: I am a certificated 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 I take.  My greatest asset is my enthusiasm to become a top-notch and committed paralegal with a firm such as yours.

(YOUR 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 I am hired, this fact will give me a great opportunity to incorporate my extensive product manufacturing skills along with my personal goals of becoming a high-quality paralegal with those of Acme, Acme & Acme.

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

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

#2.   I'm available immediately and highly interested in the Paralegal/Database Coordinator position for Coffee, Coffee & Wine.

(OPENER)  For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to become an expert in Relativity.  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. 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.

(YOUR PASSION)  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 working with a top travel industry client leading eight litigation teams, working on cases with over two million documents along with a 93% accuracy rate, I can help by 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.

(HOT CLOSER) The position of Litigation Paralegal/Database Coordinator is more than a job to me—it's my passion. 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.

(ACTION) I will follow up with a phone call in a few days to make sure you have received my resume as well.

#3.  Write the above and add: (Do not make cover letters too long. They will not get read.)
 "I took a moment to match my skills with your requirements.  You may find the following chart helpful in your assessment of my skills and abilities."

Job Qualifications

Skills

Experience with trial preparation, document organization, Relativity  

Full understanding and knowledge after working on many high-profile cases leading a team of 10 utilizing Relativity and other databases.

Preparation of subpoenas

Regularly prepared subpoenas both in the U.S. and abroad.

   

Ability to work overtime

Billable hours consistently exceed 1800 hours per year.

This unique Skill Matching technique has many excellent advantages to help get you that all important interview. It:

  • will get your cover letter and resume noticed quickly;
  • focuses the employer directly on skills with a brief and easy to read strong summary;
  • helps the reader quickly skim your cover letter;
  • 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 (even in an email). 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 and create each cover letter unique to the job advertised. Test market to see what’s working and what’s not. Above all, if something isn't working, change what you're doing. That's the best way you'll get results.

Chere Estrin is the CEO of Estrin Legal Staffing for legal professionals across the country, CEO of the Paralegal Knowledge Institute and Co-Founding Member and President of the Organization of Legal Professionals. She is the author of 10 books about legal careers including The Paralegal Career Guide 4th Ed. Chere is a national seminar speaker and a Los Angeles/Century City Women of Achievement and Los Angeles Paralegal Association Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. She is a co-founding member of the International Practice Management Association (IPMA). Chere has been an executive in a $5 billion corporation and Paralegal Administrator for two major law firms. She has been interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, Above the Law, Forbes.com, Newsweek and other publications. Her blog, The Estrin Report, has been around since 2005.  She is free on Sundays from 3:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. Reach out to her at chere@estrinlegalstaffing.com.


Is Hiring a Virtual Assistant Right for You?

Here is an article that appeared recently in the Progressive Law Practice magazine.

"Virtual assistants are hot whether you are a solo practitioner or work in a major law firm," says Chere Estrin, president and founder of The Organization of Legal Professionals. Moreover, she adds, the more tech-savvy the attorney, the easier it is to work with a virtual assistant, also known as a VA.

All of this new-found convenience is due, of course, to the advent of technology and the internet. Lawyers chained to the notion that their assistant must be seated at a nearby desk, answering phones, transcribing dictation and keeping the attorney’s calendar in order for a law practice to run smoothly might be wise to consider the benefits of working with a virtual assistant before poo-pooing the idea.

The A, B, Cs of Working with a VA

There are numerous benefits of working with a virtual assistant versus an in-office employee. The first is the cost savings a lawyer can enjoy by working with someone virtually. It’s not that experienced, skilled VAs are paid less than secretaries. In fact, according to Trivinia Barber, CEO and founder of Priority VA, prized VAs can command upwards of $50 hourly. Instead, cost savings are realized because:

  • VAs are 1099 independent contractors, meaning the lawyer does not pay Social Security or state, federal or other taxes
  • The VA is responsible for their own computer and other office equipment, another money saver
  • The lawyer does not have to provide employee perks, such as medical insurance, parking, paid sick and vacation days

But that’s not all, says Barber. “There are many VAs who can work for as little as ten hours a week, meaning they are flexible. It would be hard to find a secretary to only work ten hours,” she says. Moreover, Barber contends many VAs are “pretty well versed in the online marketing world so their collaborative ability can be extremely helpful to the attorney.”

