Legal Cover Letter Mistakes to Avoid

Many job seekers underestimate the power of a cover letter. However, a cover letter can help you stand out from the pool of applicants in a way that your resume cannot.

I recently posted an online job ad to hire a freelance legal writer. I received about 50 resumes in the first few days. A large percentage of applicants were easy to weed out because they made mistakes regarding their cover letter. Below are seven common cover letter mistakes that you should avoid. For more cover letter advice, see

No Cover Letter

Side view of frustrated young businesswoman looking at laptop in office
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Many applicants failed to include a cover letter. Their e-mail simply said, “Resume attached,” “I’m the writer for you” or nothing at all. Your cover letter is your first introduction to a potential employer. It should highlight why you are qualified for the job and entice the reader to read your resume, writing samples and any other attachments. A cover letter also gives the hiring manager a glimpse of your writing skills (especially important in a writing or legal position). Failing to include a cover letter may indicate that you:

  • Lack enough interest in the job to take the time to write a cover letter
  • Don’t possess the qualifications outlined in the job ad
  • Are new or inexperienced in the workforce

Failure to Follow Instructions

My job posting asked applicants to submit a resume, cover letter, writing sample, and pay rate. Over half of the applicants failed to follow the instructions in the job ad. While nearly everyone submitted a resume, the majority failed to submit a cover letter, writing sample, and/or pay rate. Failure to follow instructions does not make a good first impression and indicates carelessness and a lack of interest in the job. Be sure to review the ad several times and follow all instructions outlined in the job posting. Following instructions outlined by the employer will automatically put you ahead of all the other applicants who disregard them.

Generic Cover Letter

A good cover letter will mirror the job ad and discuss how the applicant meets each of the job requirements outlined in the posting. My job ad listed eight qualifications I was seeking in a successful applicant. Many of the cover letters I received failed to address any of the requirements I listed. Worse, some were quite generic or contained information that was off-topic and irrelevant to the position. Applicants who submitted generic letters were the easiest to eliminate and their resumes never received a glance.

Rehashing Your Resume

Your cover letter should outline how you are uniquely qualified for the position to which you are applying. It should not simply rehash the information contained in your resume. For example, if the employer seeks a criminal attorney with 5+ years of experience, your cover letter might state that you worked as a public defender for two years before starting your own criminal defense firm. Connect the dots for the reader in your cover letter; don’t make him comb through a dense resume to determine whether you fit the job qualifications.

Telling Rather than Showing

Don't tell prospective employers how great you are, show them. Adjectives like "experienced," "organized," or "motivated" do little to convince a hiring manager that you actually possess those traits. You must demonstrate that you possess these qualities through past accomplishments, education, training, achievements, and awards. Which is more compelling?:

  • Weak: "I am an experienced criminal defense attorney."
  • Better: "I am a board-certified criminal defense attorney with 5 years' experience as a county prosecutor and 10 years' experience as a criminal defense attorney. I have argued more than 40 jury trials and over 300 motions to dismiss."

Backing up your claims with concrete, specific examples will put your application at the top of the pile and increase your chances of an interview.

Too Self-Focused

Many applicants craft cover letters that are focused on themselves rather than the needs of the employer. Don’t include information as to why you need the job or self-serving statements such as, “Contact me to learn my pay rates,” or “I’m interested in this position, can you forward more information?” Focus instead on how your background, skills, and abilities can help the potential employer achieve its business objectives.

A Weak Opening

Don't waste valuable words with a weak opening. Your cover letter should grab the reader from the first sentence. For example:

  • Weak: I read about your job on Craigslist and I'd like to offer my services as a litigation paralegal.
  • Better: In my five years of experience as a litigation paralegal, I handled all phases of litigation from investigation through appeal, assisting at more than 20 trials and helping our legal team recover more than $30 million in settlements.

The latter example describes the candidate's skills and experience at the outset, encouraging the hiring manager to read more.