Eunice Clarke, the director of marketing for the International Virtual Assistants Association, was herself a legal assistant prior to taking on her full-time role with the organization, so she understands the role an assistant plays whether in a brick-and-mortar situation or virtually. Hiring a VA means “anything a lawyer would pay for if a secretary had to come in the office” is saved by hiring virtually.

"If you are a micro-manager, a Virtual Assistant is not for you."

Still not convinced? Hiring a VA who works in a different time zone than the one where a law practice is located can also translate into more work being completed by those VAs in their respective locations. Not only that, VAs can work any time, day or night, so they are not limited by needing to be in the office to complete their tasks.

And, while the VA isn’t taking up space in a brick-and-mortar office, their contact with the lawyer can still extend beyond emails. For example, VAs can tap into online tools such as GoToMeeting and Skype for communicating face-to-face with the attorneys with whom they work, says Clarke.

Of course there are also cons to hiring a VA. For example, says Estrin, if you need something done but your VA isn’t available at the time, you might need to come up with another option. “You don’t necessarily have a full-time word processing department at your disposal” when working with a VA versus an in-office assistant, she says. Another potential pitfall is determining whether the VA possesses excellent project and time management skills.

“Virtual assistants need to know how to be great time managers to impress attorneys how efficient they can make” a lawyer and their law practice, says Clarke.

Are You Right for a VA?

“If you are a micro-manager, don't use a virtual assistant,” cautions Estrin, because you'll never get control. One of the primary reasons people opt to work as a VA is so they don’t have someone looking over their shoulder.

Another type of attorney who probably would not enjoy working with a VA is someone who likes to have a person greeting clients as they come to the office. Moreover, if face-to-face interaction is critical to your law practice, a VA is probably not a great option. If you rely on your employees to help build trust and credibility with clients, then working with someone virtually is not a good choice.

Also, if trusting others is an issue, then hiring a VA may not be a good idea, says Estrin. “Trust is something that people do not consider when hiring a virtual assistant. This issue relates to hiring tech people to work on your system remotely. Ask yourself if you are truly comfortable letting a stranger do work for you when they have access to some of your computers or data. If the answer is no or you’re not sure, then you may not be compatible with a VA,” she says.

Certainly there is nothing wrong with not feeling comfortable about giving someone remote access to your client’s files, but it is a critical question to answer before venturing in the VA market, she says. If you determine you want to dip your toe in the VA pool, there are at least two ways to find one. Not surprisingly, Barber suggests hiring an agency, such as hers, to help match the right VA for the job.

If the lawyer opts for a direct hire, there are specific questions the attorney should ask to help determine if the VA is right for both the job and the lawyer. Among them are to ask:

  • The candidate’s goals for their VA career to ensure they align with the attorney’s mission and vision of their law practice
  • What the VA knows about the lawyer and their law practice. Barber says the response demonstrates whether the VA researched the lawyer and their practice. If they did not, they might only be looking for a job, rather than a long-term professional involvement
  • Specific questions relating to the types of marketing campaigns they have been a part of, if marketing is one of the duties the lawyer wishes to assign the VA
  • Scenario questions to determine the VA’s temperament and ability to work with the clients served by the law firm.

If employee loyalty is a great concern for you, be aware it may not develop with a virtual employee. However, the same can be said for brick-and-mortar staffers, too. “There are virtual assistants who will give you the dedication and loyalty of a 20-year employee. Find out early on who you are dealing with,” says Estrin.

Tami Kamin Meyer is an Ohio attorney and writer.

Reprinted from Progressive Lawyer.